Commentary

Schedule quirk dooms open-wheel racing at MIS -- for now

Michigan International Speedway wants an IndyCar race. The IRL wants to race at MIS. Then why might Sunday's Firestone Indy 400 be the open-wheel swan song at Irish Hills?

Updated: August 2, 2007, 1:33 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

There's a strong possibility that this weekend's Firestone Indy 400 (Sunday, noon ET, ESPN2) will be the last opportunity for fans to catch open-wheel racing action at Michigan International Speedway.

MIS President Roger Curtis made the decision to drop the IndyCar Series from his track's 2008 schedule when he and Indy Racing League officials were unable to agree on a date.

And although Curtis and IRL officials left the door open for open-wheel racing to return to Michigan's Irish Hills region in 2009 or beyond, the likelihood seems extremely remote.

"It's really unfortunate that it came down to this, but we just couldn't find a date that works," Curtis told ESPN.com. "As far as the future is concerned, if they can come back with a model that works for us, we would love to have them back. But I don't know that they are going to be able to do that. It is certainly up to them."

Anyone who has followed American open-wheel racing in the past four decades can find reason to be disappointed by the stalemate. Since opening in 1968, MIS has hosted at least one top-level open-wheel event in 39 of the past 40 years, through eras of USAC, CART and IRL sanction.

Until California Speedway opened in 1997 as a virtual clone of MIS with slightly steeper banking, Michigan was the fastest track in the world for Indy-style racing. Qualifying speeds were generally 3 to 5 mph faster than those posted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Aside from big speed numbers, Michigan also was famous for big accidents, as any number of racers from Mario Andretti to Al Unser Jr. to Chip Ganassi to Derek Daly can attest. But even more significantly, MIS was the site of some fantastic finishes, no matter which sanctioning group was running the show.

In recent years, Michigan's 1995 and 2000 CART races qualified as instant classics, and three of the 25 closest finishes in IndyCar Series history went down at the egg-shaped 2.0-mile speedway 80 miles west of Detroit.

Helio Castroneves
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioHelio Castroneves celebrates his 2006 Firestone Indy 400 victory at Michigan.

Yet Michigan seems destined to join Phoenix International Raceway and California Speedway as casualties of the IRL's metamorphosis into a more balanced championship combining road racing with ovals.

Curtis said his struggles to come to terms with the IndyCar Series started last year, when his track's agreed-upon date for 2007 -- July 22 -- was transferred to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Honda's increased power base in the IRL dictated the date change in favor of the road course the company calls its home track in America.

MIS was forced to accept the Aug. 5 date, which caused problems on two fronts: The track hosts the second of its two annual NASCAR Nextel Cup races on Aug. 19, and the IndyCar Series scheduled a road racing event at Detroit's Belle Isle temporary circuit for Sept. 2. That race is promoted by another of the IRL's key behind-the-scenes power brokers, Roger Penske.

"Why would there have not been a red 'X' on July 22 when we already had an agreement for that date?" Curtis queried. "Instead, Mid-Ohio ended up with the 22nd and they came back to us and asked us to move. We were already into October [2006], and all they had for us was this weekend in August.

"I have no problem with Belle Isle," he added. "I think it's a fantastic event, and I applaud Mr. Penske and [Detroit] Mayor [Kwame] Kilpatrick for what they are doing to keep the momentum going after the Super Bowl. I think two separate open-wheel events could have coexisted in this market because they are totally night and day -- a street course on an island and a high-speed, superspeedway oval. I was fine with that event -- but not when we're less than 30 days apart in the same market."

It all added up to a no-win situation for Curtis and his staff -- two NASCAR Cup races in the space of nine weeks, sandwiching a less-popular IndyCar Series event they would have little time to prepare for. The addition of a semi-competing IRL race in the same market was the clincher.

"Clearly, you cannot have a crowded marketplace with your message," Curtis said. "And never mind that the maintenance department was going to have to work basically 24/7 to flip signage, to get the garage area ready, to get the hospitality villages ready, to clean the grandstands and the suites. It's going to be a yeoman's effort in itself just to get that done.

"So there are a lot of different factors, and ultimately it was our decision that this date just doesn't work. We really want to promote open-wheel racing here, but we want a chance to be successful. And I feel that date just teed us up for failure."

IndyCar Series commercial division president Terry Angstadt said the series did all it could to accommodate Michigan while factoring in the needs of Mid-Ohio and Belle Isle. And he didn't rule out the IRL's returning to MIS in 2009 or beyond.

It's really unfortunate that it came down to this, but we just couldn't find a date that works. As far as the future is concerned, if they can come back with a model that works for us, we would love to have them back.

Roger Curtis

"Never say never," Angstadt said. "Not to lay blame anywhere, but it was just a tough situation that was created. Some dates changed on the ISC side, and some dates moved here, like the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. So it was kind of a victim of circumstances this particular year.

"The tough part is that they [MIS] balance a couple of Cup dates and weather," he added. "I think people don't really appreciate the number of moving parts involved, and then you throw TV windows on top of that.

"If it does have to be July, that is difficult based on the current relationships and profiles of our other July events right now. But things can change, dates can open up, and we would be absolutely thrilled to be there again. We sure don't want to be perceived as not wanting to race there."

Curtis said that if American open-wheel racing as a whole were in better health, the decision to drop the IRL from the 2008 schedule might not have been as cut-and-dried. The track attracted crowds of 75,000 and more in the early to mid-1990s, but attendance slumped dramatically in the wake of the open-wheel split caused by the formation of the IRL.

Michigan's attendance has hovered in the 30,000 to 40,000 region since the track started hosting IndyCar Series races in 2002, growing at a rate of 5 to 6 percent a year, according to Curtis.

"There are two open-wheel series now, and I think it is well-documented that the split has caused a decrease in the fan base," he said. "So there have been fewer individual ticket buyers, and a huge egress of sponsors from the series in its heyday, when there were tons of companies like Kmart and Pennzoil involved and it was just as popular to put your name on an open-wheel car as a stock car. With that flow of money out of the sport goes a lot of tickets and hospitality components. Probably over 50 percent of the crowd was corporate sales -- huge numbers.

"It's going to be a long day for all open-wheel track promoters as long as there are two series and there are very few must-see events like there are in NASCAR, where the driver recognition is much greater," Curtis continued. "The reality is the average joe on the street knows Jeff Gordon but they don't know Dario Franchitti. It really is a shame because these guys have great personalities, and they are great drivers, but somehow -- maybe because of the split -- the energy to be able to market these drivers as people to the public has not been as successful as it has been with NASCAR drivers."

Still, Curtis placed the onus on the IRL for abandoning several key oval tracks it relied on for growth during its formative years. And he discounted the notion that International Speedway Corp.-owned tracks don't put the same promotional effort into Indy-style racing as they do for NASCAR, which, like ISC, is governed by the France family.

"I think, had Phoenix and California gotten the date they wanted, as well as us, we all would still be on the schedule," he said. "We wanted to be on the schedule. But they come back to you with these very difficult dates. That is something I tried to explain to them. We [ISC] are a publicly traded company. We can't just tread water.

"Whatever the perception of ISC and NASCAR is, most presidents at these tracks and their staffs are promoters at heart. We need events, so it's not a matter of showing favoritism towards Cup or not. If you look back, between ISC and SMI [Speedway Motorsports Inc.], if we hadn't been there in the beginning, the IRL might not be around."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.