A Disturbing Trend Continues

Update: Before we get into the IndyCar topic of the day, I wanted to give a brief update on my wife, Susan. She was released from the hospital on Monday afternoon – a day earlier than expected.

She has had zero complications or setbacks and she is tolerating soft food, so they discharged her to let her come back to our Airbnb.

Leaving Hospital

I spoke with her surgeon on Monday morning, and he gave me even more good news. The PET scan two days prior to her surgery showed that the tumor showed no cancer activity and was most likely already dead from the chemo. Pathology reports on the lymph nodes surrounding the tumor during the surgery, all came back negative for cancer cells. If there was any question about any remaining active cancer cells lurking deep inside the tumor, that was taken care of by the NanoKnife procedure.

She is not wild about being on the temporary feeding tube, but that will be removed in a few weeks as she weans herself off of it. After this first week or so, she will get to the point that she is only attached to it at night. We have to remain in Louisville for a few more days, just in case complications arise. She is to see her surgeon on Friday and hopefully we will be allowed to return home to Nashville on Saturday. Thanks again for all of the prayers and well-wishes that have gotten her through this. I hope the worst is behind her, as we are still aiming to attend to season-opening race at Barber, the weekend of April 16-18. Now, on to what we normally do here – discussing IndyCar…

There has been no shortage of opinions, since it was announced last week that Formula One veteran Romaine Grosjean will be joining the NTT IndyCar Series for the 2021 season – as a part of Dale Coyne Racing in association with Rick Ware Racing. His announcement also included the fact that he will not run the double-header at Texas, nor will take part in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing – the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30.

Even for those that don’t follow Formula One, you probably know Grosjean from his frightening crash at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, where the fireball that erupted from his car splitting in two lit up the nighttime sky. The burns on his hands suffered from the inferno are still visible, as are the psychological scars. If you have seen the crash, you can hardly blame him.

There are opinions from both ends of the spectrum, from fans and journalists alike. Some claim that having another Formula One veteran join the series gives IndyCar more credibility as a world-class racing series, while others say that he is a menace on the track and will be a threat to other drivers. Then there’s the old argument that the soon-to-be thirty-five year old driver is taking the seat of some promising young driver.

I don’t really buy into any of those arguments. I met last week’s news with more of a shrug than anything else. I don’t think the signing of Grosjean is going to move the needle one bit across the pond; no more than when Max Chilton or Marcus Ericsson came over from Formula One to try and jumpstart their careers in IndyCar. If I’m being honest, I don’t think any former Formula One drivers coming to IndyCar have raised eyebrows in Europe since Nigel Mansell came over as the reigning World Champion for the 1993 CART season.

The 1993 Indianapolis 500 had four former Formula One champions in the field. Mansell was joined by Nelson Piquet, Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti as former World Champions striving to drink the milk. Fittipaldi won that race, but chose to drink orange juice instead – but that’s another story for another day. The signing of Grosjean pales in comparison to when the Formula One world was actually paying attention to IndyCar in the early nineties.

I’m not overly concerned about Grosjean’s history of unforced errors, either. I would be lying if I said I was intimately familiar with Grosjean’s career, but from what I can gather – he compares favorably with Takuma Sato, another Formula One refugee who has found success in IndyCar. He can be unquestionably fast, but also makes a lot of ridiculous mistakes. As a fan, I find that a lot more appealing than someone content to ride around in nineteenth-place just to be know for taking care of the equipment. A car-owner can take care of a car by leaving it on the trailer, but is that why they race?

I’ve never bought into the idea that by giving a veteran in their mid-thirties a ride, that a car-owner is somehow cheating the ladder system and not giving a nineteen year-old an opportunity that he or she is somehow entitled to. If you have an opportunity to sign an experienced driver with nine fulltime Formula One seasons with ten podium finishes on their resume – you sign that driver. I know some are concerned that Oliver Askew is being cheated out of his prime seasons, but he just turned twenty-four. His time will come.

Overall, I was happy about the Grosjean signing, but it increased my already growing concerns I’ve had in another area – the specialist.

The diversity of the tracks is what I’ve always felt set the NTT IndyCar Series apart from other forms of motorsport. If a driver can score enough points racing on temporary street circuits, natural terrain road courses, short ovals and super-speedways to win a championship – that driver has earned that championship. Over the past decade, we have seen more and more drivers choose to race in just a portion of the IndyCar schedule.

Mike Conway started this trend at the end of the 2012 season, when he announced he would not run the season-ending race at Fontana. This most certainly stemmed from his frightening crash at the end of the 2010 Indianapolis 500, which took him out of the cockpit for the remainder of the season. When he announced he would not run Fontana in 2012, he also declared that he would not run any more ovals – a promised he has kept, but he also hasn’t driven an Indy car since 2014.

Ed Carpenter became an oval specialist after the 2013 season, mostly because he was very ineffective (code speak for bad) on the road and street courses. Since the 2014 season, he has had to hire someone willing to drive the non-ovals only for his No. 20 car – prompting him to hire the likes of Conway, JR Hildebrand, Spencer Pigot, Jordan King, Ed Jones and Conor Daly for partial seasons.

Last season saw the most curious arrangement, with Daly driving for Carpenter on the non-ovals and in a separate car for the Indianapolis 500; but on a separate and competing team – as he drove the other ovals for Carlin, in place of Max Chilton. Chilton made a similar decision as Conway in 2019, except he still chooses to race in the Indianapolis 500 each year.

Now we see Grosjean making a similar choice, although he has hinted he might run at Gateway later this season.

I don’t like this trend.

I freely admit that I am hesitant to accept change. In fact, most of you know that my motto in life is “Change is Bad”. But I’m afraid this will ultimately end with only one oval race on the IndyCar schedule – the Indianapolis 500. Do you think that can’t happen? The 2005 Champ Car schedule had two oval races – Milwaukee and Las Vegas. In 2006, it was down to the one oval race at Milwaukee. By 2007, there were no oval races on the Champ Car schedule. By 2008, there was no more Champ Car.

I don’t think I am one to sit around and lament the end of the roadster era. It doesn’t really upset me that USAC stars gravitate to NASCAR more than IndyCar. It has made sense for front-engine sprint car drivers to migrate to NASCAR and driver front-engine stock cars, rather than learn the nuisances of a rear-engine car. It’s never bothered me that foreign drivers have come into IndyCar. International drivers have been coming here since the beginning. French driver Jules Goux won the 1913 Indianapolis 500, beginning a streak of foreign winners that wasn’t broken until American driver Howdy Wilcox won in 1919. I actually like the international flavor that foreign drivers bring, and some of the most memorable drivers and characters have come from outside the US borders.

What does worry me is the continual decline in oval races. I understand that the owners don’t like oval races, since cars tend to sustain heavier damage on ovals leading to higher repair bills. I sort of get it that some drivers might tend to shy away from what is perceived as a more dangerous form of IndyCar racing. What I don’t understand is the sudden lack of interest in oval racing among fans. And it’s not just younger fans. I’ve met fans much older than me that continue to say that IndyCar should abandon all ovals except for the Indianapolis 500.

To me, part of the appeal to IndyCar racing is not sitting comfortably in your chair and calmly nodding in approval that your favorite driver took a better line into Turn Fourteen and had a much better exit from the turn than the rival driver. Instead, it’s sitting on the edge of your seat and holding your breath as your driver executes an impossible pass, just inches from another car. You marvel at the bravery of the drivers as they do this lap after lap. If you aren’t occasionally thrilled at what you are watching, why watch it?

Over the decades I’ve grown to appreciate road and street courses, but my love will always be oval racing. It is why I started following this sport as a kid in the mid-sixties. Many of you know that we love going to Road America and Barber every year. There is something special about seeing race cars meander through a wooded area or among the dogwoods and azaleas. That helps soften the fact that you can only see the cars in front of you for a very small portion of a lap. At most oval tracks (beside IMS), you can see the entire track from the stands. It is fascinating to follow a specific car, lap after lap, all around the track as it carves it’s way through traffic. You can’t get that on television and you cant get that at a non-oval.

While sitting in the stands of most oval tracks, you have all the action right in front of you. If you are following a car on the backstretch heading into Turn Three at Texas, it won’t take long to notice an accident heading into Turn One. If you aren’t located directly in front of a video board at Road America, chances are that you won’t have much of a clue what is going on at other parts of the track.

Oval racing is in the DNA of IndyCar racing. It wasn’t that long ago (2010) that there was a major outcry from fans that the current series schedule had more non-ovals (nine) than ovals (eight). The 2015 schedule had six oval races in a sixteen-race schedule. In 2016, it dropped down to five ovals on a sixteen-race schedule. For 2021, there are only four oval races on a seventeen-race slate, and that’s at only three oval tracks – Texas, Indianapolis and Gateway.

What is troubling to me is the small attendance at oval races. The 2015 IndyCar race at Fontana was one of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen, yet only about 3,000 were in attendance at the mammoth 2.0 mile facility. IndyCar tried a reboot at Phoenix just a few years ago, and it failed miserably at the gate. The poor racing in that three-year stretch had a lot to do with it, but I’m not sure edge-of-your-seat racing would’ve made much of a difference.

Having drivers like Grosjean, Conway and Chilton eschew oval racing by labeling them as dangerous is perplexing. Racing is inherently dangerous. That’s what makes the great ones so great. If it wasn’t dangerous, anyone would try it. I would remind Grosjean that his fiery crash happened on a road course, not an oval. The harrowing crash that ended the career of Dario Franchitti took place on a street circuit. Jeff Krosnoff was fatally injured on the streets of Toronto, after he had already driven on five ovals that season. Injury and death can occur on any type of track on the IndyCar schedule, not just the ovals.

So while I am generally pleased that IndyCar is getting another quality driver in Romaine Grosjean, I am concerned that yet another driver is opting out of what makes IndyCar racing so special and unique – the ovals. It is a trend that is going in the wrong direction, in my opinion.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “A Disturbing Trend Continues”

  1. Agreed. It’s the ovals that sets IndyCar apart and makes it special. Grosjean is just getting going. I expect him to try ovals once he’s happy with the car.

  2. Brandon Wright Says:

    To be fair, Romain had planned to do the ovals until his Bahrain crash and it’s hard to blame him for putting them on hold for now. As you mentioned, the danger to cars (and humans) is much higher on an oval and the last five deaths in IndyCar have happened on ovals. Not to mention Wickens crash at Pocono. Bad crashes can happen anywhere but the highest danger will always be at high speed ovals so if you want to mitigate some danger it makes sense to start there.

    As for lack of interest, I enjoy a good oval race but the aero packages over the last few years have turned a lot of ovals like Phoenix, Iowa, Gateway, and to some extent Texas, into one groove tracks where passing is very rare which often results in a pretty boring race. Watch a Phoenix race from the 90’s and the cars are going high and low and everywhere in between, it’s fun! Watch any of the recent Phoenix races and there is little excitement or edge-of-your-seat excitement. I love going to Gateway but I’ve never found the races to be very entertaining. Fix the cars so they can race two wide and maybe the interest will return.

  3. Fantastic news on Susan George. It’s really good to hear good news. On the other hand I was disappointed when the IndyCar schedule came out this year. I don’t know if it is the result of the pandemic but man what a disappointment. I agree there needs to be more ovals. Speaking of ovals I am going to pay attention to Daytona 500 attendance this year. I don’t get this declining oval attendance trend. As far as RG I think it’s good to have him in IndyCar, but a little again disappointed he is not choosing to do any ovals.

  4. Bruce Waine Says:

    On balance, is a driver allowed the courtesy of a learning curve before armchair judgement is cast upon them?

  5. “There is something special about seeing race cars meander through a wooded area or among the dogwoods and azaleas. That helps soften the fact that you can only see the cars in front of you for a very small portion of a lap. At most oval tracks (beside IMS), you can see the entire track from the stands. It is fascinating to follow a specific car, lap after lap, all around the track as it carves it’s way through traffic. You can’t get that on television and you cant get that at a non-oval.”

    This is precisely what I love about seeing a race in person.

    I’ve always felt a huge disconnect between ovals in-person and ovals on TV – obviously a great reason to attend ovals in-person. Less so for road/streets where the TV coverage and views are more beneficial to the viewing experience.

    TV rarely captured the full scope of speed and proximity of oval action, but I’m encouraged by some of the incredible camera placements on the vehicles they’ve used in the last few years.
    Instead of always zoomed so tightly on two or three cars that the speed element is lost against the landscape, it would be great to have a wider angle for more overall views of the field as you mention, and lower, car level sights that show the speed relative to surroundings.

    • Lynn Weinberg Says:

      I agree. When I go to an oval race, then go home and then watch it on tv, it seems like I’m watching something completely different.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Wonderful news on Susan! I pray that you all will be heading home soon, healthy and recovering.

    Despite the 2021 schedule, I am heartened to see Roger Penske at least publicly paying lip service to bringing more on to the schedule. This is the opposite of what Champcar did in its final years, publicly chiding the circuits for not drawing while actually leaving them due to tumbling sponsorship and the series chasing foreign money. Indycar finding a way to make themselves wanted at oval tracks would be good for the series, as such tracks (even in this day and age) still have the potential to bring Indycar to it’s widest possible audience in the US.

    A more balanced schedule would probably reduce the appeal of the series to specialists (or at least give the oval specialists more to do). Interestingly enough, last year’s pandemic-altered schedule was the most oval-heavy one since 2010, with 43% of races (6 of 14) occurring on ovals and 47% of available points (due to Indy’s double and qualifying points) being up for grabs on ovals. I would not be surprised, also, if this year’s schedule adds another oval race at Gateway due to a COVID-related cancelation at another track.

  7. Great Susan news!

  8. Carburetor Says:

    Could not agree more about ovals being the soul of IndyCar racing and how much more exciting they are than street-circuit racing. I am so disappointed at the trend of diminishing ovals on the schedule. I can remember attending IndyCar events at Phoenix when they routinely drew 35000-40000 per race. Maybe something will reverse this trend some day soon.

    Cannot tell you how happy I am for you and Susan with her news! What a trooper she is! All the best to the two of you in her recovery.

  9. So happy to hear the good news about Susan! Best news I’ve heard in a while!

  10. James T Suel Says:

    First I am very happy about the news on Susan, congrats. You hit the nail on the head, ovals are the heart and soul of Indycar racing. The trend away from ovals started back in the cart era. Most of the drivers are from road racing backgrounds. Many have gotten good on ovals to there credit. Gateway at St Louis has shown how to put on a sustainable oval, race. While I respect a drivers right choice to not run ovals, that driver is not true Indycar driver. I fear for the sport without the ovals, I like the road courses , don’t care for many of the street races, its like bumper cars.. I still think Al Unser sr was the last true American Indycar champion in 1970. You had street and road courses and superspeedway oval, and the 5 mile dirt tracks.

  11. It will be interesting to find out if Coyne will choose an actual oval specialist or a ride-buyer for the remaining races of the #19 car.

    I miss short track racing in IndyCar. Luckily, there still is Gateway, but apart from that, there just aren’t eniugh siutable venues anymore because whenever NASCAR got a hold of one of those, they changed it to making it less suitable to IndyCar, either on a business perspective or a technical perspective. Iowa and Phoenix are the first ones that come to mind. Milwaukee took a long time to go down but it all started with inconsistent scheduling during the latter half of the split. There are many more 1 1/2 mile speedways that faced the same problems, many of them NASCAR affiliated. But what’s an oval track owner to do? Give into the needs of NASCAR who, chances are, will run there on different weekends throughout the year, or join the ranks of their perceived competitor IndyCar who will visit just once a year, making it the less viable option. Even Indianapolis itself is not a once-a-year show anymore so how can the series exxpect this of anyone?

    This is not a time to create new events for stadium sized crowds yet, but it is likely that this time might coincide with a comeback of the fall race at Texas.

    To be honest, I’d prefer other venues doing that but there just aren’t many left, and you just don’t start off with 2 races on different weekends as a new venue.

    Thanks for the good news about Susan. Keep going strong!

  12. Lynn Weinberg Says:

    “Things That Make Me Irrationally and “Unnecessarily Angry”
    9) The term “Oval Specialist.”
    Definition: “a driver who sucks on road and street courses”
    (I do have an actual list).

    I would like to point out something regarding your statement about low attendance at oval races. Gateway, 2018 and 2019. The crowds were incredible. 38,000 people were in attendance in 2017, although they caused it’s share of problems. Admittedly, they were not prepared for the crowds. In 2018, crowd control was a well oiled machine. I spoke with Johnny Bommarito and Chris Blair personally at both of those races. Johnny told me “we are in this for the long haul and our goal is to have the season finale here.”

    I’ll admit, I have a sweet spot for Gateway as it’s my home town, but I think their attendance is doing very well.

  13. Indy just ran and I’m done watching. Ovals are what makes Indy car. As for falling attendance, maybe make an alliance with NASCAR for doing some race weekends jointly, ie. Texas, Pocono, Kansas, etc. Exposure on that scale could benefit both organizations.

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