Does IndyCar have a future at Chicagoland Speedway?

This may be the only way racing fans at Chicagoland Speedway will see Danica Patrick in 2011 - racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
And each time I roam, Chicago is,
Callin' me home, Chicago is,
One town that won't let you down;
It's my kind of town.
Frank Sinatra - My Kind of Town
Sweet home Chicago.

It's a town that simultaneously garnered a World Series and the MLB record for World Series absences in the same decade. It's a place that is arguably the Mecca of deep-dish pizza. The nation's tallest building is only a few blocks away from some of the most impressive museums this side of New York City. And it is the current home of the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup trophy, thanks to the Chicago Blackhawks.

It is also home to the track that has featured some of the most thrilling oval racing and some of the closest finishes in IZOD IndyCar Series history. Chicagoland Speedway, located just outside Chicago in Joliet, has been a fixture on the IndyCar schedule for a decade and has only Texas Motor Speedway as its rival for the best value in IndyCar oval events outside of the Brickyard itself.

But if things shake out the way everyone expects them to, this will be the last IndyCar race at a track that, ironically enough, began its life as a joint partnership between International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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It took an alliance between NASCAR's Bill France Jr. and IMS' Tony George, along with investors like Dale Coyne, Ed Rensi, and Steve Spiess, to make Chicagoland Speedway a reality. The 1.5-mile oval speedway came to fruition alongside the state-of-the-art Route 66 Raceway built by Coyne in 1997.

But that was back in the days when NASCAR and the Indy Racing League were still doing business with each other. They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and some of the strangest were France and George. Some have said that NASCAR was interested in putting a stake in the heart of its main US rival CART when they allied themselves with the upstart IRL. Others believe that the NASCAR-owned ISC was simply trying to expand its portfolio of premiere events at ISC tracks.

Whatever the reason, the alliance between ISC and IndyCar appears to have come to an abrupt end with the regime change that ousted George and installed Randy Bernard as IndyCar CEO. ISC tracks, once the backbone of the Indy Racing League, may not be in evidence at all in the 2011 season.

Bernard has repeatedly stated that IndyCar is interested in working with partners who are invested in the series' success, and he apparently found a willing party in Bruton Smith, the head honcho of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) and long-time rival of ISC. Smith and Bernard seem to have established a very cozy relationship, and Smith's protege and CEO of Texas Motor Speedway Eddie Gossage acted as the promoter consultant on the recent ICONIC committee deliberations.

Left unsaid but certainly implied is that ISC - and, by extension, NASCAR - is becoming less interested in partnering with IndyCar. Already it is all but official that IndyCar races at Kansas Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Watkins Glen will not return to the 2011 schedule. Homestead will likely be replaced by SMI-owned Las Vegas Motor Speedway as the site of the 2011 IndyCar finale, while Watkins Glen will be supplanted by a street race in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. In Kansas Speedway's place, New Hampshire Motor Speedway will see a return of IndyCar racing for the first time in years.

The wholesale replacement of ISC tracks on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule leads many to believe that Chicagoland Speedway will also be left off of the 2011 event list.

The current IndyCar event was replaced for 2011 with a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, the result of a date change from July that will see Chicagoland's race become the first race of NASCAR's 2011 championship Chase. The previous NASCAR race date in July was filled by the NHRA, which rescheduled its early June event at Route 66 Raceway to accomodate.

Theoretically, IndyCar could have taken over the NHRA's slot in June, but Chicagoland president Craig Rust elected instead to go with a "cheaper" NASCAR Nationwide Series event. Coincidentally, the June race date immediately follows the Indianapolis 500, and Danica Patrick is slated to run the Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland - a scheduling coup for ISC to be sure.

This seems to leave IndyCar out in the cold with regards to a 2011 race at Chicagoland. However, according to Autoweek, negotiations apparently are still ongoing between Bernard and Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of ISC, that might still save Chicagoland as an IndyCar destination. A possible compromise deal might see Chicagoland back on the 2011 IndyCar schedule if a companion event at ISC-owned Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California is also given a race date.

It certainly behooves Bernard to exhaust all possibilities to keep Chicagoland in IndyCar's portfolio. Unlike Kansas, Homestead, and Watkins Glen - all tracks whose on-track action and performance frankly are not irreplaceable - Chicagoland Speedway is one of IndyCar's "crown jewel" tracks. The highlight reels sent out by IndyCar to sell the series' product to sponsors inevitably include racing action from Chicagoland, and for good reason. It would be bad business indeed to do away with a marketing resource that critical to the series' success.

At this point, unfortunately, there are no guarantees. So while the Windy City will likely see another in a series of classic Chicagoland IndyCar races this Saturday night, no one knows if it will be the last.

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