USA road courses: Is there a doctor in the house?

   by Mark Bathison
January 2, 2005

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AutoRacing1.com would like to welcome Mark Bathison as the latest addition to our staff.  Mr. Bathison resides in NY not too far from Manhattan and brings a late-teens perspective to our staff, in tune with today's youth movement.

Cars peel off toward the pit entrance at Road America

Recently the Champ Car World Series has been straying away from natural terrain road courses in the USA. Noted events that have been dropped for 2005 include Road America and Laguna Seca, with Mid-Ohio being dropped after the 2003 season.

This has left many dedicated open-wheel racing fans crying foul and accusing the Champ Car organization of more crucial mistakes. This article analyzes Champ Car's decision to abandon these venues for more contemporary circuits such as San Jose and Las Vegas.

Case in point: Road America. This article isn't just about Road America, but is pointed at all natural terrain road courses in the USA.  I use Road America to illustrate my points.

After being dropped and added back to the 2003 schedule; Champ Car's relationship with the 14 turn road course that is considered one of the best in North America was damaged severely. This led to impassioned statements both from Champ Car as well as the management of Road America. If you attended the 2003 and 2004 Champ Car races in Elkhart Lake you probably know why the relationship isn't working. Dwindling crowd numbers, poorly managed bad-weather situations, and lack of the latest fan amenities led to the abandonment of the Elkhart Lake track by Champ Car.

The pit straight at Road America may be beautiful but hardly anyone can enjoy it for lack of grandstands

Being an avid three-day spectator for two years in a row was a mixed experience at Road America. In 2003 it was enjoyable walking around the track to watch the Champ Cars handle the diverse set of corners. No one will ever forget the image of a Champ Car going through the Kink or the sound they make screaming at redline through Hurry Downs. But come Sunday, it was raining and the track had a river of water running across it.

The race was delayed and fans didnít really know what was going on. People left in droves. It was a poorly managed situation.

Some stayed and listened to the track's loudspeaker eagerly awaiting updates while struggling to keep dry under a poncho or umbrella. Once the race finally got going most were soaked, frustrated, and too cold to care. Most of the remaining stood at the fence by turn five and watched a decent race, which really ended when Paul Tracy crashed his Player's Lola in the opening laps.

Fast forward to 2004.  The weather was set to be perfect for three days of Champ Car action at Road America. On Sunday I was situated on top of the hill for the race along with a lot of race fans. I was seated near turn five where the cars go flying under the "Toyota" bridge, what many spectators thought to be a rather ideal spot.

The race started cleanly and the race action was pretty straightforward. However, after a few laps fuel strategies started to come into play and people were soon left wondering, who in fact was leading. The noise from the cars made the public address system inaudible; and surprisingly Kangaroo TV was not anywhere to be found. It was also what I believe to be the first professional race I have been to where there was not a radio/scanner truck in the vending area.

Most fans probably had a great time and were undoubtedly treated to a race that was fun to watch, but for 70% of the time the majority of fans up on the hill near turn five (this area of the track has the most spectators) had no idea what was going on in terms of pit strategies and race positions. This is totally unacceptable in this day and age. It was very frustrating standing on the hill watching the race while having no idea what was going on.

Road America erected a scoreboard pointing towards the crowd in the basin area of turn-five. That was the only scoring system on the track that I was aware of, but it was quite a distance away from my position near the bridge.

Fans worldwide, via an internet connection, can watch the entire race on Race Director, but why is it so hard for Road America to install a few Jumbotron TVs for the paying fans at the track to watch the entire race? Or make scanners or Kangaroo TV readily available? There are street circuits where Kangaroo TV and scanner equipment is readily available; some street circuits boast Jumbotron TVs, too.

The fact here is that natural terrain road courses in the USA such as Road America, Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta, and Mid-Ohio just aren't keeping pace with fan amenities that the North American street circuits are providing the paying customer.  I feel this is partially the reason we have seen declining attendance at "all" the natural terrain road courses.

USA road courses pale in comparison to F1 facilities like Shanghai

Whereas we have seen a lot of investment in state-of-the-art oval tracks in the USA, fueled by NASCARís popularity, road courses have received miniscule investments by comparison.

In Europe Bernie Ecclestone refuses to grant a race to a track unless the facility is up to his standards. European race courses are safer, have fantastic garages and suites, and are equipped with state-of-the-art amenities such as Jumbotrons, which are placed strategically around the track.

Hats off to Laguna Seca for building garages and suites. Road America prefers to maintain their 1960ís look and feel, but in fact is out of touch with what the fans and participants expect.  These tracks who refuse to change with the times are best suited for club racing.  Sad really.

If ISC or Speedway Motorsports owned Road America there would be state-of-the-art garages and suites, and huge high grandstands at the top of the pit straight so fans could see down the hill toward the final turn, all the way to Turn 1 and the entire pit lane. Instead there is a primitive set of high school bleachers across from the pits that no one sits in because you canít see anything.

A former Formula Ford driver (AJ. "Buddy" Pugliese who currently runs the New York based Formula Race Car Club of America) has his own theory when it comes to building road courses. Build the track on a hill and put the stands at the bottom (picture the track on the hill in a valley with the stands on the base of the valley). This way the fans have a clear view of the entire track and will easily know what's going on. He reiterated the point again and again that race fans, Americans in particular, want to see all the action.

Fans don't like sitting in their seats and seeing a changed order of the leaders or the absence of a particular car every now and then. They want to know what's happening on all other sections of the race track at all times. Taking a look at the other successful sports in the USA, three in particular stand out, the NFL, MLB, and the NBA. When you attend an event in any of the three mentioned leagues you can easily see everything. Not only can you see every play but the stadiums that host these events are outfitted with Jumbotrons TVs that will show you instant replays, statistics, and more.

At the airport circuit in Cleveland and at all the street circuits, large Jumbotron TVs and Kangaroo TV are readily available so a fan knows what is going on at all times.

NASCAR tracks have steep and high grandstands so the fans can see all the action

United States road courses should take a good look at the NASCAR model, too. At most of their tracks you can see everything from nearly any seat in the house. With this great view (as well as a giant scoring tower at most tracks) it's very hard to lose track of what's going on in the race.

The natural terrain road courses in the United States have fallen behind their brethren in Europe and the ovals in the USA. Once the romantic darlings of motorsport, tracks like Road America have dropped the ball when it comes to the subject of fan and participant amenities. If they had just taken a little initiative and taken a look at the improvements their neighbors across the pond have been implementing maybe their attendance figures would be going up or at least remaining steady.

Champ Car has yet to return to its former prominence, and this certainly is partially to blame for the attendance drop at these facilities. However, Champ Car is able to pull in large crowds at other facilities in Mexico, Canada, Australia and even some street circuits in the USA. Until such time as natural terrain road courses gather the financial backing to make some major changes, Champ Car has had to make the difficult decision to abandon them for state-of-the-art facilities that draw huge crowds and pay a sizable sanction fee.

Losing races like Road America is analogous to ripping the heart out of Champ Car's heritage. Divorces are never pleasant, especially ones that mean the end to a long and once prosperous relationship.

Is there a doctor, lawyer and marriage counselor in the house?

The author can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

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USA road courses: Is there a doctor i the house?

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