Tag:IZOD Indy Car Series
Posted on: October 18, 2011 2:57 pm
Edited on: October 18, 2011 5:57 pm

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

By Pete Pistone

Image Detail
(Jimmie Johnson's suggestion that all oval tracks come off the Indy Car schedule takes things too far.)

The sad part of Sunday’s horrific IZOD IndyCar Series accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is that it wasn’t the first time.

The shear volume of the 15-car crash that subsequently took the life of Dan Wheldon may have been the largest number of cars involved in one of these high speed melees, but unfortunately the series has a long history of spectacular accidents when racing at intermediate-sized ovals.

Jimmie Johnson for one has seen enough.

"I wouldn't run them on ovals," Johnson said. “Those cars are fantastic for street circuits and road courses.” 

While the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion's assessment might be a bit too drastic, he may at least have a point in terms of the mid-sized tracks that quite honestly were built for stock cars and not open-wheel racing. 

Since the birth of the Indy Racing League after the split from CART in the mid-1990s, IndyCar racing migrated to a schedule heavily weighted to high-banked oval tracks. From the outset it was clear the racing product was among the most sensational in all of motorsports featuring breath taking three and four wide competition as well as a string of photo finishes. 

But it also was one of the most dangerous forms of racing on the planet.

While Wheldon’s death was the first in the series since Paul Dana’s practice crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006, the violent wreck was the latest in a long line of accidents that have marred the sport’s legacy. 

Kenny Brack somehow survived one of the scariest moments in racing history when he became airborne at Texas Motor Speedway in a 2003 IRL race. Brack’s car literally disintegrated after flying into the track’s backstretch catch fence before coming to rest in a pile of smoldering parts and pieces. 

“I really don’t remember too much except that feeling of helplessness when the car went up in the air,” said Brack, who returned to the sport after recovering from his injuries before finally retiring. “Once a race car becomes airborne it’s really just in the hands of a higher being.” 

Current Penske Racing driver Ryan Briscoe shared a Brack-like moment at Chicagoland Speedway in 2005. 

Briscoe touched wheels with Alex Gurney as they raced through turns three and four at the 1.5-mile oval and his car was launched into the SAFER Barrier wall breaking into two and then catching fire.

Briscoe’s injuries included two broken collarbones, a bruised lung, concussion and cuts to his legs and arms. 

“I remember the initial contact with Alex and thought that we might just get away with not hitting the wall, but suddenly I was airborne and the rest is a little fuzzy," Briscoe said. 

By far the worst example of how dangerous racing open wheel cars on high banked oval tracks came in 1998 and 1999 when debris from on track crashes went into the grandstands and took the lives of spectators. 

Adrian Fernandez hit the wall in a July of 1998 CART race at Michigan International Speedway sending a tire and part of his car’s suspension into the stands killing three spectators. 

The following year an IRL crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway involving John Paul Sr., Stan Wattles and Scott Harrington sent debris over the front stretch catch fence and into stands also taking the lives of three spectators. 

But despite the tragedies and potentially dangerous situations, Indy cars continue to race on tracks like Las Vegas. 

However the time may have finally come to disband the idea altogether. 

I’m conflicted in even writing that line. Less than two weeks ago I proposed the league add more oval track races and pursue an alignment with additional NASCAR weekends to generate more exposure. The scintillating action at the race before Vegas in Kentucky was among the most thrilling I’ve seen in recent years. 

There is no arguing the IndyCar product on intermediate ovals is tremendous. Sadly we now realize too late the risk outweighs the reward.

Racecar drivers are a unique breed of people, somehow able to put tragedy in the rear view mirror and continue to go about their business.

“I’m ready to go to work,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said at Monday’s fuel injection test in Charlotte. “There are things we’ve got to accomplish today, and we’ll try to see what we can get done. … I drive race cars for a living. That’s what I’m here to do. 

“Racing is just a dangerous sport. It’s a dangerous thing to do. It can never be safe enough, but I like my chances.” 

But in some cases those chances might be able to be improved. The IndyCar Series now faces that decision. 

In reality that is the direction the series has been heading. Next year’s schedule, although not officially released, includes only five ovals with the Indianapolis 500 the cornerstone as well as stops in Fontana, Texas, Iowa and Las Vegas.

But completely eradicating ovals from the circuit is too much of a knee jerk reaction. The series can put on entertaining and competitive races at venues that don’t generate as much speed or danger like Las Vegas or similar mid-size tracks. 

Flat and shorter ovals like Milwaukee, New Hampshire, Gateway or Richmond -– all places the series has run many times –- provide great opportunities for close competition while maintaining a more solid oval presence on the schedule. 

But every one of those facilities have been taken off the schedule for one reason -– poor attendance. Despite a compelling product, oval track operators for the most part have not been able to make an IndyCar race profitable given the embarrassing fan turnout in most cases. 

I think IndyCar officials need to keep oval track racing at the core of the series. After all its biggest race -- in fact the biggest race in the world -- is held on the famed Brickyard oval every May.  

Maybe more promotional efforts and marketing support like what was poured into the Las Vegas event will help build the audience for races in Milwaukee or Gateway or New Hampshire.  But with money and the economy still dictating the sport's direction, the opportunity to focus more resources on those events most likely isn't there.

So like it or not, the IndyCar Series with its next generation race cars set to debut next season is more than likely headed down a path of having the Indy 500 anchor a schedule of grand prix racing, with road courses and street circuits comprising the bulk of the calendar. 

That may be a lot safer but whether or not it’s a success is going to be a major question.

For more NASCAR news, rumors and analysis, follow @ppistone on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. 

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Posted on: October 4, 2011 4:41 pm
Edited on: October 4, 2011 5:27 pm

Idle Thoughts: Pair up Indy Car and NASCAR

By Pete Pistone

  Ed Carpenter In His
(Exciting Indy Car racing like last week's finish at Kentucky Speedway is on the endangered list)

Sunday’s IZOD Indy Car Series race at Kentucky Speedway may have been the last for the open wheel series in the Bluegrass State. 

Despite yet another riveting race that featured a photo finish with Ed Carpenter scoring his first career victory over Dario Franchitti, the 2012 Indy Car Series schedule does not have Kentucky on the calendar. 

In fact next year’s slate will feature only five oval tracks with Kentucky and New Hampshire Motor Speedway dropping off the slate. So the series that was founded as an all-oval circuit in the aftermath of the open wheel split between CART and the IRL, has now dwindled to only a handful with the majority of the schedule now comprised with road courses and street circuits.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Bruton Smith reportedly would like to keep his two venues in Kentucky and New Hampshire as part of the plan, but without a title race sponsor those prospects appears slim at best. 

The list of former oval tracks that no longer host Indy Car racing is staggering; Charlotte, Atlanta, Chicagoland, Nashville, Kansas, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Dover, Michigan and Gateway all at one time were part of the open wheel world. 

But as the series evolved to include more road courses and street circuits, oval tracks fell by the wayside.

IZOD Indy Car Series CEO Randy Bernard would like to find a way to keep more ovals on the schedule but the business and economic side of the equation has made it a difficult challenge. 

“The ovals are important to our fan base and to our series because we need to keep a balance in order to remain the most diverse series in the world,” Bernard told SPEED. “I’m concerned but what can we do? It’s a tough deal right now getting promoters for ovals.’’ 

What adds to that tough deal is the tepid attendance for Indy Car oval track racing. With the exceptions of the Indianapolis 500, the relatively new stop at Iowa Speedway and the annual June visit to Texas Motor Speedway, which has also seen its ticket sales fall in recent years, generating a crowd for an oval track Indy Car race is nearly impossible. 

Despite spectacular racing, empty seats drove the series out of places like Chicago, Kansas, Milwaukee and Phoenix. Kentucky’s crowd was extremely thin and most likely put the final nail in the track’s open wheel coffin. 

I’m not sure what more fans could ask for in terms of excitement and thrills than watching these high-speed battles that more often than not result in exactly the kind of scintillating finish that saw Carpenter edge Franchitti on Sunday. 

Maybe it’s more a reflection on the hard pressed economy and the lack of funds facing all race fans. While Kentucky played to an intimate crowd, there also weren’t any attendance records being set at Dover’s Sprint Cup Series race. 

Although NASCAR attendance has been somewhat better this year than last, the standing room only crowds that punctuated the sport only a handful of seasons ago have not returned in mass. Everything from high fuel prices to outrageous lodging expenses to just simply not having as much disposable income can all be blamed for the still soft box office numbers. 

The upside is a NASCAR Sprint Cup race easily outdistances any stick and ball or other form of motorsports in the attendance department. But there’s no doubt series and track officials are hoping to drive ticket sales higher as soon as possible. 

So both disciplines of racing have their challenges in these uncertain times trying to find ways to entice more spectators through the turnstyles. 

But rather than each trying to outsmart the other, what would happen if NASCAR and Indy Car teamed up to promote a series of doubleheaders?

The Camping World Truck Series has worked well as a weekend partner to Indy Car racing over the years and in fact was the opening act on Saturday night in Kentucky. While on the surface there may appear to be little crossover between fan bases, the combination of the trucks and Indy Cars has more often than not created a pair of entertaining events at places like Kentucky, Texas and Kansas over the years.

Why not take it to the next level and tie in a Nationwide or even a Sprint Cup race with an Indy Car event? 

Certainly from the Indy Car standpoint it would provide a tremendous platform to put its product in front of a whole lot more people than the series has been able to draw on its own. 

Exposing a NASCAR-centric crowd to the kind of thrilling racing the series puts on at these intermediate-sized tracks would definitely provide an opportunity to hook those fans as potential followers down the road. 

The idea might be a bigger win for NASCAR track operators as well, some of which are having a tough time drawing decent-sized crowds for Nationwide and truck support events especially when Sprint Cup regulars are not in the field. 

Spicing up a weekend to include the lightning-fast Indy Cars as the preliminary to a Sprint Cup race could be just the tonic some tracks need to put some buzz back into their schedules. 

This idea has been casually floated before and almost immediately shot down by the previous Indy Car regime that balked at playing “second fiddle” to NASCAR. But Bernard seems to have a grasp on why doing business as usual is not a good thing and open to new ideas and thinking.

It’s time to put egos aside on both sides of the fence and explore opportunities that in my mind would be beneficial to each series.

Indy Car racing should not disappear from the oval track landscape. Fostering an alliance with NASCAR might seem like a radical idea, but could ultimately be a winning formula that fans just might warm up to.

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com