Danica Patrick made no bones about it during a media conference this year. She is not happy with how the IZOD IndyCar Series' schedule has evolved toward the diversity that was the calling card of the CART-run iteration of Indy car racing, back in the 1990s.
“Unbelievably, we have 10 road courses and seven ovals,” she said. “It's disappointing. The mile-and-a-half ovals are where we came from but for some reason we're skewed toward road course racing. I hear about road course ideas and venues and how it's going to be a great race and a great area to go. I don't hear a lot about oval races.”
You don't have to be a cynic to point out that Patrick doesn't shine away from the ovals. Winning a bare-knuckle fight with Tony Kanaan at Homestead last year yielded a second-place finish; only freak circumstances would see her on a podium at, say, Long Beach or Mid-Ohio. But she's right: it wasn't until 2005 that the Indy Racing League version of IndyCar gained its first three street/road courses. Six years later – and three years after the IRL/Champ Car merger – courses that contain left and right turns are prevalent.
Among fans, there are trenchant views on both sides as to whether this is a good thing. Those who prefer circuit diversity rhetorically ask how hard it is to keep the throttle welded to the bulkhead on the high-banked ovals that once dominated the IRL schedule. IRL traditionalists point out that pack racing created some of the most thrilling battles in motorsports and road races don't feature enough overtaking.
So how does IZOD IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard find a compromise that keeps both sets of supporters onside?
“It's important to retain as near to a 50/50 balance of road courses and ovals as possible,” says Bernard. “IndyCar races on a more diverse range of tracks than any other series in the world – that's our unique selling point. This year's schedule originally had a perfect balance: If you include the Texas doubleheader, we had nine races of each type. However, the terrible earthquake in Japan badly damaged Motegi's oval, so we switched to the road course.
“But achieving a near-even balance is only one factor to consider,” continues Bernard. “We can't just pick nine ovals and nine road courses and ignore other considerations. For IndyCar to continue to build, we need to target the right places in the right way. We evaluate how many promoters want IndyCar races, which of those will aggressively promote the events and then we decide which of those are in major markets where strong event sponsors can be found and where our series sponsors can promote themselves.”
Three-time IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal agrees with this philosophy.“I want the best tracks in the best markets to draw the best crowd. That attracts sponsorship and, historically, our sponsors do their big corporate outings at places like Long Beach and Toronto, where the infrastructure is there to entertain customers. The purists may not want to hear that, but that's the reality. Circuit choice should be market-driven, and we want to be in the best markets. If that means more street courses, I'm fine with that; if it means more ovals then I'm fine with that, too.”
Rahal's former CART IndyCar rival Mario Andretti agrees: “I think the series has come a long way, in terms of realizing what it needs to focus on. We need to get away from high-banked ovals where we've tried and failed to tap into the NASCAR market. We need venues where we're supported. That's why Baltimore is on the calendar and next year, potentially, Houston, where CART used to thrive. Phoenix was a mediocre draw – even in the CART days – but what increased interest in Phoenix was Long Beach, because that was a barn-burner. The strengths were the road courses; that's where you got the crowds.”
Newman/Haas Racing's Oriol Servia, who made his CART debut back in 2000, says: “I think IndyCar's got the perfect balance right now. The diversity is what I always loved about American open-wheel racing. However, we need one-mile ovals, not 1.5-milers. Also, I have a hard time understanding why we're not at Road America (RIGHT). It has long straights, fast corners but also hard braking zones. IndyCar, NASCAR Nationwide, Grand-Am – they all have fantastic races there. We also got a decent crowd in the CART days and we would again. It's the crown royal of racetracks and I think we should go even if no one came to watch us!”
That's why Bernard won't allow the drivers' choices of venues to become predominant. “I want to hear drivers' opinions – it's important we listen to everyone. But if they had their way, most drivers would instantly vote to return to Milwaukee, for example, whereas we have to decide which tracks make the most commercial sense to growing our business.”
As ex-racers, both Rahal and Andretti are sympathetic to the drivers' point of view. “I couldn't care less whether the oval to road course split is 50/50,” says Rahal, who hopes to get his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team back to the IZOD IndyCar Series on a full-time basis next year. “We shouldn't go to an oval that isn't right for these cars just to say we're at an oval, nor should we go to a road or street course just to even that balance. These cars need to be at the best places.”
Whatever the circuit, says Andretti, the cars have to be more demanding to drive, and he hopes this issue will be addressed by the 2012 breed of IndyCar.
“On ovals, the current cars have too much downforce and no horsepower – the ratio's the wrong way 'round,” he asserts. “We've got to get back to having drivers backing off the throttle for corners. At the moment, in qualifying, they're so smothered in downforce and grip that the only quick line around the circuit is the shortest one, down by the white line; they look like they're warming up. On high-banked ovals, you could have your chief mechanic qualify for you! Give the driver more power and you put more emphasis on his or her skill.”
Servia, who remembers CART IndyCar at its greatest, inevitably agrees. “We need more power than the car can handle,” he says simply before adding, “and on the short ovals, give us the same amount of power as we have for the road courses. Then we'll look great for spectators at the track, and we'll look spectacular on TV – whatever type of track we're on.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the September 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.