There is a real momentum and positivity around IndyCar at the moment. TV ratings are going in the right direction, schedule stability is coming together and road/street course attendances are growing. Of course there are still areas that need work – sponsorship, attracting new teams, making the series financially viable are just a few. For me the most important is taking a close look at IndyCar’s oval format.
Reimagining the IndyCar oval format
America has fallen out of love with ovals. Which is not surprising when you consider that the product has not changed for decades. During that time what American’s spend their disposable time and income on has shifted dramatically.
This is not unique to IndyCar. NASCAR is finding itself in a new position as attendances drop (hence their latest round of competition changes – more on that later). Despite IndyCar offering up some of the best (and most hair raising) racing in recent seasons, there are still many more empty bleachers than fans.
Fundamentally it is the oval format that no longer attracts fans in their tens of thousands. Qualifying is one important aspect. In contrast to road/street races, oval qualifying is dull and monotonous.
Wake me up when qualifying ends
Single car runs offer little excitement unless a driver gets it wrong. Only die hard fans will be intrigued to see how the evolution of the track impacts times and how intra-team battles play out. For everyone else it is a long and unexciting drag.
Replicating the road/street qualifying groups format on ovals could be a start. Multiple cars on track might offer a far more compelling show for qualifying. Drivers and teams would be tested on when to run and the scope for drafting could spice up the challenge of recording the fastest time in each session. Plus the existing technical challenges that hardcore fans appreciate would still remain.
There would be wrinkles to iron out of course – preventing teams from deliberating running late in a session to pick up a guaranteed draft for example. However maintaining the status quo does not feel like an option at all. Neither is sticking with the existing race format.
Wake me up with 30 laps to go
With the exception of Indy, it is time to seriously consider ditching the long race format. Inevitably the highlight of an oval race is the final 20-30 laps for the win. Hardcore fans can appreciate the management of the race as teams optimise their cars for the final dash to the chequer. Everyone else is bored, tunes out and possibly comes back for the finale. Trying to keep younger kids – who these days have an attention span counted in minutes – is a herculean task.
The solution is to revisit the race format. Ditch the distance format and swap for two sprint races back to back. Or perhaps one after qualifying and another on Saturday/Sunday. Consider a half distance race plus a sprint event that would preclude top teams from optimising for one race over another (and allow smaller teams to go all out for the win in one of the events?). Look at race one setting the starting grid for race two as well. I could go on because the permutations are wide-ranging and varied. I’m sure you have many ideas of your own.
Avoiding NASCAR ‘tinkering’
Any decision or future strategy would need to avoid following NASCAR down a road of constant tinkering. NASCAR is trying to have its cake and eat it by retaining a long race format and artificially creating ‘sprint’ races within it. The result for 2017 is a baffling array of rules and regulations and a focus on ‘dramatic moments’ (whatever they are).
Similarly adding too many gimmicks – concepts like reverse grids and success ballast – should be avoided. As a hardcore fan myself, these would be a gimmick too far for a top-class series like IndyCar. The quest to draw in new fans/old fans cannot come at the expense of those who have stuck around through thick and thin.
A slow death for IndyCar oval races?
There are no signs to suggest the oval format is simply lagging behind street/road courses in seeing an upswing in attendances. Leaving the format as it stands will only lead to a slow death for ovals on the IndyCar schedule. And the loss of a fundamental piece of the sports’ fabric and unique history.