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04/09 2018

MILLER: Painful reality check at Phoenix

Monday, 09 April 2018

Robin Miller / Images by Levitt, LePage & Abbott/LAT

 

I started going to Phoenix International Raceway in 1969, when it was dusty little oval in the middle of the desert that seated 10,000 people and book-ended the IndyCar season in March and November. It had a dogleg that couldn’t be taken flat out for several years, and was a racers’ track that always played to the strengths of A.J., Mario, J.R., Gordy, Michael Andretti, Mosley, Sneva and the Unsers.

As the years went by, more grandstands went up and by 1995 we had to leave at 6:00 in the morning in order to get into a parking place in the infield – there was no tunnel – and a record 60,000 people turned out.

By that time, CART had added so many other good events that Phoenix was down to a once-a-year stop in the spring – usually piggy-backing Long Beach. And when then PIR owner Buddy Jobe – rightfully pissed because CART had sold a TV sponsor that directly conflicted with his title sponsorship – opted to dump CART and go with the new Indy Racing League, it was the beginning of the end.

 

The ’96 IRL race was a ghost town compared to ’95, and fans were streaming out the exits on Lap 5 – angry because they’d come to see Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Fittipaldi and Tracy, and instead got Triple AAA. NASCAR took a foothold on PIR, and by 2005 the track built for Indy cars in 1964 was off the schedule.

So when IndyCar’s Jay Frye and Phoenix boss Bryan Sperber announced they were resurrecting the race in 2016 a lot of us were thrilled, yet skeptical. The Split had already killed one of IndyCar’s great bastions at Milwaukee in terms of attendance (both sides couldn’t draw flies) and after a decent opening in ’95 at Loudon, the open-wheel war had claimed another casualty.

So it was hard to imagine PIR bouncing back after a decade’s hiatus and, sad to report, it hasn’t. And it won’t. Three years have shown us that few, young or old or disgruntled, are going to watch Indy cars at ISM Raceway.

There couldn’t have been 7,500 people at Phoenix on Saturday night to watch another ho-hum race (except for the closing six laps) on a pretty damn nice evening to sit outside.

True, people I know that live in the area had no idea there was race because the promotion was sparse, and there are already billboards up for the NASCAR race in the November. That’s because it’s a NASCAR track in a NASCAR town, plain and simple.

 

But this failed reboot isn’t because Sperber didn’t try to play off the glory days with Mario this time, or make ticket prices reasonable, or make IndyCar feel welcome. He did. And IndyCar tried to make the show better with less downforce and even dragging tires to try and open up a second groove. But it didn’t work.

This isn’t an isolated case, it’s simply the reality of 2018 – ovals and IndyCar just aren’t compatible business partners anymore.

Other than Gateway, when is the last time IndyCar launched and maintained a successful oval? Iowa was gangbusters for a couple years, and now it’s half-full. Texas drew big crowds in the IRL days when it was part of the NASCAR ticket package, but attendance has dwindled, despite still staging ferocious races. Pocono’s show isn’t bad considering there are only 22 cars for 500 miles, but the grandstand isn’t a third full. My understanding is that Texas still pays a sanction fee, as does Iowa, but Pocono is a pittance and Phoenix likely pays nothing.

We all know IMS provides some of the best racing and dramatics available on four wheels, and the past few Indy 500s have been among the best ever. Ovals are IndyCar’s tradition, heritage, excitement, and are run at 50mph a lap faster than most NASCAR races, yet they have very little following anymore.

Fans write to the Mailbag every week and clamor for more ovals – let’s go back to Michigan or Fontana or Charlotte or Richmond – but those tracks’ management are watching the trend, and unless they have a big-time sponsor, like Gateway did with John Bomarito in St. Louis, it’s financial suicide.

If IndyCar split or paid for marketing and promotion at Phoenix, along with waving the sanction fee, then maybe Phoenix had a chance to break even with its corporate suite sales. And I imagine Eddie Gossage makes ends meet at Texas with his sponsorship/suites/packages, or he wouldn’t stick around either.

But right now, the template for an IndyCar race on an oval is a loser. By the time you add up what it costs to send the IndyCar staff, IMS Productions and the teams, you’re in the neighborhood of $4-5 million. And if you’re not getting big TV money or a hefty sanction fee, just how long can you underwrite a race?

“I know Bryan wants us back and we want to come back, but if it’s not economically viable for both, how long do we do it?” said Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles on Sunday night.

IndyCar’s diversity has always been its calling card, and ovals have always been its wow factor. But other than Indy and Gateway’s rebirth, the rest of the ovals on the Verizon schedule are seriously lacking support and atmosphere.

It’s hard to swallow but ovals are IndyCar’s endangered species and, other than a couple tracks, they may soon be extinct.