Oh, Craig Rust. Your decision to replace the IZOD IndyCar Series next year with a NASCAR Chase race and a Nationwide Series event at Chicagoland Speedway is not sitting well with IndyCar fans after last night's amazing event.
Last night's Peak Indy 300 at Chicagoland had everything that IndyCar fans love about racing. It was as good an advertisement for IndyCar-style oval racing as you could hope for. It was so good that NASCAR fans on Twitter were trying to get their compadres to tune in during the late stages.
And yet, you couldn't help but notice the vast expanses of empty seats in the grandstand, any more than you'll be able to pretend that the abysmal TV ratings that will be announced over the next couple of days do not exist.
Two things were obvious last night - the IZOD IndyCar Series is capable of showcasing one of the most exciting products in modern motorsports, and the number of people that care about that is very small.
You can't argue with the excitement factor. 29 cars - the largest field for an IndyCar race in ages - took the green flag and spent the next couple of hours running two-, three-, and even four-abreast. That may seem like small potatoes to stock car fans until you realize that they were doing this at 215mph without the safety of fenders or the benefit of restrictor plates to keep the cars artificially packed together. Lap after lap, those watching the race held their collective breath expecting a disaster and seeing instead a field of cars riding the ragged edge of one.
If that were not enough, for a while you had some actually compelling stories playing out through the field. Tony Kanaan had another of his patented charges through the field on the outside line; Sarah Fisher got the lead by pit strategy - her first laps led in almost a decade - and stayed there with good race strategy for much longer than anyone anticipated she could; Ed Carpenter parlayed a lack of practice time and a fair starting position into a strong top-five run until pit miscues took him out of the running; Dan Wheldon and Marco Andretti, invisible at best for most of the season, interrupted the normal "red car" monopoly of the top five with surprisingly powerful showings.
That's the good news.
The bad news, of course, starts with the crowd. Simply put, there really wasn't one. A generous estimate would be about 15,000 in the stands, but it was clear that whatever the reason - the Bears playing preseason football, a lack of promotion from track owner ISC, the inconvenience of making it out to Joliet, and so forth are all excuses proffered at one point or another - not very many Chicagoans elected to show up in person for this event.
It continues with the TV ratings. There's no way to sugarcoat it - VERSUS is a ratings sinkhole. And it didn't help that last night the VERSUS broadcast crew were definitely not on their A-game. The cameras were slow to pick up on the action or the cause of on-track incidents, the broadcast personalities had an off-night (none worse than Jack Arute, whose now-weekly "prop" segment was as painfully awkward as an episode of The Office), and it seemed as though the producers had the bad luck to go to commercial just as the on-track action was the most captivating. But even if VERSUS had been at their best, the ratings would still come out looking like a child's fractions quiz.
What sticks in IndyCar fans' craw the most is that these two issues - race attendance and ratings - are not an isolated problem for IndyCar oval races. A vocal segment of IndyCar fans continues to bang the drum and claim that the reason IndyCar isn't more popular with the general public is that there aren't enough oval races or American race drivers to compete in them. And yet, every year the returns on IndyCar oval races - with the exceptions of Texas Motor Speedway and Iowa Speedway - show damning proof that directly contradicts that theory. It is hard to understand why in the face of races like Saturday's at Chicagoland, but that is the reality.
Could it be that the latest headlines from the series have had an effect? Maybe. Seeing Split-era politics and maneuverings raising their ugly heads again in IndyCar is something nobody wants to see. Or maybe the fact that IndyCar's product has not changed appreciably in almost a full decade is to blame. The same cars, the same teams, the same results over and over, year after year, cry "STAGNATION!" to people, and while NASCAR has proved that constant tinkering isn't much better of a philosophy, at least they have been brave enough to try to improve their formula. Meanwhile, the IndyCar owners' latest position actually suggests that doing nothing until 2014 might be the way to go - viva inertia!
How about the economy? Well, there's always that. But let's be frank here - IndyCar was having these issues before the economy really started to nosedive. Sure, it doesn't help that people don't have the money anymore to blow on a weekend at the racetrack, and that might account for the grandstands looking even more empty than we're accustomed to by now. But unless that downturn also affects whether people can afford cable TV, it doesn't solve the question of ratings.
That's a hell of a downer to go on after such a great race. It also doesn't do justice to the positives that have been introduced since Randy Bernard took over the IndyCar reins. Sponsorships are increasing in number if not in dollars, interest is rising from potential owners and manufacturers, and 29 cars starting a race is no small accomplishment after years of fields that struggled to hit 20.
In other words, as bad as things can look this morning, there is still plenty of hope to be found if you don't mind digging for it a little. But not enough, unfortunately, for Chicagoland Speedway to have IndyCar back next season. A second-tier NASCAR race with Danica Patrick meandering around midpack apparently makes better financial sense for Rust and his ISC overlords. The worst part is, the ratings and attendance will most likely prove them right.
There's not a lot that can be done for 2011. Chicagoland is almost surely off the schedule, and nothing else of note is going to change about IndyCar's cars, drivers, or broadcast partners. 2012, on the other hand, may yet be a turning point for IndyCar racing (as long as the status quo owners don't get their way).
If so, perhaps we won't have to wait very long to see the heart-in-your-throat, adrenaline-pumping racing action that we saw last night make its return to a series that desperately needs it.