For years the leadership of the IndyCar Series, in whatever form it has taken, has been virtually unanimous in proclaiming what the series should be the very best at doing: The fastest drivers racing on the widest, most balanced variety of circuits. That is a worthwhile goal both in terms of marketing, prestige and competition. The problem is getting leadership to put their money where their mouths are. One of the chronic problems with leadership in open wheel for at least the past thirty years is the propensity for meaningless but over-hyped hot air that spouts from their flapping gums whenever they are open.
A class difference that has existed in IndyCar pre-dates even ‘the split.’ We have all heard the stereotypes. You might be an all American oval fan who roots for domestic short trackers. Variations of the theme include a desire for engines in the front and the inclusion of at least one dirt oval. Or you might be a nose-up-in-the-air road racing fan who believes racing against a clock is more important than mixing it up on the track. The stereotypes are almost always unnecessary and the vast majority of folks are somewhere in the middle. Most racing fans like it all although many have a preference of one type of venue over another.
That is why striving for a viable balance is such a noble goal. The problem is execution, and that is being bungled badly. Let us take a look at IndyCar schedule balance over the past ten years:
2004: 0% non-oval
2005: 18% non-oval
2006: 21% non-oval
2007: 30% non-oval
2008: 43% non-oval
2010: 53% non-oval
2011: 61% non-oval
2012: 67% non-oval
2013: 70% non-oval
ChampCar cancelled their 2008 schedule and went out of business. IndyCar picked up Long Beach and whatever assets were left. Over the same ten year period let us take a look at their schedule balance:
2003: 85% non-oval
2004: 85% non-oval
2005: 85% non-oval
2006: 93% non-oval
2007: 100% non-oval
2008: Supposed to have been 100% non-oval; out of business.
In the United States statistics conclusively show a direct correlation between the percentage of road racing the chance of failure. Not one big time road racing series has ever been successful long term in the USA. Most recently ChampCar (and CART before it) went out of business. ALMS, loved by purists, allowed itself to be absorbed into the NASCAR umbrella primarily because it was not successful commercially. Many IndyCar critics are obsessed with Nielsen 12+ overnight television estimates. They inevitably cite percentage drops from prior years. Is the increasing imbalance of the IndyCar schedule toward non-ovals and really low ratings merely a coincidence?
Derrick Walker is now in charge of competition at IndyCar. He is also on record as wanting what he refers to as ‘balance.’ The problem with Walker’s idea of balance is that he says that means 33.3% oval, 33.3% temporary circuit and 33.3% natural terrain road course. 67% non-oval is pretty distant from balanced and is pretty much what we have now, not to mention the lowest television ratings in history. Mr. Walker’s notion of ‘balance’ is an exceedingly bad idea.
Dan Anderson is now in charge of all rungs on the IndyCar ladder, and he is also on record as in favor of eliminating all but a handful of ovals for all series on the ladder citing driver preference and experience. Again, really bad idea.
Embrace the balance concept for what it is. A viable chance to position drivers as the very best on multiple types of circuits. The prototype driver would be a Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is someone who is fearless and wins on any type of circuit. A full field of that is what is really necessary, and preferably someone relatable who comes up through the ladder system and not randomly plucked from some obscure formula series in Europe. We can incorporate various other arguments into the conversations; e.g., technical innovation or lack thereof, etc., but history has conclusively shown that when venue balance gets too far skewed toward road racing failure will result. There are very good reasons why NASCAR’s Cup schedule, which runs 36 times during the year, only has two road races on it.
Mark Miles needs to listen to ALL sides, examine history and make a TRULY balanced schedule work. From all indications 2014 remains up around the 70% non-oval mark, and a road course race at IMS will probably kick off the month of May. Hopefully the sport will survive to see 2015.