A Cautionary Tale for Street Races

One week from today, practice will begin for the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix. While there is a tremendous buzz around town about this event, there seems be even more anticipation throughout the IndyCar community. Several teams are introducing special paint schemes for this race. On Trackside the other night, they reported that Jimmie Johnson says he is receiving more ticket requests for this race, than any other on the schedule – and that includes the Indianapolis 500.

Throughout the so-called summer break that we are currently in, I’ve been looking forward to next week’s race a lot myself. Obviously, I want this race to be a success – not only for this year, but for years to come. Now that the race is on the schedule, I want it to remain there for years and decades to come. I can’t wait to cover the race all next weekend, yet sleep in my own bed every night,

While Long Beach and St. Petersburg stand out as tremendously successful temporary street courses, I can’t help but think about some of the not-so-successful street races we’ve watched over the years. Baltimore and Houston stand out as recent examples of races that disappeared off of the schedule about as quickly as they showed up. There were also some duds back in the nineties, such as another version of Houston, as well as Denver.

None, however, can match the ineptitude of the Meadowlands Grand Prix. Like the Music City Grand Prix, the Meadowlands course was based around a sports arena – the home of the then-New Jersey Nets, while Giants Stadium loomed in the background. The Music City Grand Prix will race right next to Nissan Stadium; home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Hopefully, that’s where the similarities stop.

I have been watching this sport for a lot of years, several decades in fact. I have seen some bad courses and track layouts in that time, but I’ve never seen a worse venue for a combination of bad racing and a lack of fan interest as the Meadowlands Grand Prix.

This event (which is a very generous use of that term) lasted from 1984 to 1991. As you can imagine with any major sporting event in the New York area, there was a lot of anticipation for the event. Aside from the Indianapolis 500, it was the most highly anticipated event on the 1984 CART schedule. Rain hampered the first event as Mario Andretti led all 100 laps to win.

Complaints from drivers and fans about the tight 1.682 mile course prompted organizers to make a radical change in the course in 1988 – halfway though the eight-year run. The result was an even shorter circuit that measured only 1.217 miles. It was what they referred to as an altered oval. It was no oval. It was a boring layout with a sweeping turn, an almost hairpin turn and a couple of right-handers. It was practically unwatchable on television. I can’t imagine how unbearable it was to be sitting in the stands.

The changes in the course layout did not help. Fan apathy continued to increase, both at the gate and on television and the Grand Prix continued to hemorrhage red ink . After the 1991 race, event organizers decided the race needed to be moved to Manhattan near the World Trade Center for the following year. Red tape and bureaucracy eventually caused the 1992 race to be postponed to 1993. As most fans suspected at the time, the 1993 race was cancelled and the Meadowlands Grand Prix was mercifully put out of its misery.

Am I saying that the same thing will happen three decades later in Nashville? Absolutely not. The Meadowlands Grand Prix was counting on race fans in the tri-state area to come out and support open-wheel racing. The result was the same a quarter century later, when Pocono counted on the same fan base to come out and support open-wheel racing. They didn’t come.

Since I (thankfully) never attended the Meadowlands Grand Prix, I can’t say for certain – but I don’t think the event ever gave fans in the area much of a reason to come to the New Jersey Meadowlands, other than to see some boring racing. I’ve never personally been a big proponent of ancillary entertainment at a race, but I’m a die-hard and I know I’m in the vast minority.

I think the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix is going to be a phenomenal five-day event. I say five days, because events directly connected to the Grand Prix start on Wednesday, including Josef Newgarden’s Celebrity Ping-Pong Challenge. Thursday night, Lower Broadway will be closed to traffic, so that Indy cars can be run in the center of downtown Nashville for all of the tourists to witness. Practice starts on Friday, along with the impressive concert list that will be playing almost constantly Friday, Saturday and Sunday on two different stages.

As great an event I suspect this will be, I am still a little skeptical on how god a race this will be. I think the aerial shots of cars crossing the Cumberland River will look spectacular on television. The two long straightaways may provide excellent passing opportunities and provide the type of racing we are all hoping for. But we really won’t know until the green flag drops after 4:30 pm CDT.

No matter how good, or mediocre the racing may be, I still say this will be a great event. What they do in the follow-up years will be crucial. I suspect there will be several tweaks from Year One to Year Two, but I imagine the formula for the race weekend will be the same.

I have included the full-race video from the final Meadowlands Grand Prix in 1991, won by Bobby Rahal.

As boring of a race that it was (I remember watching it live), it might be fun to watch it over the next week and compare it to what we see in Nashville next week. It is my hope that those in charge of the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix have studied the Meadowlands Grand Prix, along with Baltimore and Houston and a few others as examples of what not to do. The Meadowlands, in particular, could serve as an example of a cautionary tale for street races.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “A Cautionary Tale for Street Races”

  1. Yep, we’re looking forward to this one and will be searching tips for our visit for the race next year.

  2. They are already a step ahead of Boston. I hope for a successful event as well. I have learned a lot about Nashville in my unexpected visit here and I like it.

  3. You know George, for someone who says they love IndyCar as much as you do you sure do have a way of dredging up old crap that has nothing to do with today to complain about. Why dump all over the Meadowlands (or anything else from “the old days,” for that matter) for paragraph after paragraph when it means exactly NOTHING today? Who gives a crap about the Meadowlands? In our house back then we didn’t have time to watch garbage, so we didn’t. We knew that race was going to be crap, it was on a boring temporary street course, of course it was gonna be crap! So we didn’t watch it, and it doesn’t rent space in our brains! And then you post an entire boring Meadowlands race and even tell us in advance it’s a boring piece of crap! I want some of what you’re smoking, man! Ya gotta let it go, brutha!

    I know, I know, ya have-ta write about something, eh?

    You should’ve taken the week off….


  4. The Tijuana Lap Counter Says:

    I am pretty excited about this race, too, because I love Nashville and it will allow me the opportunity to spend time with some friends I haven’t seen in a while and enjoy some great restaurants like Sperry’s, Arnold’s and Miss Saigon.

    By the way, what is up with Phil Kaiser? Did he not get tickets?

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I hope the event does well and that the racing is good. I especially hope for good weather to help the race make a good first impression on the local crowd. Certainly, seeing car’s racing up and down the bridge will be quite the visual.

    I still contend that the Houston race would have been fine had Indycar not pushed its date into June. I won’t defend the track or racing as being great, but the event was well-run and probably would have continued for some time had it been able to remain in the fall, where it was well-attended.

  6. I lived 3 minutes from the area where the Meadowlands races were run, and I attended the first 4 until I went away to college. As a teenager being there was fun. My father and I were huge IndyCar fans and to be able to actually attend a race was amazing. Even my friends who weren’t fans had fun. I honestly don’t even remember how good or bad the racing was. We were just in awe to be in the presence of the amazing drivers and super cool and fast cars.

  7. As we all know, politics will play a huge role in the ultimate success of this or any street race. It is vital to keep the local government supportive and not let special interest groups grab the headlines. Boston had a chance to be really good, but never got the chance because of all the pushback. I’m really hoping this is a great show and brings a lot of benefit to Nashville and the surrounding areas, much more so than the inevitable complains that will come from some. I think this has a real chance to join Long Beach, St. Petersburg and Detroit as long term stops on the calendar, but only if promoters, sponsors and fans can keep the positives in the forefront. Good luck Nashville!!

  8. Good luck Nashville and thanks for showing the Meadowlands GP as interesting to those who were unaware.

  9. Yannick Says:

    It’s great that the Nashville race is so well-received by potential ticket buyers at this point, and by the locals in general.

    The jury is still out on how good the track layout actually turns out to be. Looking at it from the layout only, it reminds me of the better sections of the Vancouver layout, which is promising.

    I find the 1988-91 Meadowlands Grand Prix layout to be kind of interesting in a Caesar’s Palace kind of way in that it seems simple but you have to get your setup right for every corner because every corner comes up very often during a full race distance. Yet, there is probably so much you can do in downtown New York City that expecting a huge crowd is a bit much.

    I feel the same regarding to the Houston Reliant Park layout as you do about Belle Isle (which I enjoy). And that has been the case even before the driving career of Dario Franchitti ended there. So the less said the better.

    Yet, I fondly do remember the showcases in great driving that Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay have staged at Baltimore. That was quite a lot of fun to watch, even in spite of the rail tracks, and I feel the series hasn’t had any venue remotely like it since, which it should. It’s not coming back, though.

    The same goes for the Sao Paulo Sambodrome circuit in Brazil which I also fondly remember for great performances by Takuma Sato and James Hinchcliffe mostly. That back straightaway was something else. At first, though, I was very critical of this venue because I really wanted to see IndyCar take a shot at Interlagos.

    And Surfers Paradise was a classic, mainly because of the way drivers attacked the many, many kerbs. Will IndyCar ever go back to Australia? It might one day, but now, there isn’t any suitable venue,. They would need to run it in April, I guess.

    And what about another race in Canada?

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