IndyCar and ovals: getting America back in love

Putting schedules and TV broadcast to one side, IndyCar is going in the right direction. One important element however is not keeping pace: interest in oval racing. The barren grandstands everywhere but Indianapolis point to a painful conclusion – America has fallen out of love with open-wheel oval racing. And that is bad for the continued strengthening of the series.

The situation owes much to the IRL/Champ Car split – the usual ‘easy to blame’ culprit but very justified in this case. The IRL’s oval focus and ChampCar’s preference for road/street courses forced fans down the route of being a fan of either, but not really both. Undoubtedly that will take time to remedy but IndyCar doesn’t have that luxury. The good news is there are ways to improve the situation in the short-term.

Better promotion

Ovals are fundamental to the fabric of the series but IndyCar needs to accept that ovals are struggling. Charging promoters the same sanctioning fees as increasingly successful street courses is counter-productive. Short-term financial gain for the series is compromising long-term growth. Instead, provide them with incentives to use reduced or suspended fees to invest in promoting their event better. As attendances and the promoters coffers swell, so can the sanctioning fees.

Enhancing the spectacle

As a fan it’s hard to understand why American’s are not flocking to oval races: the speed, the noise, the margins of victory defined by inches. But sadly that is no longer enough. With the heritage of open-wheel oval racing cherished by an ever diminishing number, IndyCar has the advantage of being able to radically innovate.

What about Saturday night sprint races under flood lights? Multiple sprints on Saturday followed by a longer Sunday race? Eliminator races perhaps? There is always the risk of making the spectacle overly gimmicky however the risk of doing nothing is considerably greater and more significant. Some of those proposals could actually allow IndyCar and NFL to co-exist after Labor Day but that is another topic for another day.

Let’s get together

Having attended many street course events, part of the appeal is the two or three day festival atmosphere. Unless you are a serious IndyCar fan, the current qualifying format for ovals is fairly monotonous. Running cars simultaneously would add the challenges of drafting, when to run, whether to wait for the track to evolve or put in a banker time early. As a spectacle it would make attending the whole weekend a more enticing prospect and potentially mix things up for some great races on a Sunday.

None of the above is a panacea: getting America back in love with oval racing will take a long and concerted effort. However if IndyCar as a series does not implement some remedial action now, there might not be a problem to solve in a couple of years time.

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