Today the Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama will confirm it has secured a place on the Indycar Series calendar for 2010.
For some it marks another step in the expansion of America’s premier open-wheel series, and another step on the road to recovery after the decades of bickering.
For me it marks folly, a decision that, while well, meaning is mistimed.
The race, titled the Grand Prix of Alabama, will be held at Barber, a venue that hosted a winter test for the Indycar Series, to rave reviews based both on the teams’ and drivers’ opinions of the track and the number of fans who turned out to see the event.
On the surface, it is a good thing. The Indycar series, post reunification, needs to find a balance between the different configurations of track – oval, street and road – it visits through the season. Another road course would help that and, Sunday’s please-can-a-plane-land-and-spice-this-thing-up-athon at Edmonton’s airport track, the road and street course produce some of Indycar’s better racing (although everything is relative).
However, take a look a little deeper at the announcement.
Barber Motorsports Park is in Alabama. NASCAR’s heartland, with Talladega’s monstrous Superspeedway lying 50miles or so away.
I’m sure there are open wheel fans in the traditional NASCAR states, Florida supports two Indycar events, and Indycar and NASCAR both race at Fort Worth’s Texas Motor Speedway. But immediately trying to nurture a start-up event in “rival territory” puts you at a disadvantage straight away.
Of course, if Indycar is ever to once more challenge NASCAR as America’s most popular Motorsport it will need to win some fans of the Stock Car series over, and Barber is as good a place to start doing that as any – not already saturated by open-wheel events, close to the captive audience of a major city, with the peripheral facilities that brings.
But why just now?
Even those of us who profess to be Indycar fans know that the series isn’t at the top of its game lately. Fields are thin, both in number and (let’s be honest here) talent. The series is being strangled by the dominance of the Penske and Ganassi outfits, and is facing the loss of Danica Patrick.
I know you may not like her, but I’m afraid she remains one of Indycar’s biggest marketing pluses.
Even star drivers Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti have been publically critical of the quality of racing the series has produced at the recent oval races at Iowa and Richmond. Even the Indy 500, Indycar’s world famous showpiece was dismissed as a boring race.
Now, my common sense dictates, if you’re going to try and conquer new ground and win new hearts, you want to make sure your own house is in order first. Think of like having a good business pitch if you’re looking for a new contract. You organise yourself so you know you’re going to put in the best performance possible.
On its current form if Indycar’s Alabama debut turns out to be a snorefest then any new fans the series has attracted to the series will be out the gates before half distance, and never come back.
To make matters worse there is the problem with the schedule that seems to be emerging. Press releases confirm the race will be held on the 9-11 April next year.
Hmmm, I wonder what else happens in Alabama in April? Oh, yes, that’s right, NASCAR’s spring Talladega race.
Indycar fans, feel free to put your head in your hands at the point.
A proto-2010 NASCAR calendar has the Talladega race on the May 2, which puts only two weekends between it and the Barber race.
Those conflicting dates, along with the spectre of the wounded economy is likely to knock on the head the support of many casual Indycar fans, maybe NASCAR fans contemplating a trip to Barber to get their first taste of open-wheel racing in the flesh. If they’ve already shelled out I-can-only-guess-how-much for tickets to Talladega they’re unlikely to want to pay much-less-amount for Indycar tickets.
And make them pick one race to attend, and I have more than a little inkling what one they’ll pick.
And that pick could decide the future of Indycar in Alabama.