Trying to put a positive spin on the Indy road course race
Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan represents the mixed reaction Indianapolis Motor Speedway is already receiving for approving an IndyCar Series road course race to start the May 2014 activities at the track.
Kanaan said he has changed his opinion a couple of times. At one point he leaned against it; following Thursday’s confirmation, he said he “kind of likes” the idea.
“You need to look at the big picture, and this will get people paying attention to the month earlier,” he said.
The first wave of attention will come May 8-10, 2014, when all four IndyCar divisions — the IndyCar Series, Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 — will practice, qualify and race. The IndyCar road race will be on May 10 (a Saturday) to avoid a conflict with Mother’s Day, typically one of the slowest days of May.
While a new spotlight will fall on IndyCar’s lower three divisions, most of the attention will be on the IndyCar Series, which has only raced on the oval track. Some appreciate the break in tradition, others do not.
The question that will be asked for months: Will it hurt the 500?
The reality is, such an event has been months, if not years, in the making, and IMS has been soliciting opinions about a race on the road course since Joie Chitwood was track president from 2004-09.
While the 500 was the only race at the track for 83 years, the facility has hosted NASCAR (1994-present), Formula One (2000-07), MotoGP (2008-present) and Grand-Am sports cars (2011-present), plus all the support races that accompany them.
Mark Miles began talking about a road course event soon after becoming CEO of Hulman & Co. last December. IndyCar staged a road course feasibility test on Sept. 4. IndyCar drivers Graham Rahal and Ryan Briscoe tested several track configurations, and drove in both directions. They liked the possibilities.
“It’s actually not a bad track,” said Rahal, who said the infield section is wider than it appears. “Everybody knocks it, but I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve actually had some fun.”
The driver most synonymous with the 500 isn’t against having such a race, but he doesn’t want it to be held in May.
“Now, after the 500, mid-year, something like that, that would probably be fine,” four-time 500 winner A.J. Foyt said. “But I’d hate to see it interfere with the Indy 500 maybe a week or two before it opens.”
The yet-to-be-titled road course race will be held a week before pole day and 15 days prior to the May 25 Indy 500. It’s designed to provide a bugle-sounding kickoff to the month’s activities.
“This event will bring even more energy and action to the month of May for fans and create another showcase for the diversity and excitement of the Speedway and the IndyCar Series,” Miles said in a statement distributed Thursday.
More details about the event will be announced Tuesday.
Still to be resolved is the makeup of the circuit. F-1 and Grand-Am cars have raced clockwise on the road course; MotoGP has gone counter-clockwise. If the counter-clockwise setup is used, the premier grandstands — historic Stand E overlooking Turn 1 of the oval — can be used.
Regardless of the direction, modifications to the infield portion of the circuit are needed as several of the existing corners are considered too tight and slow for maximum enjoyment. Any reconfiguration is expected to produce at least two hard braking zones for passing places.
IMS President Doug Boles has been carrying a track map for several weeks to assess opinions. Two-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon offered advice at the track Wednesday, and many other drivers, past and present, have weighed in.
IMS had previously agreed to resurface the infield section in order to continue the motorcycle event.
At some point a title sponsor may be signed, which would be another change for IMS. Because of the sanctity of the 500, no IMS IndyCar event has had a label bearing a corporation’s name, although other races have. F-1 had SAP, NASCAR had Allstate and MotoGP has had Red Bull.
In previous discussions about the event, Miles and Boles acknowledged the size of the crowd won’t approach the 500 — which annually attracts approximately 250,000 fans — but they maintain it can be a financial benefit for the track, the series and the community.
“It will be profitable,” Miles said.
Miles conceded a road course race will be more of a local event than the 500 due to the travel challenges that many race fans will face with two Indianapolis events, plus 500 qualifying, in May.
Regardless of how many people attend, a second IMS event figures to be a strong television draw.
“Oh, absolutely,” veteran motor sports TV producer Terry Linger said. “Selfishly, I hope I get to (produce) it. Road courses are a challenge, but they can be a lot of fun.” Indy Star