Will Another New Oval Ever Be Built?

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Race fans always enjoy bench racing. For the uninitiated, bench racing is just a nice term for spontaneous racing discussions and stories between two or more friends. Pilots use the term hangar flying to refer to the same thing – swapping stories about aviation and airplanes.

This past Saturday morning, I was doing some digital bench racing – a long back and forth text session with my good friend Paul Dalbey, of Fieldof33.com. We were discussing the Baby Blue Crown Special, which was driven to third place in the 1949 Indianapolis 500 (there’s a nugget for you). These are the kind of discussions that obsessed IndyCar fans have on an off-weekend, before F1 Qualifying gets underway.

As bench racing sometimes goes, we got way off on a few tangents and went down a couple of rabbit holes. We discussed Milwaukee and Trenton, before they were both paved in the 1950s. I then mentioned that I would really like it if someone were to construct an oval that had the right-handed dogleg of Trenton Speedway – a 20° dogleg added in 1968, which extended the track distance from a mile to a mile and a half. Trenton closed in 1980 and was later demolished. A UPS shipping facility now sits on the site of the track.

Soon after I made that statement, I realized there was no such luck. Oval construction has come to an abrupt standstill. That’s a far cry from not that long ago.

Beginning in 1990, there was an oval track boom in the US. From 1990 through 2001, there were no less than thirteen oval tracks that opened in the US that were all used by either CART, the IRL or both. That doesn’t count Japan’s Twin Ring Motegi, nor does it take into account the makeshift ovals CART created overseas – like Rio, Rockingham and the Lausitzring. I’m just talking about the thirteen US ovals that opened in a twelve-year stretch.

It all started with New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which opened in 1990. CART first raced the one-mile oval in 1992, with Bobby Rahal winning the inaugural event on his way to the championship. After Nigel Mansell, Al Unser, Jr. and André Ribeiro won the next four races, New Hampshire flipped to the fledgling Indy Racing League for their inaugural season in 1996. Scott Sharp, Robbie Buhl and Tony Stewart won the three races through 1998, before New Hampshire dropped off of the schedule. It reappeared one more time – the infamous rained-shortened race in 2011, which is more famous for Will Power’s double-birds than for who was declared the winner (Ryan Hunter-Reay). IndyCar has not even sniffed an opportunity to return to New Hampshire since. New Hampshire once had two NASCAR Cup dates per year, but that has been whittled down to one.

It was five years before another oval opened its gates for the first time. Homestead-Miami Speedway was built as a result of the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In 1995, Homestead was opened as a smaller version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was a 1.5-mile oval that featured four rectangular and relatively flat corners. While that sounded good to IndyCar fans, the track did not produce good racing. After the 1997 race, the track was changed to more of a paperclip layout in resembling New Hampshire and Milwaukee. By 2001, Homestead had made the switch from CART to the IRL schedule. In 2003, the banking was increased significantly and the track barely resembled the facility that opened in 1995.

After years of being either the season-opener or the second race of the season, in 2009 – Homestead was moved to become the IndyCar season-finale. After the 2010 season, Homestead was off of the IndyCar schedule. By this time, Homestead was an ISC track. Need I say more?

1996 saw three new tracks come on line – Walt Disney World Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Gateway, although the oval at Gateway was built on property that had held races for twenty years. The Indy Racing League was launched at Walt Disney World on a new track that resembled a very short Pocono or Nazareth. The one-mile oval kicked off the IRL season for five straight years. The last race was a couple of weeks run after Sam Schmidt had his terrible accident in 2000, but the series never went back after that. The track closed permanently in 2015. The stands are gone and only part of the original track remained a few years ago.

Gateway opened as a CART race run the day before the Indianapolis 500 in 1997, and served as their Memorial Day weekend equivalent, but running on Saturday. In 2000, the race was moved to the fall and by 2001, it was gone from the CART schedule, but joined the IRL that same season. After the 2003 season, the race was dropped from the IndyCar schedule as well, due to poor attendance. It wasn’t until 2017 that Gateway reappeared on the IndyCar schedule as a night race in August. It is now the best-attended oval outside of Indianapolis.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway came on board in September of 1996 as an IRL track, however due to the ridiculous combining of the two calendar years to make up the 1997 season, the September 1996 race counted toward the 1997 IRL championship. Thank goodness this idea was abandoned after just one season. Richie Hearn won that first race for John Della Penna. Before they jumped over to CART in 1997 in 1998, Bruton Smith’s SMI bought the track, and by 2001, Las Vegas was off of the IRL schedule. Las Vegas did return to the Champ Car schedule in 2004 and 2005, before falling off in 2006. It did not return to the IndyCar schedule until the ill-fated race that was intended to be the 2011 season-finale. When Dan Wheldon was fatally injured on Lap 11, the race was halted, did not resume and was officially cancelled. More than a decade later, I think feelings are still way too strong for Las Vegas to ever be considered to return to the schedule anytime soon.

1997 saw three more tracks join the fray – Texas Motor Speedway, Pikes Peak International Raceway and California Speedway (Fontana). Texas Motor Speedway opened in 1996 and held its first IndyCar race in 1997, featuring the famous skirmish between AJ Foyt and Arie Luyendyk after the race. In 1998, a second Texas race was added to the IndyCar schedule. The races were fast and exciting. In 2001, CART decided they would get in on the action, but their faster cars produced such a high g-load on the drivers. Almost all drivers were experiencing vertigo and at least one blacked out and crashed. The race was cancelled.

In the early 2000s, Texas produced the second-largest crowd on the IndyCar schedule. When it was announced that Texas would get a second NASCAR Cup date, the fall IndyCar race was dropped after the 2004 season. For a variety of reasons that are too involved to go into here, the attendance at Texas has dwindled over the past fifteen or so years. Last weekend saw IndyCar put on a very good show in front of almost empty stands. The future of of IndyCar at Texas is iffy, at best. Personally, I hope it continues.

Pikes Peak International Raceway (PPIR) had a nostalgic name if you followed the Unser family in their many conquests in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. PPIR was located in Fountain, Colorado and billed itself as the Fastest 1-Mile Oval Anywhere. Tony Stewart won the first IRL race at Pikes Peak. By 1999, the racing at Pikes Peak had become so popular – a second race was added, but by 2000 it was back to one. Dan Wheldon won the last IndyCar race at PPIR in 2005. In October of 2005, ISC bought PPIR and immediately suspended racing operations. ISC sold PPIR in 2007, and racing resumed in 2008. It is my understanding that terms of the sale prevent anything above USAC and SCCA from being raced there. My memory is fuzzy and I’m probably butchering facts about this, but I’ve heard that most of the stands were taken down years ago.

Fontana was built by Roger Penske as a near-clone to his Michigan International Speedway, except Michigan had steeper banking. It opened up as the 1997 CART season-finale, with Mark Blundell winning for PacWest. Two years later, Greg Moore was fatally injured in a terrifying crash. Sometime in the early 2000s, Roger Penske sold his tracks to ISC, which is now NASCAR. Fontana continued on the CART schedule through the 2003 season. 2003 also saw Fontana on the IndyCar schedule, as well. Fontana remained on the IndyCar schedule for three seasons, but was gone by the 2006 season. It did not reappear until 2012. 2015 was the last IndyCar race at Fontana. There is talk of reconfiguring what is now know as Auto Club Speedway, but nothing has been done yet.

1999 saw one new oval track enter the scene – Chicago Motor Speedway, which was the brainchild of Chip Ganassi. It was built on the site of a former horse track in Cicero, Illinois. Massive grandstands were built in anticipation that this would be a popular destination for race fans, being in such a large market. CART Races were held at Chicago from 1999 through 2002. In 2003, the track was sold to the town of Cicero and the large grandstands that head been built just a few years before, were demolished. The track itself was demolished in 2009, and a Walmart now sits on part of the site.

Kentucky Speedway opened in 2000, and hosted its first IRL race just two months later. The 1.5-mile D-shaped oval was a favorite among IndyCar drivers and fans. It was close to Indianapolis and provided some outstanding racing. SMI bought the track in 2008 in hopes that they could secure a NASCAR Cup date. That NASCAR date became a reality in July of 2011. Coincidence or not, Kentucky hosted its last IndyCar race in October of 2011. Karma can be cruel, because in September of 2020, NASCAR announced that Kentucky would not be on the 2021 NASCAR schedule. The track has been shuttered, and racing operations have ceased.

The final three tracks in the US oval boom, opened in 2001. Kansas Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway and Chicagoland Speedway all opened their gates in 2001, immediately welcoming the IRL that same season. Kansas Speedway was built on the Kansas side of Kansas City. It was your typical 1.5-mile oval, much like Las Vegas and Kentucky. Early on, IndyCar put on some good shows at Kansas. But the racing became a little less exciting and the attendance plummeted. IndyCar ran its last race at Kansas on Saturday May 1, 2010 on a cold and cloudy day in front of mostly empty stands. There has been no mention of a possible return anytime soon.

Nashville Superspeedway was built as a 1.33-mile oval; similar in looks to Kentucky, only smaller. For whatever reason, they made the surface concrete – which was horrible on tires and made the surface very rough and bumpy. It was a narrow one and a half groove track that made passing difficult. Most IndyCar races there were processional. IndyCar ran the Firestone 200 at Nashville Superspeedway from 2001 through 2008, in front of mostly full grandstands.

Track management failed to comprehend that IndyCar would not return if the sanctioning fee could not be brought up in line with other tracks. When the track did not meet IndyCar’s demands, the track was dropped from the schedule following the 2008 race. In 2011, the track was shut down. The site was almost turned into a warehouse complex, but those plans fell through on numerous occasions. In 2020, it was announced that NASCAR would stage a Cup race at the track in June of 2021. In December of 2021, SMI bought the track. There are no plans for IndyCar to return to the track, since the Music City Grand Prix now runs in downtown Nashville.

Chicagoland Speedway was yet another 1.5 mile D-shaped oval that opened up in Joliet, Illinois in 2001. Again, IndyCar staged a race there soon after it opened. From 2001 through 2010, IndyCar staged some very exciting races with close finishes – many times as the season-finale. But track owner, ISC, chose to not renew IndyCar’s contract beyond 2010. Like Kentucky, Chicagoland lost their Cup date after the 2020 Cup dates were cancelled due to COVID. The track closed in late 2020 and the staff was laid off. Just last week, we learned that the land has been sold off and a large warehouse complex is being developed right where the track is.

That’s thirteen tracks in twelve years. Iowa Speedway came along five years later and hosted an IndyCar race in 2007, but I am not counting Iowa since five years had elapsed since the oval boom from 1990 to 2001.

CART and/or IndyCar raced at every one of these thirteen tracks. The only two that still host open-wheel races are Gateway and Texas, and Texas seems to be somewhat tenuous at the moment.

Five of the thirteen have been closed. Some of those have been or will soon be demolished. Nashville would have been six, if it weren’t for its revival last year.

Obviously, there was way too much growth among oval tracks too quickly in the nineties. Iowa is the last new oval track, and it opened over fifteen years ago. NASCAR came along and bought Iowa Speedway a few years after it opened. They tried to shut it down a couple of years ago (see a pattern here?), but IndyCar has rented the track for a double-header this July. Will another oval track ever be built again? My first instinct is to say No, but common sense tells you to never say never.

But I cannot imagine anyone building a new oval track for NASCAR or IndyCar in the next ten to fifteen years. Attendance is dwindling at ovals, and even NASCAR is pursuing and adding more road courses every season.

It’s a shame, because ovals are still my favorite type of racing. I appreciate road and street courses, and I enjoy going to them. But given the choice, I’d prefer a good oval track every time.

But I’m no longer the norm. I don’t fit into the demographic that racing series are going after. They don’t base their business decisions on what a guy in his mid-sixties wants, and they shouldn’t. I don’t represent the future of IndyCar, but I’d at least like to think I represent the present.

I think one thing that hurt oval tracks was that almost all of the ones built during that big boom, were just alike – 1.5-mile D-shaped or tri-ovals. None of them were unique or had their own personality. Homestead originally tried to be different, but had to reconfigure the track twice. Nashville went with a unique surface, but no one liked it. It’s safe to say that the cookie-cutters of the nineties produced some boring homogenous tracks that failed to maintain excitement shortly after they opened.

It’s a shame we’ll never see something unique and different like Trenton’s right-handed dogleg. Then again, that track barely made it out of the seventies. Then and now; no one has really figured out how to make most ovals work, over the long haul. Still, I’d like to see someone build a new and different oval, while I’m still around to see it.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Will Another New Oval Ever Be Built?”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    I’d be shocked if we ever see another race track building boom of any type, but I expect we will see a new oval built some time in the next 2 decades. I would expect any new oval built in the foreseeable future to be 1 mile or less in length, though.

    The proliferation of 1.5 mile “cookie cutter” tracks was an interesting phenomenon, one that I expect was driven by the corporatization of American racing (which was simply following the trends of other pro sports, all of which also had stadium building booms at the same time). 1.5 mile tracks allow both NASCAR and Indycar to reach around the top speeds that they are capable of safely running (you can advertise 200 MPH racing!), the tri-oval front straight allows grandstands (and, more importantly, the suites) to be angled to have good sightlines over most of the track, and the intermediate size of the track means that nearly every seat can see the entire track and tell what is going on even on the back straightaway. These tracks succeeded spectacularly in making going to a race more like going to a pro football game. It was great business for a while, yes, but racing isn’t quite the same as other pro sports and that for many racing fans this type of race experience is struggling to find its appeal.

    • Alan Stewart Says:

      I completely agree with your post. I equate the cookie-cutter track explosion with a similar explosion of cookie-cutter baseball stadiums from the 70s (Fulton Co. Stadium, Riverfront, Three Rivers, Veterans Stadium, etc.). At the time they made perfect sense but hindsight would prove that they were uninteresting overall.

  2. The only project I had heard of recently was the proposed “Canadian Motor Speedway” in Fort Erie, ON (close to Buffalo NY). They claimed they had the funding for a Rusty Wallace designed 0.875 mile oval, similar to Iowa, but it was caught in regulatory hell with the local authorities and never happened

  3. I don’t think we’ll see any new purpose-built ovals any time soon if ever again. Question though….and I realize this may sound really stupid so forgive me, couldn’t someone design a temporary street oval? I realize you’d likely need an airport space to do something like that, but could that be feasible?

  4. i agree.
    real estate is too valuable now.
    new ovals, like old drive-in moves are done.

  5. I would be surprised if they build any more ovals or road course facilities anytime soon. I think the current model for Indycar leans toward street races. Those are going to increase. That doesn’t necessarily negate rehabilitation of current available facilities and that remains a possibility. But NASCAR has been a huge detriment to many of these oval tracks, and in multiple ways, that has affected IndyCar. Well, NASCAR has also been a huge detriment to itself in recent years.

    I can’t help but notice, whether its racing, football, baseball, etc., that the cure to many of their ills lies in their pasts. If these organizations would go back in some ways to what made them what they were, they may be surprised how much they can bounce back.

    For many of these organizations, change has been bad!

  6. Britindycarfan26 Says:

    My two cents (pence) worth George …… one off the two colleagues I went to during my teenage years in the late 90s was Brooklands in weybridge in Surrey just outside Greater London … which was a stone’s throw away from one off the train stations that are either side off the world famous Brooklands racetrack … the railway tracks between both stations ( weybridge and byfleet?) that goes parallel to the remains off motor sports original oval track longest straight … while the opposite straight … have a right hand dogleg! Look it up on goggle earth if you don’t believe me! Also if you didn’t take the right turn you went forwards into the pit lane! …Brooklands was if I’m not mistaken the inspiration for the building off Indy if I’m not mistaken … just a same England/Europe wasn’t that into oval racing …and a bit was knocked down and a supermarket stands there today plus a few houses … while I unfortunately agree with those above that no new ovals or even road courses are going to be built for a long time and can only see more street tracks ( my least favourite) …… if I could send some plans to mr roger Penske … I would 100% send him the plans/dimensions off the one great 90s oval you forgot to mention? …… the Rio trapezoid oval! Half oval half superspeedway …… with gear changes and breaking ! It was a thing off beauty! Obviously in was built on the old 80s Rio f1 road course and no longer exactly existing anymore as it got knocked down to build something for the Rio Olympics … but if they is going to be a new oval built in the us I would simply copy the Rio trapezoid oval with the exact same dimensions/ distances but with some extra deep tire barriers and safer walls on the outside …… how mark blundell is still alive and walking around today after hitting the concrete wall at the end off one off the long straights after a break failure is beyond me!

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