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Baltimore latest in a long line of failed IndyCar events

by Brian Carroccio
Wednesday, September 18, 2013

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Simon Pagenaud, the last ever winner in Baltimore
History will undoubtedly remember the countless chicanes, train tracks that made race cars fly, and the glorious backdrop of the Inner Harbor.

Unfortunately, however The Grand Prix of Baltimore will also be remembered as a prolonged three-year drama that saw more promoters than races, and was seemingly constantly plagued by petty political squabbles, complicated lawsuits and who knows how much red ink.

Still, even as recently as last week there were encouraging indications that IndyCar would return to Charm City in 2014 and beyond. Of course, it wasn't to be.

Last Friday it was announced that the race had been cancelled for 2014 and 2015, likely ending the brief and turbulent relationship between Charm City, IndyCar, and numerous promotional organizations. 

Now, go ahead and draw your own conclusions as to what exactly caused The Grand Prix of Baltimore’s demise. As a Maryland resident, who followed the race closely from its inception, I would cite three factors: the lack of a title sponsor, the early cost overruns, and the well-documented scheduling conflicts in the coming years. To what extent, one was greater than another is hard to say.

Predictably, many have offered the thesis that the Baltimore event was destined to fail because it was well, a street race. And according to many, street races are simply destined to fail.

I'll concede, IndyCar’s foray into Charm City highlighted some of the pitfalls with races on temporary tracks in urban locations, such as the inaccessibility of the circuit. I agree, the Baltimore event was not helped by petty local politics, and a city unfamiliar with IndyCar and racing in general.

However, attributing the discontinuation of the Baltimore race to the popular myth that races on temporary are somehow inherently flawed conveniently overlooks this incredibly simple fact: it's not just temporary circuits that have failed in IndyCar. Rather, all types of circuits have failed in IndyCar.

To illustrate this, go back to the turn of the century, and pick any type of track layout. Whether it's big oval, medium ovals short oval, concrete oval, flat oval, banked oval, urban street circuit, stadium parking lot circuits airport circuit, natural terrain road course, matters not. Pick any layout, and I will show you a failed event; in some cases many.

Contrarily, in most of the above cases I will also reference you to a successful event.

Simply put, as we will see, there is no overwhelming evidence of any kind indicating that one type of track has a better chance to be successful than any other type of track. None.

Remember, keep in mind there are only three IndyCar events with more than a decade of hosting an IndyCar race uninterrupted: Indianapolis (1911, excluding war years), Long Beach (1984), and Texas (1997). St. Petersburg (2005) is the fourth longest running annual race. Sonoma (2006) is next followed by shockingly, Mid-Ohio and Iowa (2007).

As you can ascertain from the above, there is no theme with respect to track venue. You have three ovals of varying size, two street courses, and two natural terrain road courses, one in the West, one in the Midwest.

To further illustrate this, let me refer you to the 2008 IndyCar schedule, the year of the Champ Car/IRL merger. That season there were 18 races, 11 on ovals, four on temporary courses, 3 on permanent road courses.

Of the 11 oval tracks, only three (Indianapolis, Texas and Iowa) have remained on the schedule uninterrupted. Milwaukee did go off the schedule one year (2010) and returned in 2011. 

However, Chicagoland, Kentucky, Motegi, Kansas, Richmond, Nashville, and Homestead have all fallen off the schedule. If you go by the uninterrupted metric and include Milwaukee, 8 of 11 races on ovals (72%) have failed. Excluding Milwaukee's year off that still means 63% of oval races have failed within the past six years.

Now, with temporary circuits we are dealing with a smaller pool. However, of the 4 temporary circuits, two (Long Beach and St. Petersburg) have stayed on the schedule uninterrupted. One of the races, Detroit, was like Milwaukee, removed, then brought back to the calendar. The other, Edmonton, was a fixture on the calendar through 2012, but does not look like it will return anytime soon.

Still, by the logic used above races on temporary circuits since the merger have enjoyed greater success than ovals. Fifty percent of temporary courses have remained on the schedule uninterrupted, while only 28% of ovals have achieved that.

Interestingly, while temporary courses have in this time sustained better than ovals, neither have sustained as well as permanent road courses.

Of the three on the 2008 schedule. Mid-Ohio and Sonoma have continued uninterrupted since, while Watkins Glen was removed after the 2010 season. So, natural-terrain road courses have theoretically performed the best, with only a 67% success rate.

Now, let’s get a little tricky here. Excluding Detroit and Milwaukee, which were revived, since 2008, there have been 9 venues added that were not on the 2008 schedule. Of those 9, one was a natural terrain road course, four have been street courses and four have been ovals.

It should be noted that IndyCar ran on the Motegi road course in 2011, due to the damage inflicted to the Motegi oval by the earthquake. Due to the unique circumstances, I am not counting the Motegi road course. I’m also going to exclude Las Vegas 2011 from this discussion for obvious reasons.

However, as far as the ovals go Loudon was a one-off in 2011, while Pocono and Fontana seem certain to return in 2014. 

If you take the other four events, all street courses, Toronto and Houston look set for next year’s calendar, Baltimore is off, and Sao Paolo is uncertain. But we can say with Houston and Toronto looking to be locks, the street course success rate is 50%, the same as the ovals.

As for the one permanent road course added after 2009, Barber looks to have established itself as an IndyCar mainstay. Again, excluding the unique Motegi situation, of the four road courses IndyCar has raced on since 2008, only Watkins Glen is no longer on the schedule.

And I can go on in this vain forever. I can point to failed IndyCar oval events at Gateway, Rio, Rockingham, Lausitzring, Disney, Charlotte, Atlanta, Chicago (the paper clip), Pikes Peak, Nazareth, Michigan, and quite a few more.

Likewise, I can point to other failed temporary circuits such as Miami (three layouts), Vancouver, the old Houston layout, San Jose, Las Vegas, and a few failures to launch in places like Phoenix, Ansan (twice), Zhuhai and Qingdao.

And while permanent road courses have sustained best since the merger, the longest tenured such venue currently on the calendar, Sonoma, came around in 2006. Elkhart Lake, Portland, Laguna Seca, Brands Hatch, Assen, Zolder and others have shown that such venues offer no guarantee of success either. 

But again, few, if any, common themes emerge regarding what type of circuit is or is not likely to succeed. The configuration of track DOES NOT MATTER. Therefore, the notion that street races are destined to fail, is ludicrous. The truth is that all IndyCar races on all types of circuits, stand a good chance of failing, and the reason is simple.

IndyCar's venue issue is not about too many street circuits, or too many races in the Midwest, or too much or too little of anything, really.

IndyCar's issue has and continues to be a lack of coherent direction from management and the lack of superstar drivers. Events being removed from the schedule is merely symptomatic of this. But again, the common denominator is not any type of venue.

The common denominator has, is, and from all indications will continue to be, IndyCar.

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