Why Ovals are Not an Endangered Species on the NTT INdyCar Series Schedule

  • Since 2010, IndyCar has either pulled out of or not renewed/extended contractual relationships with tracks or race promoters 21 times.
  • One race on the possible block is Texas Motor Speedway, whose contract expired after this month’s race.
  • One thing IndyCar president Jay Frye is ruling out, however, is returning to international competition.

    IndyCar will continue going around in circles—or more precisely, on oval tracks.

    IndyCar president Jay Frye told Autoweek that reports or rumors that the American open-wheel racing series will decrease the number of races on oval tracks is not the case.

    “This brand and the series is built on the diversity of the series, so you have to have a proper mix of ovals, street courses and road courses,” Frye said of the current 17-race schedule that features five races on four oval tracks , five races on temporary street courses and seven events on permanent road courses. “So ovals are very, very important to us and we have every expectation to keep the balance in the series to where it’s almost a third, a third and a third, the best way that we can.

    “It’s a somewhat complicated puzzle, when you deal with the weather and you deal with geographically where ovals are at or when other series can run there and how it works and when we could run. Ovals are very important. We have every expectation of maintaining a balance and keeping the diversity of the series intact.”

    IndyCar pulled out of Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania following the race there in 2019.

    Icon SportswireGetty Images

    Since 2010, IndyCar has either pulled out of or not renewed/extended contractual relationships with tracks or race promoters 21 times (which includes this year’s final race at Belle Isle in Detroit, as next year’s race starts a new chapter with a temporary street course race in downtown Motor City). If IndyCar departs Texas Motor Speedway, that would increase the number of now-former venues to 22 tracks since 2010.

    Oval tracks in particular have floundered since 2010, with IndyCar departing the following circular venues: Chicagoland Speedway (last raced there in 2010), Homestead-Miami Speedway (2010), Kansas Speedway (2010), Kentucky Speedway (2011), New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2011), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (2011, race was canceled after the tragic death of Dan Wheldon), Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California (2015), Milwaukee Mile (2015), Phoenix Raceway (2018) and Pocono (2019 ).

    And if you go back a few more years before 2010, three additional ovals lost IndyCar races: Michigan International Speedway (last race in 2007), Nashville Superspeedway (2008) and Richmond (2009).

    All that being said, though, Frye said IndyCar would not be against returning to tracks that previously hosted its races, including ovals.

    “If we talk about the ovals, many of them we’ve raced on before,” he said. “So if we’re going to expand on our ovals, there’s probably going to be one or two or whatever where we’re going to go back to again from someplace we’ve ran in the past. It just depends on how it looks.”

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    IndyCar proved to be a tough sell at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this month.

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    The recent race two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, an annual event that has struggled to attract good crowds for the last several years, was the final event of a now-expired four-year contract. But Frye said that does not mean IndyCar will not be returning to the Fort Worth venue, where it has raced every year since 1997. He expects the relationship with TMS to continue and said discussions on a new agreement are set to begin soon.

    “Texas has been a longtime partner, so Texas from a competition standpoint is extremely important to us,” Frye said. “It’s a speedway. We worked hard to get it to where it was. It preceded the 500. We ran a speedway race before we went to Indy, which was important.

    “Even if you look back a few years ago, we ran Phoenix, which geographically was great. The weather’s always good. We could run there earlier in the year. It was an oval event before the 500. So that was important, something that at the time was meaningful from a competition perspective.

    “We have rookies go to Texas for Rookie Day, that’s part of the process to become eligible for the 500. So we’ve got data on all the rookie drivers that we’ve put through the system the last five or six years as part of that process. So that’s very important.”

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    IndyCar will stage a doubleheader race weekend at Iowa in July.

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    Although Frye didn’t address it, if IndyCar does not return to TMS, one possible option that would allow the series to remain in the Lone Star State would be a move 225 miles to the southwest to the road course at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, where the circuit raced just once back in 2019 (Colton Herta earned his first of what would become six IndyCar wins to date there). The planned 2020 and 2021 races there did not take place due to the pandemic.

    This season’s 17-race schedule features five races on four ovals: the recently-completed event at Texas, the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, the doubleheader weekend at Iowa Speedway (July 23-24), and World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis (August 20).

    Iowa returns to the IndyCar schedule after a one-year absence due to the pandemic. It marks the second straight season that IndyCar has had a doubleheader weekend on one track. Last year was a back-to-back event at Texas.

    Whether additional doubleheader weekends are in store next season and beyond remains to be seen. There has been talking about possibly holding a twin-bill at World Wide Technology Raceway.

    “Doubleheaders are tough, doubleheaders on ovals are probably even more tough,” Frye said. “They’re tough on the teams. Obviously, we did it in Texas, and we’re doing it this year in Iowa, so it’s something that’s doable. It depends on how it looks to that event. At Iowa, we have a concert, race, concert (on one day) and then another concert, race and concert (on the second day), both days, with an unbelievable amount of activity at that venue.

    “Are we looking to go do more doubles? I don’t think that’s the case. But it depends on what how the event looks. So if it was something that helps enhance the event and makes it a big event —Iowa is an example—would it be considered? Sure.”

    IndyCar officials are already working on the 2023 racing season schedule and have begun extending out to 2024 and 2025, as well. While the NTT IndyCar Series is currently at 17 races, expansion could be in the cards at some point—and that could mean maybe another oval or two, perhaps.

    “I think we’re comfortable with where we’re at right now,” Frye said. “But if we were going to do any kind of expansion going forward, it would be something that was a spectacular opportunity from an event perspective. If you look at Nashville last year, that was something that had been working on for some time, finally came together in a big way. It’s a huge event and it’s going to be a long-term great event of ours hopefully. It was something that was new and unique.

    “So as we go forward, things like that would be something we would always consider. The biggest thing is what does the overall event look like, what does it add, what kind of incremental benefit does it add to the entire schedule in the series.

    “If it was somewhere between where we’re at now and 20 (races per season), depending on if they were great events, would we consider doing something like that? Sure. But again, I think we’re comfortable with a number that we’re at right now. We’re just not trying to add events to add events.”

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    The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wisconsin

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    One thing Frye ruled out, though, is returning to international competition. There had been pre-COVID overtures to bring the series back to Mexico or South America, as well as potentially Europe.

    That won’t be happening anytime soon, now.

    “Right now, there’s enough opportunity for us still in North America,” Frye said. “To get to where we need to be or where we need to go next, really, the focus has been on North America.”

    Follow Autoweek correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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