Jumping in Bed With the Devil

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Yesterday morning, Adam Stern of the Sports Business Journal confirmed what we have been hearing for a couple of weeks. World Wide Technology Raceway (WWTR – formerly known as Gateway) will host a NASCAR Cup Race in 2022, on June 5.

If history is any indication, this is not great news for the NTT IndyCar Series.

Over the last couple of decades, there are several examples where IndyCar has been the premier event at a track, only to have NASCAR come in a few years later. Suddenly, IndyCar is not as important to the track. They either get shoved to an undesirable date, or they lose their track date altogether.

In fact, there is a perfect example going all the way back to the nineties. CART began racing at New Hampshire in 1992, with Bobby Rahal the inaugural winner. In June of 1993, NASCAR began racing there with one race. The two series co-existed for a few years. But in 1996, a second Cup race was added in September. That was the same year that CART left the track and the IRL took over the open-wheel date. After the 1998 IRL race, they were not invited back.

Beginning in 1997, IndyCar began racing at the brand-new Texas Motor Speedway. IndyCar had a summer race and a fall race, while NASAR Cup had a single date in April. IndyCar drew a good crowd for both races at Texas and it was becoming a popular second home, away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In 2004, it was announced that NASCAR was adding a second Cup race to be run in November of 2005. Curiously enough, 2004 proved to be the last year for IndyCar’s second date at Texas. Imagine that! Now that Eddie Gossage is stepping down at Texas, many IndyCar fans question how much longer Texas will be on the IndyCar schedule at all.

When Kansas Speedway opened in 2001, IndyCar was the first major racing body to stage a race there in July of that year. NASCAR Cup began racing at Kansas that September. For several years, the two series coexisted at Kansas. Suddenly, Kansas announced a second NASCAR date for the 2011 season. I’m sure it was total coincidence that IndyCar was suddenly off of the Kansas schedule for that same year, after ten years.

Kentucky Speedway was a popular stop on the IndyCar schedule, beginning in 2000 – the same year the track opened. For twelve years, IndyCar raced both day and night at the track just across the river from Cincinnati. Like many other venues, IndyCar helped to put Kentucky Speedway on the map.

In August 2010, it was announced that Kentucky Speedway would be adding a NASCAR Cup race in 2011. It was a logistical nightmare, as cars were backed up on the interstate for miles before the race. It was estimated that as many as 20,000 race fans did not get to see the race, costing the track credits to the 2012 race. I suppose track officials considered this a sign of how popular the race would be, because IndyCar was dropped off of Kentucky Speedway’s schedule after the 2011 race. Karma did intervene this time, as Kentucky lost their NASCAR race after the 2020 race.

Do you need more recent examples? The Circuit of the Americas (COTA), in Austin, Texas, finally hosted an IndyCar race in 2019, after hosting Formula One races since 2012. The NTT IndyCar Series was set to return in 2020, but the race was cancelled due to the pandemic. In September of 2020, it was announced that NASCAR Cup would race at COTA for the first time in 2021. Miraculously, that’s about the same time IndyCar fans learned that IndyCar would not be returning to COTA.

This year, NASCAR Cup ran its first race at another staple on the IndyCar schedule – Road America. For decades, IndyCar was considered the premier race at Road America. Then mysteriously, the beautiful track at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin fell off the IndyCar schedule, as a casualty of reunification in 2008. After much grumbling from many fans, Road America finally returned to the IndyCar schedule in 2016. It has quickly become a favorite destination for many IndyCar fans, including myself. I would like to think IndyCar’s place on the Road America schedule is secure, but who knows? NASCAR has a way of making IndyCar seem very unattractive to track owners.

So, now it has been confirmed that NASCAR is about to swoop in and dazzle track officials at World Wide Technology Raceway, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in Madison, Illinois. Since the oval opened in 1997, IndyCar (CART/IRL) has run as the main attraction at this venue, with a break between 2004 and 2016. While IndyCar and their fans embraced the track, NASCAR wouldn’t even give them a sniff – much like they acted toward other tracks like Kentucky. Suddenly, NASCAR is showing a lot of overdue love to the St. Louis area and the egg-shaped oval just across the river.

I think any tracks like COTA, Road America and Gateway should use what happened at Kentucky Speedway as a case study on what can happen when you get in bed with the devil (the devil, in this case, being NASCAR).

For more than a decade, IndyCar and Kentucky Speedway had a solid partnership. When NASCAR came calling, dangling their millions like a carrot – Kentucky Speedway couldn’t drop IndyCar off of their schedule fast enough. After the track shed themselves of IndyCar, they enjoyed a ten-year marriage with NASCAR.

Like a lot of marriages based on temptations and dreams, this marriage was doomed for failure. For 2021, Kentucky Speedway has been sitting silent. There appears to be no events scheduled for 2021 or beyond. A visit to the track’s website shows a message stating “Kentucky Speedway is not included on the 2021 NASCAR schedule, and we want to thank all of our race fans for their past support.” There is also a link on the site for Facility Rental/Event Inquiries.

It does not give me a good feeling to see that. There is one side of me that says it serves them right, but I don’t like seeing race tracks become ancient relics. I’ve never been to Kentucky Speedway, but I understand it is a first-class facility and it was a great track for IndyCar. Now it is sitting dormant. Will it eventually go the way of Nazareth Speedway and get overtaken by weeds, trees and wild animals; or will it eventually be brought back from the dead like Nashville Superspeedway was this past summer? Time will tell.

Track officials at World Wide Technology Raceway would be wise to study what happened at Kentucky, and go into this partnership with NASCAR with their eyes wide open. The NTT IndyCar Series has been good for WWTR, and the track has been good for IndyCar. Both the series and the track made themselves available to each other when no one else wanted them.

It has been a good partnership for the past five years. My hope is that WWTR officials will remember who helped give their venue the visibility it needed to make it attractive to NASCAR. Now that World Wide Technology Raceway has seemingly arrived, they don’t need to forget how they got there. If they do, IndyCar may be seeking another oval replacement in another year or two.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Jumping in Bed With the Devil”

  1. Completely agree with you George.

  2. Davis Brewer Says:

    Miss the polls at the end of your blogs .

  3. I have another one George. PPIR. I know you know the history on that one. I think you said you went and saw the track when you visited here once. Regular IRL stop on the schedule and well attended. NASCAR buys it and closes it, dismantles the grandstands leaving the center one at the start finish line and only use it for amateur events. Just like that IRL gone and about the same time Denver GP gone in Denver. There will never be another Denver GP.

    • IndyCar left PPIR long before Nascar bought it. It was owned by Lehman Brothers Investments. Although by a strange coincidence it was Nascar that informed PPIR officials that IndyCar would not be coming back.

      You are correct that there will never be another Denver GP.

      • from Wikipedia -the circuit is now closed to sanctioned professional auto racing due to the purchase of the track by PPIR LLC from NASCAR/ISC in 2008 after the track was put up for sale in 2006. The sale included a clause that prohibited sanctioned professional auto racing, as well as the need for additional safety upgrades at a cost of $1 million+ for professional racing series that the new ownership had no interest in implementing with the clause in place.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I cannot fault Gateway in the least for this, hosting a NASCAR Cup race is considerably more lucrative than hosting an Indycar race at this time and snagging a Cup race date was most likely why the track was built in the first place and surely a goal of its current ownership.

    I also vehemently disagree with the notion that Indycar built up Gateway while NASCAR ignored the facility, given that NASCAR held 17 Xfinity and Truck series races during the 16 year break Indycar took from the facility (that’s more total races than Indycar has yet held at the track). Before the success of Indycar at Gateway encouraged NASCAR to consider the track for a Cup date, the success of NASCAR’s Truck series, which returned to the track 3 years before Indycar, proved the facility’s and the new ownership’s viability to Indycar.

    I do share the concerns that this may not have a positive effect on the quite successful Indycar race and hope that promotion, crowds, and sponsorships remain strong. Some of that will be on Indycar to make its racing appealing to local fans in the face of NASCAR, but the track will of course also bear responsibility for keeping the event well-promoted.

  5. James T Suel Says:

    100% agree

  6. I agree that it’s always a little stressful as racetrack start treating Indycar like an unwanted stepchild after Nascar sets in

    I’m also terrified that the dreaded PJ1 compound or whatever is called could be put on surface ans ruin racing all together.

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