Will the Ovals Ever Come Back?

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that oval track racing is becoming an endangered species in the NTT IndyCar Series. Just a quick glance at next year’s schedule compared to the schedule as recent as 2015 shows a shocking decline in just a few years. The 2015 scheduled featured six oval races; the Indianapolis 500, as well as races at Texas, Fontana, Milwaukee, Iowa and Pocono. The 2021 schedule has the Indianapolis 500, a double-header at Texas and Gateway – four races at three oval tracks.

IndyCar has come under fire amid accusations that Roger Penske hates ovals. Seriously? The man once had a portfolio of race tracks that included Nazareth, Michigan, Rockingham and Fontana. I doubt that selling those tracks suddenly turned him against oval racing.

The truth is that IndyCar was headed this way long before The Captain ever thought about buying IMS – which is an oval, by the way – and the series.

Let me get this out of the way. I am a fan of IndyCar on oval tracks. I grew up in an age when Indy cars ran primarily on ovals and road courses were the exception, not the norm. I found the races to be more exciting and it defined what racing was supposed to be, in my opinion. As an added bonus; at most tracks you could see the entire track if you sat up high enough.

If given the choice between a road course and an oval, I would take an oval ten times out of ten. The 40 mph hairpin at Long Beach did little to excite me. Yes I understood and appreciated the art of braking, but it was racing at high speed against another car for the same piece of real estate that got my blood pumping.

That was then, this is now.

Somewhere along the way, oval racing changed. The IRL was formed as an all-oval series designed to bring back the oval. To say it worked would be a falsehood. For ten years, they campaigned races on tracks either designed for stock cars, or venues they stole away from CART; but attendance was waning dramatically and TV ratings were plummeting. When cars started turning right at St. Petersburg in 2005 that was a sign of things to come. Five years later, there were more non-ovals than ovals. Next season, the series will visit only three oval tracks.

How did this happen? Even as a fan who still prefers an oval to a non-oval, I’ll admit that the racing has become dull and boring on many of the ovals. Is it due to all cars being the same and they are too evenly matched? Is it because of the current package that makes passing extremely difficult? I don’t know the answer.

IndyCar fans are a tough bunch to please. For the last ten years, fans have complained about Texas being way too boring and processional; or they’re upset that Texas encourages pack-racing and we are certain to have another Dan Wheldon situation on our hands. I cannot remember the last time the two extreme sides came away from watching a race at Texas applauding what a safe and exciting race they just witnessed. It’s usually one complaint after the other.

I went to three of the past four races at Pocono. While I enjoyed every trip there, the racing there was lacking in excitement – and that’s actually being kind. And let’s be honest, Gateway hasn’t really been a barn-burner either. There have been a few moments over the last four seasons at the egg-shaped oval across the river in St. Louis, and we’ve had a blast every time we’ve gone – but the racing there was just a little bland.

And let’s not pretend that the non-ovals have made up in excitement for what the ovals have been lacking. While I love going to Barber and Road America each season, there is sometimes more excitement in qualifying than for the actual race on road and street courses. Once again, however, the destination and all the other happenings at the track make up for what might be lacking on the track.

How else can you explain the turnout at Long Beach each year? I’ve never been to that event, but those fans aren’t pouring through those gates to get a good seat to watch great racing. They are there for the event. I’d say it’s a safe bet that many of those in attendance wouldn’t mind if they went all weekend without seeing a race car. They are there because it’s a fun thing to do.

Unfortunately, it’s not the same story for most ovals. The odd thing is, Gateway has made it work when their on-track product is not that great. It’s because they have created a carnival-like atmosphere for Friday night and all-day Saturday, even when the Cardinals are in town. So you can’t just make a blanket statement like “No one goes to ovals anymore”; because they do at some places.

Gateway is not the norm, however. Michael Andretti did everything within reason a few years ago to make Milwaukee work, but a bad starting time and lack of support racing worked against him. I don’t care how great your fan village is in the infield, you need cars on-track too. Michigan, Fontana, Pocono, Iowa all fell off due to low attendance.

Perhaps the secret is to have oval races that are in or very near large metropolitan areas. Pocono is about as remote as it gets. I’ve heard stories about a single road that leads to Iowa Speedway. Michigan appears to be in a fairly secluded area as well. People think that Fontana is in Los Angeles, but we went there in 2013. We stayed in a hotel on the far east side of LA, but we were still forty miles from the track. Chicagoland wasn’t in Chicago, it was near Joliet. People in Chicago don’t want to go to Joliet. I still maintain the major reason why Nashville Superspeedway has yet to succeed is because it’s a forty-mile drive from downtown Nashville with absolutely nothing around it.

As I type this out, I’m finding myself contradicting things I’ve already said. The Milwaukee Mile is in what I would consider the Milwaukee metropolitan area, yet it has failed in every recent attempt to revive hat traditional stop on the IndyCar circuit.

I certainly don’t know the answer to how to make ovals popular again. People who have spent their professional careers in racing that are far smarter than I am don’t know how to, so why would I pretend to know the secret. I don’t.

Maybe it’s just changing times. I grew up in a time when My Three Sons, The Munsters and Gilligan’s Island were all must-see TV shows. That was when ovals were popular. People’s tastes have changed. Today’s forty year-old was just becoming a teenager when CART was in its heyday. Today’s forty year-old essentially grew up in an era when road and street courses were king and ovals were the occasional novelty. You tend to prefer what you grew up on. I still prefer ovals, but that doesn’t make it right. My time has come and gone. The forty year-old is who sponsors are targeting. Right is what sells in today’s climate, not what we think should sell. It pains me to say it, but in today’s climate – the ovals are dying.

Some predict that in another five or ten years, the only oval on the IndyCar schedule will be the Indianapolis 500. When I first heard that suggestion, I scoffed at it. I thought it was an absurd overreaction. Nowadays, I’m not so sure. I’d like to think that ovals will make up some part of the schedule, but with NASCAR controlling more of the available tracks, I’m not so sure.

I don’t think Roger Penske hates ovals. But he knows that fewer and fewer oval tracks are available for IndyCar to compete on. He is going to tracks that want IndyCar; like Barber, Road America, Long Beach, St. Petersburg and the new street race in Nashville coming next season. I just hope he will continue to pursue the few ovals remaining that are not controlled by NASCAR. That’s the only way they might ever come back.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Will the Ovals Ever Come Back?”

  1. My opinion? The problem is dirty air and it plagues most major racing series. The cars now are more aero dependent than they were 20-30 years ago and while they may be fast as hell they can’t race each other very well. Watch races from the 80’s and 90’s and cars could go two-wide on ovals, you almost never see that now. Usually the tracks haven’t changed much but the cars have. The cars get within 1-2 seconds of the car in front and hit a bubble and can’t pass. See the Cup race from this past Sunday, Harvick was right on the number for 15-20 laps but couldn’t get by Lagano despite being obviously faster.

    In contrast, watch any MX5 Cup race where the cars have basically no aero and you’ll see some of the most entertaining racing on the planet, lap after lap. I watched Goodwood last weekend featuring all cars from before the big aero world and almost every lap was edge of your seat action. Watch any modern F1, IndyCar, IMSA, GT3, WEC, Cup race and you’re far more likely to see a parade with edge of your seat action lasting for maybe half a lap before returning to a procession.

  2. You are wrong about Roger Penske. I have long considered him the anti-christ of auto racing. One reason is because he was a driving force behind CART moving away from ovals. It was one of the major reasons for the split, and why I supported the IRL totally. I expected this to happen as soon as Mr. Penske acquired Indycar. But his influence on this has been felt for years. I am not surprised.

    I also disagree with you on the future. Ovals have not worked because Indycar has not wanted them to work. All the things we say they need to do to make ovals popular, why haven’t they done them? Apparently they can do them for road and street courses? Date equity, more action on the track. Marketing? The carnival atmosphere that magically can be done at road courses but not ovals. Even the feeder series ignore ovals. Why? It speaks volumes.

    Even the location of the tracks is a red herring. Ever been to Mid-Ohio? As you said Milwaukee is in the middle of a community. A great location. I’ll never forget attending the 2013 race there.

    CART went to an all road/street course schedule. How did that work out? Whatever it does, it will not save Indycar.

    So what do we do? I’d like to go to Road America or Mid-Ohio again but I won’t. The loss of Pocono and Phoenix did it for me. I won’t support Indycar at road or street courses. It’s basically all I can do to protest it. I went to all the Indy Grand Prix until last year when I began my boycott. I won’t attend any road/street course races until Indycar shows a real interest and effort to get back to its roots – American Oval Racing.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I think this is a bit hard on Roger Penske, who has owned multiple oval tracks during his time in the sport. I would agree that CART/Champcar’s management post-Penske was quite dismissive of ovals and that (among many things) was to their detriment.

      While I wouldn’t deny that Penske-era CART had its share of stakeholders, participants, and fans who were not big on ovals, the series also did not have a lot of opportunities to add ovals during its first 15 years of existence. Very few ovals were built in the 80s and early 90s, so the series only real opportunity to add ovals during that time would have been to invade NASCAR’s deeply entrenched set of tracks in the southeast. Of the nine ovals on the 1978 USAC championship trail, CART still raced at 4 of them in 1995… of the other 5 ovals, 3 had been closed (Trenton, Texas World, and Ontario) and 1 was in NASCAR country (Atlanta). The other was Pocono, a loss one could argue was covered by the two ovals CART was able to add and retain during the 80s and 90s, Nazareth and Loudon.

      When the great 90s oval track building boom happened (coinciding almost directly with the Split), the IRL was demonstrably not the only side of the sport adding oval tracks. CART added ovals each year from 1996-1999 and in fact held nearly as many oval races (39 vs 43) and raced at nearly as many different oval tracks (9 vs 11) as the IRL did during the first 5 years of the Split.

  3. It’s the damn tires! Indycar mandates how many laps a tire should last and Firestone build them that way. If ‘reds’ are only supposed to last 20ish laps and they are BUILT to last only 20ish laps then you have a track that’s so covered in marbles that noone will dare to ever pass anyone else for fear of walling their car.

    It’s all for the sake of the show though because pits stops are just so damn exciting…. well, aren’t they?

    So you have a super boring processional race just as Indycar mandated.

    How about trying this. Make 1 rock hard tire for everyone and you’d have 2 or 3 wide racing all day albeit at a slower speed but who cares if real racing is happening.

  4. James T Suel Says:

    I am an oval fan! I have been around racing my whole life. I am now 70 and have been to races since 1958. Aero dependant cars have hurt the oval tracks. Besides Gateway few have done enough to keep fans interested. Also many forget that a good crowd at many of the ovals in years gone bye 25 to 30 thousand. Back on the mile dirt tracks 20,000 was a sell out. I still believe if you followed gateways plan and had a full card of support races the ovals could work. Now days you must have a good event sponsor. I don’t blame Penske, hes the best thing that could happen to the sport. I wonder can the Indycar stand to loose the old die hards like me? I enjoy all racing , but prefer ovals. Wish I had the answer.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    While I don’t think it is unfair to focus on the issues at ovals, the schedule turnover that IndyCar has endured over the past 2 decades at all types of tracks is absolutely staggering! Robin Miller’s mailbag gets nearly as many “questions” about returning to Watkins Glen, Cleveland, or Vancouver or adding Mosport, VIR, or Road Atlanta as it does about Milwaukee, Michigan, Fontana, and Phoenix. Indycar has attendance and attention struggles across all track types.

    That said, there does seem to be more challenges with oval tracks than with other track types. Some of that is due to such tracks serving a larger tenant in NASCAR (heck, many of them are straight up owned by NASCAR), which can limit focus on Indycar events. Though I don’t think it is THE solution because I have rarely seen a very large share of an Indycar race crowd (at any track type) show up for support series races, adding support series and other small events to the schedule at ovals would benefit the events.

    I do think Roger Penske understands that ovals can provide opportunity for the series and will look to add such tracks when it makes sense. Frankly, I think the series has made decent efforts in the recent past to add ovals and that the 2021 schedule’s dearth of ovals is largely due to circumstances beyond the series control (they clearly wanted to be back at Richmond and Iowa).

    On the competition side, well there are a lot of things that could/should be done. Using the current car and aero configuration, though,I think we underestimate how critical things like alternate tires and push-to-pass are to the competition on road and street tracks. I’m surprised the series has not looked at returning to using puss-to-pass on the ovals as they did in 2010 and 2011.

  6. Michigan: resurfaced by ISC to be more suitable for stock cars, less so for IndyCars.

    Nazareth: a really sad story like North Wilkesboro.

    Phoenix: redesigned by ISC to be more suitable for stock cars, less so for IndyCars.

    Fontana: a date change by IndyCar drove the crowd away and now, it’s being redesigned by ISC to be more suitable for stock cars.

    Milwaukee: date changes by IndyCar drove the crowd away.

    Iowa: after IndyCar’s title sponsor got away, NASCAR bought it and has now stopped using it.

    Kentucky: date changes by IndyCar drove the crowd away and SMI has since made it more suitable for stock cars

    Texas: resurfaced by SMI to be more suitable for stock cars, less so for IndyCars. And now: a date change. It the new date doesn’t stick, it might be on its way out, too.

    Mickyard: fans didn’t like traffic jams and its owners didn’t like the stands taking up space in the parking lot of their core business

    Pikes Peak: sold under the condition that it may not hold any major sporting events anymore. That’s how you eliminate competing series from running at a track you no longer own.

    Loudon: after a scandal-filled race, ISC preferred to not try and grow the crowd in year 2 but instead opted out

    Homestead and Atlanta are more cases of “turn it into a 1.5 mile cookie cutter to make them better suited for stock cars” thus less suitable for IndyCars.

    Kansas, Las Vegas, Chicagoland, Nashville: 1.5 mile ovals best suited for stock cars, too.

    Richmond: didn’t have a chance because it was cancelled due to unexpedted circumstances.

    Pocono: a lack of support events and bad press from major accidents didn’t make it easy to promote

    But the number of road and street courses that fell by the wayside since reunification is impressive, too. It’s a tough business climate when the 2 biggest track owners and promoters are so very pro-stock car and don’t care that much about IndyCar. Luckily, Mark Miles and Jay Frye have learned from the previous administration and their own errors (Fontana) that date changes can destroy events. The IRL hasn’t done that to any road courses, or have they?

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