A Question From a Reader

Earlier this week, I received an e-mail from a longtime and loyal reader. He began by saying that he had started to put his question out on my site as a comment for how boring the racing was at Long Beach. But he decided against posting it publicly, out of fear that his question would be viewed as a “troll-like” comment and he would receive some unwanted backlash. I can completely relate to that.

Since he fears being viewed as a troll, this person will remain anonymous. But he had been thinking about it for a while, so he decided to ask me instead. To be honest, it was an excellent question and one that I didn’t have a great answer for – so I’ll throw it out to you.

Are IndyCar street and road courses really entertaining sports programming, or do we really just make excuses because we want IndyCar to be successful?

That’s one of those direct questions that makes you scratch your head and go Hmmm…

I’ve been accused of being a cheerleader for IndyCar in the past, even though I don’t agree with that assessment. When the series has done things I don’t agree with, I think I’ve publicly disagreed as much as anyone. Conversely, when they do something I like – I try to heap praise on them. I like to think I’m fair on this site, no matter who I’m talking about.

But to be completely honest with myself, I may sometimes subconsciously gloss over things. It’s not because I don’t want to upset the powers-that-be in the IndyCar offices; but it’s because I do want this series to thrive and be successful.

But to answer his question, I think we have to look at things two completely different ways. First you have to look at a road or street course as an event worth attending. Separate from that you must look at it as a sports property worth televising. If you do that, I think you get two completely different evaluations.

I’m not the right person to make such an evaluation, because I’m one of the hard-core fans. If I’m at a race track, I’m happy. Plus, I’m older than the targeted demographic for most events. What appeals to many would not appeal to me and I know some of the things I look for in any event, would not appeal to the masses.

But I can say this…going to a road or street race is an entire weekend event. I’ve been to one street race (St. Petersburg), four road course events (Barber, NOLA, Road America and Sonoma) and five ovals (Charlotte, Nashville, Fontana, Pocono and Gateway). The non-ovals are all three-day events, whereas the ovals are all two-day events. I have not included the two races at IMS because they are both so different than anything else on the schedule. Of the oval races I listed, only Pocono was run on a Sunday afternoon. The others were all run on a Saturday night.

In some ways, having the oval as a two-day event makes sense. But does leaving Sunday open cut down on your attendance? I think so.

Going to the non-ovals is a blast for a fan. For three days (sometimes more) there is track activity from early morning until dusk. There is almost a festival-like atmosphere. Food is very important to me, and most non-ovals offer an endless variety of choices. There seems to be a lot for kids to do, and many of the permanent road course facilities offer camping as an alternative. That’s not my thing, but it appeals to a lot of people and it’s a way to boost your attendance.

Most of the ovals offer limited concessions or merchandise options, with Gateway being the exception. Gateway has concessions that would rival St. Petersburg, which is some of the best I’ve seen anywhere. In 2017, I attended Pocono on one weekend and Gateway the next. At Pocono, I saw one tent selling merchandise and apparel inside the track, and a couple more outside the track behind the main grandstands. As for concessions, I don’t recall seeing any inside the track and just a few behind the stands. Do oval tracks limit the food and merchandise tents because few people attend, or do few people attend because of the scarcity of food and merchandise tents?

At Pocono, they featured the NTT IndyCar Series and that was it. It was a two-day event. The first IndyCar practice was Saturday morning, another in early afternoon and qualifying late Saturday afternoon. What was on the track between IndyCar practices? Nothing. Gateway had Indy Lights and the K&N Pro Series, a lower level stock car series along with the IndyCar race. Next season, Gateway will pair the NASCAR Truck Series with IndyCar. The point is, race fans like to have race cars in front of them – no matter what level the series.

Having no other series to share the track with is a recipe for disaster, and it shows in Pocono’s ticket sales. If you want to attract fans in New York and Philadelphia to drive two hours to the Poconos, you have to give them more of a reason that a few IndyCar practice and qualifying sessions and a race on Sunday, along with pretty mountains. Race fans want to see racing.

But getting back to the reader’s question, although road and street courses are fun to go to, how well do they translate on television? The answer is, not very well at all. You can’t smell the aroma of brats cooking at Road America on television, while you sit in one of the many secluded spots to watch cars manage a particular corner. Television doesn’t capture the changes in elevation at COTA, Road America and Barber. Viewers cannot comprehend what it must be like to wake up in your tent to the sounds of engines warming up in the paddock at Mid-Ohio. But television is very good at showing cars turning laps in the same order, lap after lap with no chance of passing; while totally failing to capture the sense of speed.

On the other hand, TV does an excellent job of showing side-by-side action at Texas and Iowa. But television also shows the partially filled stands at most of the ovals.

So you have races that are well-attended, but incredibly dull to watch; then you have edge of your seat racing that looks great on television, but has no one in the stands to watch – which sends the message that there are no fans, so maybe you shouldn’t be one either. It’s really quite a dilemma.

If I’m being completely honest, I was bored during the race at Barber. I remember thinking to myself that I sure hope this is playing out better on television than it is in person. But as I said – If I’m at a race track, I’m not complaining. I went back and watched the first thirty laps of the race the night after we got back from Barber, before I dozed off. I figured I’d come back later in the week and finish it. I never did.

It’s a tough assignment to grow the series when one of their premier events (Long Beach) is typically a boring race. It’s also tough to market Texas as a nail-biter, when fans tune in and they see empty stands.

For the most part, I defended Long Beach earlier this week. But it wasn’t because I was trying to convince everyone how exciting it was. I was taking issue with everyone who seemed shocked that it was boring. It’s always boring.

We race fans know that any race at any time has the potential to be a dud. That happens in any sport. But we also know some of the nuances of racing that make it exciting without having photo-finish races. It’s the same conundrum with baseball. Many of us understand all the slight little adjustments a manager makes throughout a baseball game. That’s why we find baseball so fascinating. But to the average person, baseball is a slow and boring game. Susan puts up with all of my football in the fall, but if I want to watch a baseball game – I’m banished to another room. She absolutely hates baseball and refuses to even have it on in the den.

Baseball is slowly dying. Last summer I read a stat that the median age of a baseball fan in fifty-six. That means hardly anyone in their twenties is following baseball these days.

So can IndyCar avoid the fate of baseball? There are different dynamics involved, but America’s love affair with the internal combustion engine sadly coming to a close doesn’t help things. But too many races like Long Beach will have the coveted young and casual fan wonder why anyone follows this sport.

So to answer the reader’s question…Yes, I think most of us are guilty of making excuses for boring races, simply because we all want IndyCar to succeed. Perhaps we should make the tracks and the series more accountable and say No to the boring races on road and street courses. Then again, no one is saying Yes to the good races found on ovals and some of the better non-ovals. Maybe saying No will do more harm than good. I’m glad this is not really my problem to fix. I guess I’ll just continue to keep being a cheerleader for IndyCar.

George Phillips

Please Note:  We will be travelling to spend the Easter weekend with my mother and my two brothers and their families at my mother’s house. With the busy Month of May on the horizon, I am going to take this opportunity to take one last break before May hits. Therefore, there will be no post here on Monday April 22. I will return here on Wednesday April 24 – the same day as the Indianapolis 500 open-test at IMS. Enjoy the weekend! – GP

16 Responses to “A Question From a Reader”

  1. I have thoughts on this, but they probably wouldn’t be well received so I think I’ll keep them to myself. Motorsports is definitely facing a dilemma and a reckoning and nobody seems to be doing the right things to address it, many refuse to acknowledge it, others keep changing the rules every week in the hopes of clinging on to what fans they have left.

    Short version, the average person isn’t wow’d by cars anymore, they aren’t wow’d by speed and technological innovations. The engineers have proven they can make race cars impossibly fast, yet that’s not putting butts in the seats. Maybe it’s time for those engineers to stop trying to make the cars as fast as possible and instead focus on making them entertaining as possible.

    I’ll show myself out….

    • billytheskink Says:

      I can’t speak for others, but I don’t have much use for the practice of ignoring constructive advice, whether I agree with it or not. Indycar and other racing series should not either.

      “How do we get people excited about racing?” is the question all racing series need to answer into the future. I’m not sure I’m much help in that department, it is very easy to get me excited about racing, but I, for one, am happy to listen and discuss ideas.

      • I’m right there with you Billy. I don’t know how to get people excited about racing but it certainly seems like the old way of doing it isn’t working very well anymore. But of course if you do anything different you piss off all the current fans, so it’s a catch 22.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Tough for me to answer this question. Other than Indy and maybe Iowa I really don’t care for the ovals. To me they are boring. I like the diversity of the road corses. Having said that I will be attending my 55th straight Indy 500 this year and wouldn’t miss it for the world. For the most part the street and road courses are much more well attended than the ovals and to me that makes them more relevant and exciting. If, other than Indy, the ovals don’t start getting higher attendances they will be gone. Maybe we need to quit complaining and enjoy what we have while we have it.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    I love the ovals! Been around the open wheel racing all my life. I do like some of the road races, not much on the street races, but I do enjoy Long Beach. I probably do cover or defend IndyCar at times. People now days seem to want a show. I love racing. Sure some races are less exciting than others. My first race was in 1954 at Salem AAA sprint cars. I was 4 years old sitting on my old man’s shoulders. My first Indianapolis 500 was 1960 and I have seen every one since. Every race is interesting to me. Guess I am a Dinosaur!

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I would say that the Indycar community, certainly those who spend a lot of time discussing the series on the internet, are a pretty tough crowd and do not hesitate to call the series out on its mistakes. There are apologists for the series as well, of course, but I would argue that many if not most of them crop up as a backlash to especially harsh and not especially fair criticisms of the series. I have done this myself on several occasions based on how I interpreted the criticism that I was responding to. I have agreed with several criticisms as well, because I certainly don’t believe Indycar is without fault.

    Indycar fans (and, increasingly, NASCAR fans too) are such a tough crowd, I think, because they believe that the sport’s problems and challenges are greater than the sport itself, that without actions well past the status quo or current rate of the sport’s evolution the series will wither to further irrelevance or even death. Baseball may have challenges not unlike Indycar (aging fans, a sport that is a much, much better live experience than on television), but I doubt many baseball fans believe that the sport, a 100+ year major national institution from professional ranks on down to the grassroots level, is smaller than its problems. They believe it will endure.

  5. From my decidedly European perspective (having gotten into following IndyCar in the first place in the 90s when my favourite driver Nigel Mansell and my “local boy” Christian Danner were both racing there), IndyCar road races and street races are totally worth watching and are good motor sport entertainment for sure.
    It does happen that a driver has got a dominant run once in a while, and it does happen that there is a dull race once in a while, but it’s rather the exception than the rule.

    These guys regularly put on showcases of great driving. It’s not like they would present a series of lazy spins followed by yellows breeding yellows and then another lazy spin and repeat until the chequered flag would fall with no real racing in between whatsoever. Not at all. However, I do remember one race that felt as bad as described while watching it on a screen at home: IndyCar’s only showing at NOLA Motorsports Park, the only reason for that having been the abysmal weather during that event.

    Street races, just like oval races, are usually better racing action for the fans when there happens to be a full-course yellow or two. But they’d better not throw a “competition yellow”…

    George, I’m surprised to find out you haven’t been to Kentucky Speedway before, the oval afficionado that you are.

    • Good point about the showcase of great driving. How incredible is it that Long Beach went 80+ laps without a caution? That’s an unbelievably deep field to race clean for that long. There used to be more cautions because sub-par drivers made mistakes, thus more restarts and people say the “show” is better off. I think the product is as good as it’s ever been and if you can’t appreciate 23 superheros defying the laws of physics, you’re watching the wrong sport.

      • I would respectfully disagree with that for the most part. I watch a lot of old races, back then the cars were a lot more difficult to drive and were much more reliant on the driver. The cars were also better at overtaking, which meant more overtakes were attempted, some of which resulted in cautions. That, combined with the cars being more fragile which lead to more mechanical failures is why there were more cautions, not because the current batch of drivers is “so deep with talent”. In my opinion of course.

        That’s also why those races were more entertaining, even if the leaders had lapped most/all of the field, because there was ALWAYS a chance of a crash or a mechanical failure that could turn the race on its head. All of this made the races EXCITING!!

        None of that is really the case today; cars are easier to drive and less reliant on having a good driver behind the wheel so fewer mistakes are made. Cars suffer more from dirty air which means fewer attempts at overtakes which means fewer failed attempts (i.e. less excitement and fewer cautions). Mechanical failures are pretty rare so when someone puts on a dominant show there’s less chance of a surprise caution to mix things up. In my opinion, of course.

  6. Talón de Brea Says:

    Good topic and good discussion, George. Thanks.

    I grew up a sports car fan, attending my first race while still in kindergarten, tagging along with my father and older brother: Sebring 1961 (so I’m way out of anyone’s desired demographic). The Indy 500 on transistor radio, closed-circuit presentation and later same-day tape-delay coverage was also a big deal. As such, I thought of racing as a loud, exciting test of man and machine — and endurance.

    For me, just seeing the cars and drivers circulate was great — I didn’t expect wheel-to-wheel heat race action. That was just me — your mileage may vary.

    Picking one of the least riveting Sebring 12 Hour races as an example, in 1967 Mario Andretti and Bruce McLaren (shaking down the Ford GT Mark IV in the first of only two races in its career) won. The second place car, a Ford GT Mark II driven by A.J. Foyt and Lloyd Ruby, finished 12 laps behind. That’s 12 laps … and yet I remember so much of the race to this day. The winged Chaparral 2F of Jim Hall (a wing? … on a race car?!) offered the strongest competition before retiring. A Penske Racing Corvette finished, well back in the field. It was a relatively weak field (several Triumph Spitfires among the 200-mph leading prototypes — talk about diversity!), and yet it was still awesome.

    I guess it all depends on one’s expectations. Let me pose this question to George and his readers:

    If you were a fan of a college football team and it beat a conference rival 41-0, would that make it “bad football” and therefore a negative viewing experience? What if it beat that rival 6-3 in a defensive struggle? (Of course, if your team lost 41-0, that’s a different matter … I realize that being an avid fan in stick and ball sports is different from being a race fan in general who happens to prefer certain drivers or teams.)

  7. For me I love the series due to the variety of type of tracks and the depth of abilities the drivers need to possess to be successful. I do not have the experience at various tracks like most of you. However, I have enjoyed every event I have attended and am grateful for the opportunity to see live racing.

  8. SkipinSC Says:

    I have, for some time, preached making each oval race an event. That means avoiding the “dead time” that seems, at least in the case of Pocono, to be the bulk of the schedule. EACH oval race should have multiple ancillary races, practices, and qualifying sessions.

    If you think back to the first year of the GP Indy, there was virtual non-stop track action, as is the case at most road and street events. Why not carry that forward to oval races?

    Why do I use a road event to portray the value of the idea? Well, to put it personally, I cared little about about the MRTI UNTIL the year of the Inaugural Indy GP. At first, I only wanted to see the ladder series to see how they handled the IMS course; yet the more I watched (streaming) the more interested I became and the more I wanted to see the “big” cars on the course.

    Additionally, this would serve as a training ground for future IndyCar drivers, all too many of whom have limited oval experience.

    A good restaurant becomes mediocre if the appetizers don’t leave you wanting more.

    Yes, there are fewer “car guys” (and gals) than there used to be. Realizing this, IndyCar should attempt to provide MORE value, not less, and frankly, fan zones and concessions can only do so much of that

    • All good in theory, but there’s no magic wand to make this all happen. You can’t force a track to host Road to Indy races if they don’t want to, and that is a reason they don’t race at some tracks. Another reason is that the series directors choose to ease the young drivers into ovals, let them get a little taste at a time instead of dumping it on them all at once and risking burnout or injury. Another reason is that crashes are more likely to happen at ovals and the damage is more likely to be extensive/expensive which is also why the series directors limit the lower series exposure to ovals.

      Taking all these things into account, unfortunately your plan can’t work in today’s environment.

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    IMHO there are a number of IndyCar drivers as skilled as Rossi, but they don’t always begin a race with a setup on their car that allows them to run away and hide from the field such as Rossi did at Long Beach. My personal antidote to watching a race as “boring” as Long Beach seemed to me is to go to the next short track, sprint car, dirt track race near my home in Wisconsin.

  10. Shyam Cherupalla Says:

    St. Petersburg started with 3 to 4 leader lead changes with lots of passing all through the driver order, COTA was close and had the tension of Rossi probably getting after Power and power trying to maintain 1st place and Colton challenging 2nd place few times and equal amount of passing by few drivers coming from behind, Barber while it seemed processional with the leaders, it wasnt the case with midpack and Longbeach actually had some drama with the top6 if you really paid attention, except for Rossi. Dixon went from 2nd to 4th (I am not counting his 3rd), Power went from 3rd to 7th, Rahal went from 6th to 3rd, Newgarden went from 4th to 2nd, Hunter-Reay went from 7th to 4th to 6th, but none of this happened in an instant and make the race stale after, it happened over the span of a race due to pit stops, tire wear, fuel issue and so on to have this kind of changes. If you were just looking for who was going to be 1st, that happened on the first corner of the first lap but lot of action on the back. Sometimes you get that kind of a race, but then I don’t understand why people love F1 when week in and week out your order is determined after first few corners and there is a massive following

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