A Late Discussion on a Welcomed Addition

It dawned on me this week that I have been somewhat neglectful in covering a very significant topic. When IndyCar released the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule a couple of weeks ago, they focused primarily on Richmond International Raceway being added to the slate for the first time since 2009. Taking the “glass half-empty approach”, I focused more on the omission of Pocono and hardly gave a mention about the return of Richmond.

Contrary to popular belief, I am pleased that Richmond is back on the schedule. My only complaint was that it was instead of Pocono, rather than in addition to Pocono Six ovals would have been better than five – but I’m glad they are at least holding at five.

Pocono was tied with Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the longest oval that the series visited at 2.5 miles in length. Richmond now supplants Iowa as the shortest track on the schedule. Iowa is 7/8 of a mile, while Richmond is three-quarters of a mile. It is not exactly a flat track. There are 14° of banking in the turns, with 8° of banking on the curved front-stretch and even 2° on the backstretch.

When I think back to the old SunTrust Indy Challenge that ran from 2001 through 2009, my most recent memories were not great. They were somewhat processional because the aero-package in the later years made it too difficult to get past the car in front, no matter how much faster the car behind was. But obviously some passing was done because in the last IndyCar race there in 2009, only five cars finished on the lead lap. Of the twenty cars entered that year, only four were out of the race due to contact. So even though it was considered close-quarters, most drivers kept things clean. Those four were Helio Castroneves, Mike Conway, Ryan Briscoe and Jacques Lazier in separate accidents.

Of today’s current crop of drivers, only six drove in that 2009 race – Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Only Dixon and Marco are with their same teams as then.

But unlike the last couple of races at Richmond, the first few races were actually very entertaining. When I first heard that the IRL would be racing at Richmond in 2001, I never thought it would work. I thought the cars were just too fast to be confined into such a tiny oval. I was wrong. Those first few races were wild, with action all over the track all the time.

The big question is…which will see next year when the NTT IndyCar Series returns? Will it be wild and crazy like the early part of the last decade, or will it be the parade we saw in 2009. One of the complaints we’ve heard of the current version of this car is similar to what we heard at Richmond in 2009 – that the turbulence coming off the cars makes it very difficult to pass. Difficult is one thing, impossible is another.

After the 2018 Indianapolis 500, we heard the same complaints of what was then the brand-new common aero-kit for these cars. Many drivers said it was easy to catch up to a car, but impossible to pass. But not all drivers seemed to have trouble during that race. Alexander Rossi made some of the gutsiest passes I’ve seen in that race. And he was making his car stick on the outside, no less – so maybe this car just exposes who the best drivers are.

One question I’m not so worried about at Richmond is the attendance. Yes eleven years will have passed since the last IndyCar race there, but that was one of the better attended ovals on the schedule each year. Some will point out that local business and IndyCar sponsor Philip Morris gave away tons of tickets each year. Yes that’s true, but the track says their promotional efforts will be unmatched.

If they are comparing themselves to other ISC tracks, that wouldn’t be hard. Promotional efforts at other recent ISC tracks like Phoenix, Fontana, Homestead, Michigan and Watkins Glen have been reportedly nonexistent. So if they are comparing themselves to their internal partners – that’s not much of a measuring stick, so we’ll see.

But I think this is another opportunity to go into NASCAR’s backyard and appeal to fans that like all kinds of racing – not just stock cars. I attended the last IRL race in Charlotte when three spectators were fatally injured. The IRL never returned but it was strictly due to that tragic accident. I can tell you the place was packed. Aside from the Indianapolis 500, it was the largest attendance at an IndyCar oval that I’ve ever witnessed first-hand.

Don’t forget, Barber is just a stone’s throw from Talladega and they’ve managed to draw a big crowd there every year. And attendance was not the issue here in Nashville, when IndyCar pulled out after the 2008 season. That was due to a clueless General Manager of Nashville Superspeedway who couldn’t figure out how to work with the series.

My biggest complaint about Richmond for next year is where it falls on the schedule, but for purely selfish reasons. Richmond falls on the Saturday night right after Road America. We have established a nice family tradition of going to Road America every year since the series returned in 2016. We love Road America so much that if I were told I could only attend one other race besides the Indianapolis 500 – it would be Road America. We love the race, the track, the area, where it falls on the schedule – everything about it. So we are not going to give up going to Road America if we can possibly help it.

With Richmond coming just six days after Road America, that presents a problem on many fronts. First, that will be a hard turnaround whether we fly or drive to either location. Our old bodies don’t recover as quickly as they used to. Second is my vacation time, which is very scarce for me right now with my mandated job change in July. I already had to take off time without pay to go to Gateway, and I don’t have the financial means to keep doing that. Yes I’ll accrue time between now and then, but we have other races we want to go to next year. Last, but certainly not least, is our budget. It usually costs us a lot to go to Road America. Six days gives us no time to recover financially.

I do have a brother that lives nearby. My middle brother, Jack, owns and operates a Bed & Breakfast Inn with an aviation theme in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia; which is about two and a half hours from Richmond. It’s not close enough to stay for the race weekend, but could give us a mini-vacation before or after the race if we go. I’ll give him a shameless plug by posting the link to his place here.

So even though I’m excited about the return of Richmond, I’m not sure we will be there – at least not next year. We have several months between now and then, so we’ll have to play it by ear. But another short-oval to compliment Iowa is a good thing, even if they are only three weeks apart. Now let’s see how we can get Pocono back on the schedule without losing anything else. That’ll get the glass back to half-full.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “A Late Discussion on a Welcomed Addition”

  1. With the current aero package and tires I expect a parade, the high line will be too dirty to pass on the outside.

    Gateway had poor attendance before the series left many years ago but it now packs them in. No reason Richmond couldn’t do the same if they put a little effort into it.

    Forgot to post the link to your brother’s place. 😉

    • Oops! Thanks for pointing that out. It’s there now. – GP

    • Much agreed. Indycar mandates that Firestone tires degrade rapidly so we can have more of those really exciting pit stops.

      The track will be all marbles and the racing processional….. even if it doesn’t have to be that way.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I very much look forward to seeing how they’ll race at Richmond. I understand the challenges that the current package has had at short ovals, but I also believe it has proven it can put on good moments at Gateway and I have not really struggled with the show at Iowa recently. Phoenix was the real dog of the short oval shows due to dirty air and marbles, and I would argue that Richmond is closer to Iowa than Phoenix.

    Also, thank you, George, for reminding us that Jacques Lazier was in a car just a decade ago.

  3. Thank you George for your post about the return of Richmond. I agree that it is a good addition to the schedule and that it should no have come as a replacement but as a real addition to make 18 races instead of 17. It’s good to see the series add another short oval. If they add an IndyLights race there, too, that should be great as well. The track is definitely suitable for those kind of cars.

    My guess is that Pocono may well apply for a return to the schedule if they can find a new title sponsor.

  4. the glass is always full.
    1/2 water, 1/2 air.
    Richmond removes the air and fills the seats.

    • I went back and watched my tape of the Pocono race. It sure looked to me like there were more people in the stands there than were at the Brickyard 400. I found that interesting.

  5. And speaking of Road America, the Kent Formula Ford racing series will be holding their 50th anniversary race/party there this weekend with at least 250 entries of more. Many IndyCar drivers past and present have driven Formula Fords. The track manager at Road America is a wonderful promoter and he had managed to get Ford Motor Company to sponsor the event. The Formula Fords are fast, attractive race cars and would be a good addition to any IndyCar race event in my opinion, particularly with the Ford Motor Company as a supporting partner. There is a lot of information about this event with links at Racer.com.

  6. Davis Brewer Says:

    Seen Sam Hornish work the high groove at Richmond on the last stint and won the race . The Silver Crowns at Richmond were great

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