Remembering IndyCar Spring Training

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Another sign that the NTT IndyCar Series season-opener is just around the corner, took place Monday and Tuesday of this week – testing from Sebring International Raceway. Following along on social media, we got to see new liveries and who was making a good showing on the speed chart.

As recently as 2019, they used to call the big open test before the start of the season Spring Training. I’m not sure what the difference is between what transpired at Sebring this week and what used to be called Spring Training, except that Sebring this week was technically a closed test.

I remember when Spring Training first started under that name. It was 2009, and there were two sessions – an oval session in February at Homestead, followed by a road course session at Barber Motorsports Park in March. Homestead was the season-finale that year, and Barber was not even on the schedule yet.

To be honest, in 2009 I was unaware that Barber Motorsports Park even existed. When I learned that the series would be doing their road course portion there, I had to turn on my Wikipedia machine to learn all about it. What I learned was that it was built to be a track for motorcycles and race fans were chirping about it, saying it was way too tight for Indy cars.

Regardless, IndyCar was going to be staging an open test that would also be open to the public – only three hours from my house, and I wanted to go. I was still about six or seven weeks away from starting this site. The IndyCar race at Nashville Superspeedway had run its last race the season before, so we had only one IndyCar race in our 2009 plans – the Indianapolis 500. When I found out that IndyCar was staging a session of Spring Training in Birmingham, I did not need a whole lot of convincing to go.

Believe it or not, the 2009 season did get underway until early April on the streets of St. Petersburg. That left the month of March wide open. I remember that March Madness was going on, but on Sunday March 22, Susan and I loaded some lawn chairs and a cooler into the trunk and headed south.

It was a typical March day in the south. It was cloudy and breezy, but warm. I remember being comfortable wearing shorts. We arrived at what was a very pristine Barber Motorsports Park. By the time we followed the winding road inside the main gate, I was already aware of how nicely wooded the area was. Even the tall pines seemed orderly and manicured. It was almost like driving through a National Park. Finally, we were able to see something different than the natural setting. There was a large glass building directly in front of us after we crested the hill. I would later learn that this was the famous Barber Museum.

What we also found after topping the hill was that there was a line – a long line. Apparently, we were not the only ones with the bright idea to attend an IndyCar test. The line moved relatively quickly. They were not collecting tickets – only money. I think they were only charging $5.00 apiece to get into the park. That sounded reasonable to me, to get a full day of both of us watching race cars for only $10.00. Seeing as how I was the one that initiated this trip, I ponied up for Susan also.

There were no concession stands, no trams and no PA announcer. Fans were free to roam wherever they wanted – and that included the IndyCar paddock. We had no idea where to go, so we just followed the crowd. Many seemed to be parking near what is the Fan Zone on the backstretch. We followed the throngs into the woods to a spot where you suddenly see the expansive track right in front of you.

It was probably 10:00 am and the cars had already been running for an hour. It was no surprise that we could hear the cars before we could see them, but what struck me was the way we could hear the tires screeching as the cars went through the turns. I had been to oval tracks, but this was my first road course. I don’t ever recall hearing tires screech through turns on an oval, but it was very noticeable in the woods overlooking Barber.

We returned to our car to explore some more. The drive that encircles the track can offer tantalizing glimpses of cars through the woods, before a grand view breaks out past Turn Twelve and continues through the Turns Thirteen and Fourteen complex. That day, we were able to pull our car right up to the track to catch a good view of the cars dealing with the elevation changes after Turn Twelve. That spot is normally reserved for disabled spectators on race weekends, but it was open for all that weekend.

After sitting there for a while, we parked the car up the hill from Turn Fourteen. We grabbed our lawn chairs and our cooler and headed to the embankment that wraps around the entire area outside the carosel. That is where I took what turns out to be a fairly rare photo – Will Power driving a car with the familiar Marlboro chevrons.

Will Power2

If you’ll recall, Helio Castroneves was going through his tax evasion trial in Miami at this time. His availability for the foreseeable future was uncertain, at best. Will Power’s KV Racing Technology team had gone another direction after his Aussie Vineyards sponsorship had gone away. He was surprisingly available, so The Captain signed Power in case Castroneves was unable to drive.

As it turns out, Castroneves only missed the season-opener at St. Petersburg in 2009. He was acquitted of all charges the Friday of the Long Beach weekend and immediately flew west and was in Long Beach by Friday night. Team Penske was typically prepared for such an occurrence, and brought a black and red car carrying No. 12 and Verizon sponsorship – just in case it was needed. It was. Thus was born the No. 12 and the Verizon sponsorship that is still on Power’s car thirteen seasons later.

The teams broke for lunch and fans were allowed to mingle through the garage area, catching glimpses of the teams and drivers eating. Fans were not allowed in the pits, but to have this type of unfettered access all-day for only five bucks each was an IndyCar fan’s fantasy.

We continued moving around the park in our car that afternoon, taking in all of the different vantage points that a road course has to offer. By the time the cars finished running around 5:00 pm, it had been a full day. I was tired, but happy. Susan was…well, just tired. Actually, I think she enjoyed it about as much as I did. It offered such a unique setting, so different than what she had seen at IMS and Nashville Superspeedway. Even then, the track was well-manicured and it felt we were anywhere but a race track.

It was such a low-key day. There were no expectations, other than getting to see race cars on track for several hours. Other than the $5.00 we paid at the gate, we spent no money except for gas and food outside the track. I missed March Madness for a day, but I gladly gave that up for what we experienced that particular day.

Fast-forward to the current offseason. There has been no dedicated Spring Training. There have been some private tests, but nothing that gathered all teams and drivers to one track at the same time. Spring Training has been held at various tracks, most recently at Phoenix and COTA. Both provided all day coverage for fans to watch, either Phoenix streaming on You Tube or COTA on NBC Sports Gold. Fans were also encouraged to attend in person.

This week’s test was technically a private test, but as many as seventeen drivers, including Kevin Magnussen, were on track on Monday and fourteen yesterday. Only rookie drivers Tatiana Calderón, Kyle Kirkwood, David Malukas and Calum Ilott ran both days.

I have a couple of friends who were at Sebring this week. One works for the series and one was there strictly as a fan. The fan did not speak in glowing terms about the two-day test at Sebring. He said in years past, you could pretty much go along the inside of the front-stretch or from viewing mounds inside the track. He said Sebring is never ideal for real fan viewing for tests. Apparently its just not set up for that. I don’t know. I’ve never been to Sebring and will probably never go there. But I know he made a special trip there from his home in Florida and he sounded disappointed.

This begs the question – Will IndyCar ever host a fan-friendly Spring Training again, similar to what they did in 2019 at COTA, complete with streaming video? In all honesty, I can’t remember if there was any type of Spring Training in 2020, before COVID came along and put everything on hold. But I’m almost positive there was no type of Spring Training before the 2021 season, with COVID still making any long-range planning impossible.

My hope is that by 2023, COVID will be a bad memory and the NTT IndyCar Series can plan a fan-friendly Spring Training at a site that is or is not on the IndyCar schedule. When I look back on that day at Barber in 2009, it was such a fun day. Plus, it involved a lot of racing fans – possibly fans who had never seen Indy cars on track in person before. They may not have been willing to buy a Race Day ticket for $45.00, not knowing what to expect – but they didn’t mind spending $5.00 for the day. Once they liked what they saw, I feel certain that many fans that came out on that Sunday afternoon were excited to but a ticket to the inaugural race one year later.

I also think of the access we had that day. There were no barriers, no guards – the only place that was off-limits to us was the pits. No one really seemed to care. I’m sure many of them had never seen an Indy car up close. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

Birmingham is centrally located to Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis and even New Orleans. I don’t think we were the only ones that drove a couple of hours to watch cars on-track at Barber that day. I’m not saying Spring Training has to be at Barber, but I think holding it at COTA, Road Atlanta or any potentially warm-weather climate near a lot of large metropolitan areas could bring massive benefits to the series, and not just the teams that learn something at these tracks. The fans could benefit as well – they would get a day at an uncrowded race track for practically nothing.

So count me as one fan who is disappointed that there has not been a Spring Training for a few years. I know that COVID made it difficult, but if COVID restrictions continue to disappear as they have been recently – my hope is that the powers-that-be will devise a plan to hold a fan-friendly 2023 Spring Training somewhere on a weekend, with streaming video. It will be a good way to bring in new fans and energize the current fan base just before the start of the season. It would be a win-win for all concerned.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Remembering IndyCar Spring Training”

  1. It was fun to read this George. My first experience with Barber was 2013 I think we had gotten free tickets through some friends that weren’t going to use them (which makes absolutely no sense) and a place to stay outside of Birmingham. I had recently moved to Louisville, KY at that time before my first son was born in 2012. About the same time I stumbled across Oilpressure. I just cant remember exactly how I found it. I have been a reader ever since. When I heard of these tests taking place in Birmingham I was in. My experience was the same as yours and it was well worth the drive. I will always remember my first impression of Barber. My first sight was on a foggy Saturday morning at the carousel and then up hill to turn 3. It was a warm morning and it was magical. Your description of your first impressions were great. That was one of the best race weekends I can remember.

    I agree about spring training being a necessary event. IndyCar and fans would greatly benefit and it really helps generate excitement and by this time of the year, fans are more than ready for something to do and spring training offers a perfect solution. My question is should it be at the same track every year or move around to different southern locations.

  2. I think it should have a two hour slot each day on tv with driver interviews, times and general chit chat about the new season. Create excitement. David Land is the closest we can get

  3. billytheskink Says:

    There was Spring Training in 2020, it was at COTA in mid-February. While it was highly anticipated because it was the first large test of the aeroscreen, both attendance and laps turned were well down from the previous year due to bad weather.

    Barber is a lovely track and a great place to have an official Spring Training. Hopefully they do bring it back next year.

  4. I agree with you 100%! There should be a spring training and there should be more test days in general. Also there should be more practice time at the different road and street circuits.

  5. I remember the joy of attending a testing day at Fontana back in 2013. I took one of my student assistants and we had a fantastic time. I received an invitation (not sure how or why I was gifted this wonderful opportunity) to attend a driver Q and A after the session. One of my first up close and personal interactions with drivers that I will never forget. So, yes there needs to be more IC testing days with public access.

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