What Will Draw More Fans To Ovals?

If you watched Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300, you may have noticed that the stands were slightly more than half-full. It has already been discussed that starting the race at 4:40 local time on a hot Sunday afternoon instead of a Saturday night may have contributed to a smaller attendance, but Iowa is suffering what most ovals are – chronically sagging attendance.

The television ratings for ovals are mostly consistent with road and street courses, but poor attendance at ovals has been a growing problem for years in the Verizon IndyCar Series. On the surface, that perplexes me as a race fan.

Think about it. At Road America or Barber, there is nowhere to see a car much more than a few seconds at a time. Unless you are lucky enough to have one of the few video boards in front of you, there is little chance that you will know what lap it is or who is even leading. At Road America, I had to text a friend of mine back home to ask what lap it was. With poor cell coverage (I have AT&T, not Verizon), I could not stream anything on site so I had no clue if they were on Lap 14 or Lap 34 (they were on lap 24). I’ve never been to a street circuit, but I would think that viewing spots would be at an even greater premium.

Contrast that to a place like Iowa or Phoenix where you can sit in the same spot, see a lot of pit action, probably get a great view of a video board and see most, if not all, of the track. As we saw Sunday, there was something going on at some point in the track at Iowa at all times. You just had to figure how who you wanted to follow or where you wanted to fix your eyes.

The two scenarios I just described would make one think that it would be the ovals that would be leading in attendance. However, it is just the opposite. I was ecstatic when Phoenix came back onto the schedule last year, but the two races held there since last April have had very sparse crowds. This year’s small crowd could be attributed to a later date (due to the Final Four in Phoenix this year), but most likely due to the snoozer of a race they had there last year. This year’s was no better, so I don’t expect next year’s attendance to be much better in Phoenix.

When the two-mile oval at Fontana, California came back onto the IndyCar schedule in 2012, it produced some very good racing – including the barn-burner in 2015 won by Graham Rahal. Susan and I attended the 2013 race in October. We had seats atop the suites behind the pits where we could follow cars completely around the track. They looked spectacular at night, when the cars would bottom out in the turns showering the trailing cars with sparks. Before the race, we were on the starting grid amongst a throng of people getting first-hand looks at the cars and drivers. What struck me at the time was that there seemed to be more people on the grid than there were spectators in the stands.

The 2015 race at Fontana is one that people are still talking about, yet it is estimated that there were only three thousand in attendance. Why?

For one thing, I recall that even though the 2013 race ran on Saturday night, there was hardly any track activity during the entire day. I think Indy Lights ran around 4:00 in the afternoon, but that was it. I remember we got to the track that day around 9:00 in the morning and the place was dead. We parked directly behind the pits and walked maybe twenty yards to the Media Center, simply because there was hardly anyone on the grounds yet. How did we spend our Race Morning at Fontana? Watching the South Carolina-Tennessee football game in the Media Center.

By the time the game was over, some of the crews had arrived to start prepping the cars for that night’s race. With no track activity, watching the crews work on the cars is all there was to do for most of the afternoon. If you didn’t have garage access, you just went to your seat to wait on the race. It’s easy to believe there weren’t a whole lot of tickets sold.

When we were at Road America last month, I was amazed at the amount of track activity from Thursday until late Sunday afternoon after the IndyCar race. Between the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Mazda Road to Indy, the Pirelli World Challenge and the Global MX-5 Cup, there was not a single time when cars were not on track practicing, qualifying or racing. It’s the same when we go to Barber. It’s a feast of racing for fans in attendance from morning to dusk.

When I went to Pocono last August, it featured Indy cars and, well…Indy cars. There were no support races at all. None. Unless someone is mesmerized like I am at the sight of Indy cars going around a track, most people aren’t coming for practice and qualifying on Saturday – and they didn’t. Yes there were a few people there on Saturday last year, but it certainly wasn’t crowded. It’s unfair for me to judge the crowd at the race because Sunday was rained out and the race was run early Monday morning. The few that were in attendance saw a great race run on a crystal clear sunny day with cool temperatures for August, with a high in the upper-sixties. I’ll be returning to Pocono next month where I’ll get a better feel for their Sunday crowd. But with no support races, I’m skeptical that it will be healthy.

Michael Andretti spent a fortune trying to give fans a reason to attend the Milwaukee Mile, but constantly changing dates and late starting times helped hasten the demise of the event and Andretti’s promotional company. No matter how many Ferris Wheels, concerts and other attractions he put in the infield, they did not come. To this day, I’m still wondering why fans in the Milwaukee area would not come out to see Indy cars on that storied track. The racing was usually good, but hardly anyone was there to watch it.

I’m curious about Gateway coming up next month, just a week after Pocono. Susan and I will be going to that Saturday night race just across the river from St. Louis. I think the Mazda Road to Indy will be there, so I’m hoping for a better turnout than Phoenix produced when IndyCar returned there last year for the first time in a decade.

As I’ve said many times here – I prefer ovals to road/street courses. I love going to the road courses we go to, but I prefer the high-speed on-track action that the ovals provide. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why the non-ovals outdraw the ovals, but they do. I’m searching for answers. Can track owners and promoters turn things around where the ovals are just as heavily attended as non-ovals or is this the new normal?

Remember, just twenty years ago – someone thought it was a good idea to start a series that ran nothing but ovals. Without getting into a discussion about The Split, he was not alone in his thinking. At that time, there was an explosion of oval tracks being built in this country. Between 1996 and 2006, we saw Homestead, Kansas, Chicagoland, Texas, Nashville, Kentucky, Iowa, Fontana, Pikes Peak, Las Vegas and Walt Disney World all opened and were run by the IRL/IndyCar at some point.

But something happened to the allure of ovals along the way. Nashville, Pikes Peak and Walt Disney World have already gone away, while Nazareth Speedway is sitting in a state of decay, Milwaukee sits mostly idle and Nashville is currently being transformed into an industrial/warehouse complex. Every one of those new tracks that remain open, have fallen off of the IndyCar schedule except for Texas and Iowa.

This year, I feel lucky to have six ovals on the IndyCar calendar. Phoenix, Indianapolis, Texas, Iowa, Pocono and Gateway are interspersed among eleven road and street courses. Portland is rumored to being eyed by IndyCar along with the much-discussed parking lot race around Nissan Stadium here in Nashville. It’s doubtful they would add both, but if they did – that would get the series to nineteen races, which may be one more than they really want. Something would go. Would it be at the expense of another oval? I hope not.

Some say that ovals no longer work because they are in the middle of nowhere, while street courses are in metropolitan areas. That’s baloney! We visited The Milwaukee Mile the Monday after the Road America race this year. The Milwaukee Mile is smack in the middle of the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis and is probably less than two miles from I-94, yet they had trouble drawing 15,000 fans to the last few races there. Conversely, Road America is about twenty miles from Sheboygan and about sixty-five miles from Milwaukee, but fans don’t seem to mind making the trek to that facility.

So what is IndyCar to do? Will ovals keep dwindling to where it’s down to the Indianapolis 500 and seventeen road/street courses? Probably not, but one can’t help but wonder about the long-term future of open-wheel cars on ovals in this country. As we saw on social media after the Texas race, there is a pocket of fans that think that Indy cars have no place on ovals. I disagree with that notion completely. This sport was founded and thrived on oval racing for decades.

But you can’t ignore the current trends, either. Those that were at Iowa last Sunday saw a great race and seemed to be enthusiastic about it. While it was better attended than the recent races at Phoenix and Pocono, it was not near what it used to be. Our friend Pressdog reports that the hospitality tents were hiding throngs of people. That makes sense, but on television it looked much smaller than past years and adds to the perception that attendance in oval racing is on a quick decline in this country.

In my opinion, you can have some of the biggest names playing concerts before and after the race – but it’s the racing that draws out the racing fans. Give the racing fans what they want – more racing. Not only bring in the Mazda Road to Indy, but pair up with ARCA and/or the Camping World Truck Series. Partner up with USAC when possible. Yes it puts down varying grades of rubber on the track, but that just adds another challenge to the IndyCar drivers who are supposed to be the most versatile in the world anyway. Give them another chance to prove it.

I’m sure there are reasons why this can’t be done and it usually translates to money. I don’t know the costs of such partnerships and pairings, so that may shoot a hole in my entire theory. But I do know that Barber and Road America have non-stop action on the track throughout the entire weekend. That seems to be enough to please the large gatherings that come to all three days without having to give them a free concert to go along with their ticket.

Race fans want to see racing. They are given that at road/street courses via support races. Am I too naïve to think that if you follow that same approach that more race fans will come out to see racing at ovals? Not really, but other than that – I’m at a loss on how to preserve oval tracks on the schedule. Please give me your thoughts.

George Phillips

41 Responses to “What Will Draw More Fans To Ovals?”

  1. Support races are the answer. Apparently there aren’t enough IndyCar fans at any given oval venue to fill the stands. 45-50 years ago sports car racing knew that. There was always lots of racing at Mid-Ohio surrounding the Trans-Am and Can-Am events.

  2. madtad1 Says:

    I have been to only two oval tracks: Indy and Miami, but I can discuss this a little.

    Pressdog is correct, when you have conditions like super hot stands, the fans won’t stay in them, they will gravitate to shade and cooler temps, like the sponsor facilities. The last race in Miami was held in the heat of the day and whatever genius built the track never put a roof over it to protect the spectators from the sun. Before the race started the ambulances had taken close to 100 people to the hospital with heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

    When the race finally started the stands looked empty because most people were hiding underneath them, and were watching the race on the monitors. Those lucky enough to be guests hid in the sponsor tents and watched the whole race on the TV monitors there or in IndyCar’s hospitality tent, all of which had AC. That makes for bad television because, of course, it looks like no one is attending the race.

    While NBC beats Always Bad (shitty) Coverage, the one place where there is an issue is trying to get the right TV time for the IndyCar race. Since Iowa was up against NAP CAR, Tour de France, and F1 it never stood a chance of getting an evening time. Face it, for TV time, it will always be the “Red-Headed Step Child”.

    It’s easy for us to say the promoters need to add more races, but then they have to come up with more prizes, pay the workers more, etc. Who else races on ovals that would share a weekend with IndyCar besides IndyLights? Your only other choice would be, potentially, to go back to the dreaded “Double Header” races and nobody likes those.

  3. A few things I wanted to note here. The MLB All-Star game wasn’t even full last night, I think fans have more options and TVs are so nice now. I watched that boring game in my home with the AC on.

    I also found it interesting what Kentucky Speedway did this weekend. The delayed the Xfinity race (Indy Lights equivalent that the big racers run, Imagine the joke if Scott Dixon ran Indy Lights races!) was run as a doubleheader with the Cup race. Fans who had Xfinity tickets were invited to stay for both races which angered many fans who had bought Cup tickets and weren’t invited to attend the Xfinity race. That is an example of trying to get fans in the stands and it turning sour. Imagine trying to wrestle your seat away from someone who has been there all day drinking and got in for free when you paid big money for a ticket!

    I bring this up because, it seems they had such a low ticket sale, they could keep a whole race of people in the stands and still not fill it. Their lower series races are a joke attendance wise and the Cup races are struggling.

    The only series I see getting a lot of fans is the NHRA, their access is wonderful but the structure allows it, the drivers have so much downtime they can interact with fans between rounds. That setup though is second to none.

    I just think that series have to struggle to get fans but also focus on TV money, the stands will never be full anywhere these days outside of Indy.

  4. S0CSeven Says:

    The Robby Gordon Stadium Super Truck Series, if that’s the current name, even draws all the Indycar teams out to watch it.

    I don’t know if that would help, but it sure couldn’t hurt.

    • billytheskink Says:

      The Stadium Super Trucks Series joined Indycar at Texas this year and was well-received by the fans. They ran races both before and after the Indycar race and, while most of the crowd did not arrive early to see them, they seemed to retain a good bit of the crowd for the second race.

      The only thing it might hurt is the track surface, as the trucks appeared to do at Texas on the spots on the front straight where they landed their jumps. Other than that, they would be an excellent addition to any Indycar oval race, or about any Indycar race period.

  5. Brian Rossney Says:

    Pocono is my local track, at 2.5 hrs away. I won’t make it this year, and I love Indycar racing. As others have said, there is 0 track activity all day there, then a late green flag. That’s a recipe for disaster on a Sunday. Super Trucks with some huge jumps right in front of the stands? Yes please! Have the Lights cars run a modified road course there! Run the straight in reverse or something, like Indy GP. The fans are begging for a reason to spend all day at the track, and there just isn’t one.

    The owners there do a great job, and he grounds are beautiful. It’s just that the series treats ovals as a formality instead of a priority.

    Or run the race at 11A there so everyone gets home at a decent time.

    • ” It’s just that the series treats ovals as a formality instead of a priority.”

      It all starts there.

      • If “ovals are a formality instead of a priority”, then have you got any thoughts as to why over the last 5 seasons, IndyCar has ADDED three ovals (Pocono, Phoenix and Gateway) to the schedule, along with the three road races they’ve added (though that includes the Indy GP race, along with Road America and the race at The Glen that they used to replace the canceled Boston GP)? Seems to me that if IndyCar didn’t care at all about ovals, they just wouldn’t bother to add any more to the schedule, and they’d probably skip renewing the contracts that they had with the already existing oval events when they ran out.

        • Brian Rossney Says:

          I didn’t say they don’t care about ovals at all, I said they are not a priority (except for Indy). Sure they have added new ones, just as they have lost some. What i’m saying is, it’s no longer popular enough to stand on it’s own. That’s as true on the street/roads as it is for ovals. Race day should be an all day event, no matter where they go.

          I realize IC revolves around the Indy 500, everything else is secondary, but that doesn’t mean the other races can’t succeed if properly taken care of. Which I argue Pocono is not. If attendance doesn’t increase there, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are not asked back eventually.

          • I don’t disagree with you that Pocono is on what looks like fairly thin ice, but like you point out, many tracks look like they’ve got attendance issues. So, how does IndyCar, with its marketing team that looks to number in the single digits, make a noticeable splash for some 10-12 events? That’s a lot of ways to split up a very limited headcount and limited marketing funds. It’s a question that’s way easier asked than answered, so I understand why IndyCar and IMS seemingly use the 500 as the crown jewel of their marketing strategy. Several million people tune into it every year, and if more people can understand “oh, these guys run a race about 45 minutes from my house next month! I think I’ll go!” then the tide from the 500 will hopefully lift all the other event’s boats. That’s the theory, anyway. And unfortunately, given the relatively limited resources that the IndyCar office has at its disposal, it might be about the main strategy they can deploy.

  6. I think NASCARS over saturation of the oval racing market the past 20 yrs has wained the publics interest. I know what your going to say NASCAR Oval racing and Indy Oval racing are apples to oranges, and I’d agree, but all John Q. Public sees is cars turning left. Even diehard NASCAR fans are begging for more road courses. What Indy really needs to do is communicate to the general public why it’s left turns are drastically different and better than NASCARS left turns.

    • NASCAR has some problems, but racing on ovals is not one of them. You can only anger your fan base so much before you start losing fans. And NASCAR has become very good at that. I’m a former fan who no longer follows the league to any degree. For me, their caving in to political correctness and telling their southern fans not to bring a confederate flag to a race was the last straw, following just ridiculous rule changes. The chase comes to mind, and now three races in one.

      Plus, they are facing what Indy car did in the mid-90’s with so many of the popular drivers retiring.

      NASCAR has some serious issues regardless of where they run.

  7. Ticket price for ovals . $10 GA ticket . Sponsor activation to provide prizes to win for fans at the track Firestone Tires , Verizon Phones , Honda , Chevy cars Sunoco gas cards. I would not overlook the traveling RV folks and the beer drinking tent campers . Targeting the younger skateboard X-Gamer types is my future fan base . Some grid girls are always nice to see when attending F1 and MotoGP .

  8. S0CSeven Says:

    Same day double-headers?

  9. “Remember, just twenty years ago – someone thought it was a good idea to start a series that ran nothing but ovals. Without getting into a discussion about The Split, he was not alone in his thinking…”

    And history has shown us, unequivocally, that he was WRONG. It’s as simple as that.

    The splitting of the fanbase, which was almost exclusively one man’s decision, drove what were then current fans ( and more importantly, THEIR KIDS) away. And with now plenty of time and disposable income on their hands, they’ve found other things to do. And they aren’t coming back anytime soon. Because if the one racing series that made it’s mark in ovals over the last 20 or 30 years is now dying on the vine ( NASCAR), there is little or no chance that Indycar is going to make any inroads into that market.

    It isn’t about the split; it’s simply the realization that a bad business decision has come back to haunt everyone. And it never needed to happen in the first place.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      In these days of so much uncertainty, it is always comforting to be able to depend on “Olderfan” once again blaming the current state of IndyCar racing on da “SPLIT’. I would agree with him but then we both would be wrong. I am a 76 year old IndyCar fan who was not driven away by one man’s decision and more importantly neither were MY KIDS.

      • Olderfan Says:

        I see that you missed the point. The current state of Indycar racing does have some origins in the “split”, but you fail to understand the underlying issue.

        It wouldn’t have mattered if the split had been caused by Tony George, or not (although the bulk of the blame does rest with him).

        The issue is that the fan base ended up being divided; the longer that went on, the more people got discouraged, or down right disgusted, and finally gave up.

        When they left, they took their kids-the NEXT GENERATION of fans-with them. (not to mention their cash) And found something else to get interested in.

        Many kids develop a passionate interest in those things that their parents expose them to; whether that’s baseball, tennis, running, music, golf etc. Once open wheel/”Indy” racing ceased to be something that the parents were interested in, for the most part the kids never got exposed to by going to the track with them (the parents). And now that their parents are, in some cases older or have passed away, there isn’t even a hint of a “seed” passed down to them to care about Indycar (or racing in general).

        I’m glad that you or your kids weren’t “driven” away by the last twenty years. But something is keeping people away from Indycar IN DROVES. So if you don’t think my theory holds water, let’s hear yours.

        • I think Ron’s point is that as per George’s original question of “what can be done to improve oval track attendance?” the answer of “AHHHH, THE SPLIT! THE SPLIT RUINED EVERYTHING!” isn’t real high on the scale of “constructive discussion topics”. It’s a horse that’s been beaten to death so much that there’s basically no trace of the horse left to be found, just a greasy spot in the barnyard. It happened, and unless you’re planning on inventing a time machine and going back 25 years to prevent it from happening, I’d much rather (and I think a lot of folks here would rather) focus on what can be done going forward.

          • Olderfan Says:

            Sigh…where to begin? I’d have thought that someone would get the point, but, alas, it’s not to be, apparently.

            First off-“those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. The lesson? The Speedway/IMS in control ( as it was BEFORE CART) is the issue. It’s NOT about reliving the split. It’s learning WHY it was so damaging. You may not like hearing that, but truth hurts sometimes.

            The fracture, caused by the Speedway, drove off half, or more, of the fans. They’re NOT coming back. And they took their kids(you know, the FUTURE FANS) with them. They’ll never return to the sport again. It’s tough to effectively market a product where you’ve alienated that many of your fan base. And a huge part of that is the anger they feel towards IMS/Tony for doing what they did.

            I mean, look at what ALL of you post: best racing on earth, most versatile drivers, diverse tracks, etc. And what’s the result? Terrible attendance, especially on ovals, no tv ratings, lack of quality sponsors, etc. with no end to that trend in sight.

            I’m sorry, but the point you’ve all missed is that it is never going to change. You can all dance on the head of a pin, rearrange the deck chairs, put a new coat of paint on the walls. But it’s done, over.

            The only chance, and I mean the ONLY chance is if the speedway smartens up and sells off the series to the owners and gives them a stake in it again, the way it was in the CART era. Let the Hulmans concentrate on maintaining and running the speedway, and let some people who have a real interest in doing the promoting have a shot at it.

            Because the vast majority of the fans that left will never come back as long as the current ownership has control. They simply will not hand over their cash to that group. I don’t care how good the races are, or aren’t. They have poisoned the well that is Indycar. And if you guys can’t deal with that that’s not my problem

        • Ron Ford Says:

          Fair enough. See below.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Yikes. You certainly have a depressing viewpoint about the future of IndyCar racing. You might try having one less bowl of grumpy flakes each day before heading down to the basement.

      • Olderfan Says:

        A couple of things:

        1. You call it depressing. I call it realistic. It may be depressing for you, who seems to be one of those fans that thinks Indycar success is “just around the corner”, or next year is the “breakout year”.

        But it’s been TWENTY YEARS! And the IRL version of Indycar is further away from mainstream success than it’s ever been.

        2. No “grumpy flakes” for me, thank you very much. I’ve got plenty to enjoy in life, including other forms of motorsports. Sorry, but Indycar long ago ceased to be anything other than a footnote in a diverse spectrum of motorsports offferings.

        And my life gets lived outdoors, in the sun, among real people, every day. Looking forward. As opposed to those of you that think that the “new” (really 6 year old tub) car with it’s “CART inspired” (I thought CART was everything wrong regarding Indycar? Who knew?) “body kit” will bring the re-birth of Indycar.

        But that’s a story for another day-I mean, it’s a riot reading the comments salivating over a “body kit” that harkens back to the CART era of TWENTY YEARS AGO! And the addition of tracks that were once popular in CART is heralded as the “key” to “making Indycar great again”. I mean, really, your side won. The IRL product was obviously superior. LOL. So whats the issue?

        3. Couldn’t be that I’m right, could it? That IMS leadership drove the fans away, for good, and that NOTHING is bringing them back? The motorsports in general(particularly Indycar) are declining, and the IRL version of Indycar has long passed it’s “sell by” date?

        Nah, I’m sure the turnaround is coming. I mean, it’s only been twenty years.

        • You’re conflating a whole bunch of arguments into one (for instance, I think you’re substituting your personal grudge against the Hulmans for the will of the American sports fan as a whole; I suspect that there are probably 315+ million Americans who don’t know or don’t remember anything about The Split, and probably another 5+ million who can remember it but just moved on, because life’s too short…leaving maybe 50-100k people who will take their “THE HULMANS WILL. NEVER SEE A DIME OF MY MONEY” grudge to the grave) while also making a whole bunch of assumptions about what people see “coming around the corner” or where they stood on The Split (I, for instance, was staunchly “pro-CART, up until about 2005 or 2006; the SpikeTV deal was the indicator to me that CART wasn’t gonna make it). But methinks you’re trying awfully hard to convince that you’re “looking forward” when you’re the one who brought up The Split out of thin air.

          Anyway, enjoy your weekend outside. Because being somebody who’s so over IndyCar that they’ll leave long winded comments about it on blog posts, you’re probably not watching Toronto. Right?

          • Olderfan Says:

            Nope, not watching.

            You’d be surprised to know that here are newspapers, magazines, websites, etc that cover all kinds of issues related to motorsports. And there, at least, Indycar does merit a “cup of coffee” level of coverage.

            As far as your estimates of the number of people won’t care (or don’t care), your guess is, as they say, as good as mine. Either way, given how many people DON’T show up, or watch anymore, as compared to the audience that once existed, I’d venture to say that the number of people who feel that “THE HULMANS WILL NEVER SEE A DIME OF MY MONEY” is FAR MORE than 50-100K.

            Let me ask you something: have you ever dealt with a company, person, business etc that you felt “hosed” you, or didn’t deliver on a product or service you paid for? And if so, did you continue to patronize them, or did you find somewhere else to spend your time and money?

            Just curious. Oh, and sorry for being “long winded”. I guess that I shouldn’t ever try to site fact, or lay out specific reasons for my views. Apparently reading is difficult for some of you.

          • Oh, OK. See you back here on Monday, to discuss a race you didn’t watch, then.

          • billytheskink Says:

            And to think, I used to have to go all the way to YFDS for this…

        • Ron Ford Says:

          It has been reported earlier this week that a major shelf of ice broke off from Antarctica. Scientists are blaming that on……….
          wait for it…………THE SPLIT!

  10. billytheskink Says:

    I think it is important to note that this issue is not limited to ovals. I am concerned about Indycar’s future at many different tracks. Though a greater number of non-ovals than ovals have healthy crowds these days, Indycar has problems drawing at all different track types and the graveyard of former Indycar venues contains plenty of road, street, and oval courses. I do not say this to make excuses for poor oval crowds, but to argue that focusing exclusively on oval attendance could be dangerous (for the series itself, not for fans discussing) as it could lead to ignorance of issues at non-ovals or blanket dismissal of oval tracks, neither of which are good things for the sport. I do believe that it is important for Indycar to find ways to draw on ovals because there are so many across the United States, they have the capacity to bring Indycar to its widest audience domestically.

    In my experience attending different races at all types of tracks, support races typically draw a small fraction of the main event’s crowd. Even those that take place immediately before or after the main event rarely appear to draw anywhere close to a majority of the total crowd. I appreciate the value they add to the ticket and enjoy the racing very much, but most fans seem interested in showing up for the main event only. As such, I do not think they are THE solution to the attendance woes of ovals. They most likely are, however, one part of the solution, which is why Indycar and its oval track promotors should be looking to add support races when possible.

  11. I think you are right on George. I think fans are bored at the ovals . Take Pocono as an example:Nobody shows up because there’s an IndyCar race and that’s it . Pocono is centered close to the biggest population concentration in the United States. Pocono is a very unique track, built for IndyCar racing. . You have been there, I have not but it is very entertaining racing if one appreciates the difficulty of having to set up a car there . We are seeing an unprecedented condition amongst fans, feeling they need to be entertained every second of the day. I say condition, because I think it is a serious one. I think people simply get bored especially the millennials . Then when a big crash happens, select haters suddenly jump on the safety bandwagon screaming for canopies and want to ban all the ovals because they have no safe space to run to. To be fair to IndyCar, their struggle with lack of oval attendance is not unique to just them. The Bohemouth of NASCAR is struggling as well. I think they need to double up on the events and get more action at the ovals like they do at Barber for example.

  12. As anybody who’s read even one of my comments before might guess, I think there are several things at play here.

    1) As most of you have mentioned above, if you go to an IndyCar race on an oval, then you’re basically going to be taking in just one, or no more than two races. My guess as to the problem with that is that people lose part of the experience of going to a race if the track is just quiet (meaning that even if folks aren’t watching the undercard races at, say, Mid-Ohio, those races running in the background adds to the ambient noise level, and adds to the sensory experience of being at the the track). So, there needs to be more track action, right? There’s a problem with that: there are shockingly few “undercard” type series who can even run on ovals, and even fewer who can run on ovals of a mile and a half or bigger. Who is out there? NASCAR Cup (which, we’ve covered about a zillion times why they won’t share a weekend with IndyCar), Xfinitynationbusch (only slightly more likely to share an IndyCar weekend), NASCAR Trucks (who do share weekends with IndyCar, occasionally, but wind up supporting the other two NASCAR national series more often than not), ARCA (who currently do not trailer to any races any further west than Kansas, so it might be a hard sell to get them to support a race at, say, Phoenix or Fontana), and that’s about it as far as series outside of the IndyCar umbrella. As far as series under the IndyCar umbrella, sure, you can run Lights, Pro Mazdas and USF2000 at a few events, but A) they’re not gonna run very much at the big tracks (only Lights are compatible at any place over a mile, anyway, the others will just sit at terminal velocity for the whole race), and Dan Anderson has tried to limit their oval races, as oval crash damage bills can be extremely detrimental to a team’s overall annual budget. USAC? Anything bigger than a mile is out for any of their series, and I think times might be tight enough in some of their series that mile pavement shows are just as hazardous to budgets as they are to the teams in the MRTI. So, support series are just had to come by on the ovals, and even more so on the big ovals. I’m not totally sure how to fix that.

    2) Next, the fan experience can leave a bit to be desired. During all of the aforementioned track downtime, what’s there to do? You can A) sit in your seat and bake in the sun, B) go hang out under the grandstand for hours on end (and I’ve done exactly that at Kansas, Michigan and Iowa over the years; it loses its novelty after about 25 minutes), C) check out the merch trailers and tents (but if there are multiple gaps in action, you can only do that so many times), or D) try to go to the paddock/garage area (which are usually much more of a trek at an oval vs. a road course; it can take 20+ minutes to either walk or get a tram to the infield, depending on the track). So, I guess, more stuff to do outside of the racing?

    There’s other stuff at play here, too (like, the preponderance of ovals being rural in location, along with disposable income among the folks in rural areas becoming more scarce, such that attending an auto race is one of the first things to get cut from a family budget), but alas, I’ve run out of lunch hour. Bottom line: this is a problem that I don’t know how to fix. It’s difficult. The good news is that IndyCar is bringing back every one of their ovals for 2018, so hopefully with more time in each individual oval market, and with an increased emphasis on date equity, the races will have time to gain in momentum and become more prosperous. I’ve got my fingers crossed for that. I love me some oval racing.

  13. Bruce Waine Says:

    Could ticket prices be part of the INDY Car oval attendance decline?

    Comparing NASCAR associated ticket prices to INDY Car ticket prices at Pocono, you will notice that INDY Car prices are almost double, yes double, NASCAR associated events.

    Then there are the sanctioning fees to add to the mix.

    Perhaps that is why INDY Car ticket prices are higher?

    In addition to the INDY Car sanctioning expense, is there another expense to the track if the INDY Lights are on the race bill?

    • billytheskink Says:

      For race promoters, ticket revenue is a more critical element of financial success for an Indycar race than a NASCAR race (even at the Xfinity or Trucks level) because NASCAR pays out part of its television money to the tracks while Indycar does not. This may be why Indycar ticket prices tend to be higher than those of NASCAR’s sub-Cup series and often comparable with Cup’s.

      Indy Lights (and most other support series) has a separate sanctioning fee to Indycar’s, as I understand it.

    • This is incorrect, by the way. The cheapest Sunday adult tickets for the July NASCAR race at Pocono are $45 for the 100 level, and go up from there. The cheapest Sunday adult tickets for the IndyCar race at Pocono are $25 for the 100 level, and go up from there. Kid’s tickets are half price for both events. The pricing is literally the opposite of what you just said.

      • Olderfan Says:

        And yet…attendance is dismal at Pocono, while the Cup race always has a solid crowd.

        Couldn’t be the product, and what Hulman-Georges did to alienate the fan base?


  14. Britindycarfan Says:

    Prefer ovals to street tracks any day off the week but I do put most road tracks above ovals ……… I also think the fact that oval races get called off in light rain never mind heavy rain and non-oval races don’t (and often have better racing in the wet) is a big factor on attendance difference. Lack of support racing and Indy aside ovals should not be longer than 300 miles/ 2 hours also turns away many young 50/50 indycar fans who enjoy over sports to watch worst case or best case go to the road courses instead.

  15. bunch of things, then. steady decline in interest of auto racing. burning hot grandstands and burning hot beer. easy availability of television or digital broadcasts on giant tv sets. increased competition for the sporting dollar. poor marketing support from Indycar itself, Verizon and/or television partners. inconsistent scheduling. anonymous drivers. total lack of public knowledge about anything to do with Indycar outside the 500.* if only you could build an oval downtown. any downtown, like other sports arenas. so you could walk there from a hotel and/or nightlife. but they always seem to be in the hinterlands.

    *as I’ve said before, living in Texas, no one I know has the slightest clue what Indycar is. Most think it’s F1. And no one could name a race outside of Indy.

    lastly, a question: has there been actual attendance figures released so you could compare numbers at street, road and ovals?

  16. redcar got it right, in my opinion:

    1. motorsports are this generation’s horse racing.
    2. actual attendance is so bad, no figures released.
    3. ovals are “out there somewhere in the middle of nowhere”.

    regarding: what will draw fans to ovals?
    well, the fans are there.
    just not many of them left.
    like horse racing.

  17. It would be a shame if ovals were reduced to just Indy. I am still glad that my first live race was an oval–Fontana in 2012. I was in the stands that year in the shade but still baked. The fan zone Friday was dead, but we did have Indy Lites to watch. You are so much more part of the action. When Will Power crashed you jumped. With COTA that same year I rented a scanner which had a screen so I could be inside the cockpit with different drivers. The track also had huge video monitors all over, which helped keep up with the race. Not the same as my first oval experience though.

    We lucked out with Pocono in 2015 with cooler weather but there wasn’t much track activity. However, I thought the track was amazing. A two seated or even a pace car ride there would be ideal to better understand the three unique turns. Maybe next time.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that ovals have their place in the series and offer a fascinating contrast to road and street courses. Unfortunately maybe only us diehards appreciate them.

  18. Ron Ford Says:

    I live near the Milwaukee Mile track and attended races there beginning in 1949. There have been given many good reasons here for the demise of the Milwaukee Mile race. No need for me to repeat them except to say the the constant changing of race dates and late Sunday starting times were certainly factors. I think George’s statement that the last few Milwaukee Mile races had barely 15,000 fans is not accurate. I was at those races and there were more than 20,000 fans there which may be the “new normal” if you will for oval races. Having attended races at the MM since 1949 I can tell you that the perception that MM races once drew 40,000 plus fans is a myth. I recently watched a YouTube video of a vintage MM Rex Mays race in which the announcer states: “The stands are packed with 27,000 cheering fans as the green flag is about to fly.” If 20,000 fans for a oval race is indeed the new normal then perhaps the series needs to find a way to make a profit at that level. Consider how much the cost of IndyCar racing has changed and why. I have a photo in my racing photo archives of Lloyd Ruby’s roadster being towed up 76th street in Milwaukee toward the MM track on a trailer by a pickup truck with a camper unit. Contrast that to the cost of today’s haulers and motorhomes. Another factor that contributed to the decline in MM race attendence is this: When the grandstands were rebuilt a few years ago, the Wisconsin State Fair Board did the project on the “cheap” and eliminated the roof. Consequently, fans were left to sit in the hot June sun with no protection. The old roof not only provided shade, but created a nice breeze even on still days. Venturi effect. The lack of support races was also a factor. Sitting on a aluminum seat in the hot sun for hours with nothing to watch while waiting for a late afternoon race start does nothing to make fans want to return. RIP Milwaukee Mile.

  19. Could it be as simple as changing societal attention spans? I have no problem parking my rear down and watching Indycars turn left for 3 hrs, but I’m probably in the minority these days on that. At non ovals, racing is a part of the experience. At ovals, racing is the experience. Perhaps a lot of folks feel that’s not enough. Sad really. Great topic George.

  20. I’ve been watching more soccer, college football, and basketball recently and the more I think about it the #1 issue with racing is the location of the tracks, and that’s of course very difficult to fix. People are still interested in sports and willing to spend a fair amount of money on it. The 2nd tier soccer team in Cincinnati has attendance in the 20-30 thousand person range for their big games! NBA set their personal record in average attendance this year with over 700 sellouts! But, most of the successful sports stadiums are in easy to access places. When they are not, attendance suffers badly. Race tracks are in almost uniformly horrible locations, partly due to the concerns about noise from racetracks, and so attendance becomes a struggle.

    This has a follow up problem, lack of ability to generate revenue outside of the big races. The road courses have ways to get revenue, but the ovals struggle. Sometimes they’re used for concerts and other types of events (Motocross) and that works well at MIS and Daytona and Indy, but a lot of the tracks just sit vacant and because of the above mentioned problem, its hard to host events. That in turn creates greater financial issues with sanctioning events.

    The final issue, and this is where I think people are sometimes unfair to some of the ovals, is how much attendance is good enough? In other words there are some road and street courses that don’t have great attendance, but it gets papered over, but for some of the ovals, that could in theory hold 60-120 thousand people even a fairly healthy crowd looks small. The NBA averages about 17K per game. There are of course multiple games in multiple cities per day. I’m not sure of MLS’s average attendance (some teams are incredible- Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, others are horrific, worse than the worse Indycar race) but they have many well attended games. However, expectations for good is usually being in the 25-40k range. There are financial issues with some of the race tracks which may cause them to need higher levels of attendance but wherever possible, and however possible, those issues need to be mitigated.

    Finally, MLS has a few teams who play in College Football, NFL, or MLB stadiums (Yankee Stadium), and those teams use creative signage to paper over the fact the stadium is not sold out. Auto racing needs to do that, and hopefully the narrative turns around. No one complains or mocks the Seattle Sounders just because they don’t sell quite as many seats as the Seahawks.

    Things seem really dark in auto racing right now, but I have a bit of hope. After all the MLS is a relatively new sports organization and it’s growing incredibly well. In particular for Indycar, it may be helpful to try and learn more lessons from MLS to figure out how to grow.

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