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The Score - Anthony Schoettle

Welcome to The Score, your place for hard-hitting sports business news, fast-breaking updates and fuel-injected debate.  Buckle up.  I'm your host, Anthony Schoettle, IBJ sports reporter.

Sports Business

IndyCar's latest race, like series' boss, loved and loathed

July 1, 2015
KEYWORDS Sports Business

It’s difficult to know what to make of the IndyCar Series these days.

We know this: There are a lot of contradictory opinions when it comes to this sport.

The race at Fontana last Saturday had relatively strong television ratings. About 407,000 households watched the race. That’s a small number compared to many other sporting events, but about twice the audience that watched the same race a year ago.

However, fewer than 10,000 fans watched the race live in hot conditions in southern California. Some estimates put Saturday’s attendance below 5,000. It’s hard to imagine a sport continuing with that kind of attendance. And Saturday wasn’t the first IndyCar race this year with attendance below 10,000.

Then there was the racing at Fontana. Some fans raved about it. I got a text message from an IBJ colleague Saturday night cheering the passing and excitement in the race. He wasn’t alone. Even some racers including Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter lauded the action on the track at the MAVTV 500.

The race featured four- and five-wide racing as cars raced near 220 mph into the corners. There were a record 83 lead changes among 14 drivers. Graham Rahal won the shootout.

But others, including former IndyCar champ Will Power and racing legend Bobby Unser, took issue with it, saying the pack racing that took place at Fontana was too dangerous and outfitting the cars with so much downforce negated the differences between skilled and not-so-skilled drivers.

“In terms of entertainment, last Saturday’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway [in] Fontana was a hit. As a piece of sport, it was almost entirely without merit,” said David Malsher, editor of Racer Magazine. “Once the track gripped up, not long into the second stint, and every driver’s throttle was planted on the bulkhead, it became a slipstreaming crapshoot.”

Commenters on racing message boards also were split about what Saturday’s race means for the open-wheel series. Some loved it, many derided it.

Opinions of Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar parent Hulman & Co., also seem to differ wildly these days. Racing fans aren’t sure what to make of him or the changes he’s instituted. 

While several key series sponsors and suppliers said early on that Miles, the former head of the ATP professional tennis tour and part of the group that helped Indianapolis land the 2012 Super Bowl, “gets it,” there seems to be a growing sentiment among team owners and especially drivers that he doesn’t get it.

“Mark Miles doesn’t listen to anybody who knows anything about racing,” said veteran motorsports journalist Robin Miller. “He’s got his own agenda.”

Miller complained that Miles takes his directions concerning the series from Boston-based consultants rather than those within the sport.

One thing Miller—as well as several team owners—take issue with is Miles’ decision to end the season by Labor Day so the race series doesn’t conflict with college and NFL football. Team owners—including Michael Andretti—have complained the compact schedule makes the off-season too long. Mechanics and engineers have complained the compact season makes the in-season grind too intense, causing exhaustion among crew members and creating dangers for drivers.

Miller called ending the season by Labor Day “the worst idea in the history of motorsports,” adding that the sponsors as well as team owners and drivers don’t like it.

While Saturday’s race in Fontana might have been one with high drama—and TV ratings—it looks like next year, it will be no more. 

Dave Allen, President Auto Club Speedway where Saturday’s race was held, said he wants a fall race and he wants some consistency on the IndyCar Series schedule—or the race won’t be back.

“We won’t take it,” Allen told the Orange County Register about hosting another IndyCar race in June. “We can’t. We’re not going to do that to our fans any more. It needs to be either September, October or later in the year, after Labor Day. If it’s another summer date, it’s not going to work, to be frank.”

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