A few words about Indycar in Phoenix

Everyone has what we here in the states call “pet peeves”. These generally don’t have anything to do with actual pets, but now that I think about it the way my dog seems to shed at will might be one of them. But that isn’t the pet peeve I’m writing about.

What I wanted to waste a few words on today is a pet peeve of when otherwise sensible folks jump to conclusions. Specifically, in a recent article by Robin Miller where he estimated the attendance for last Saturday’s Indycar event in Phoenix at 7500 fans, not counting suites, and not so subtly suggests it’s time for Indycar and Phoenix to once again part ways.

Now, there’s no denying the crowd was small, and has been small, for the three Indycar races since the series returned to Phoenix. But I would like to argue that there is still hope for the event in Phoenix despite Miller’s definitive claim that Indycar won’t “bounce back” here in the Valley of the Sun.

First, on the issue of crowd size. Not to quibble, but my rough estimate put about 10 people in each row in the main stands around the first tow turns. There are over 50 rows per section, but let’s round that number to 50, and there are about 20 sections. 10 x 50 x 20 means about 10,000 fans. Not a huge crowd, but that seems like a more realistic number.

Second, there appeared to be a few more folks at the race than last year. There were certainly no less, which is a significant point when you consider three things:
1. Attendance for NASCAR events is still declining.
2. The Indycar races at Phoenix in ’16 and ’17 featured hardly any passing.
3. Hardly anyone here knows what or where “ISM Raceway” is.

This third point is crucial, because in order to grow the fan base those potential fans have to know where to go. Miller says “billboards were sparse” but as I noted before I did see several billboards – but a picture of Mario Andretti, an Indycar, and “April 7” were the only discernable parts. The billboards had the new ISM Raceway logo, but outside of folks who went to the NASCAR race a month ago I don’t see how anyone else would know what or where that is.

This says to me there are about 10,000 people who (1) know where the track is and (2) are willing to still go watch the racing even if it is a high-speed parade. (And fortunately this year it was a lot less of a parade.) That’s the floor of your fanbase, and it’s not so bad if you need a race to meet your 18-race requirement for your sponsors. Plus it’s in a major market, which sponsors will want as well for schmoozing those folks in the suites that can’t be seen.

I mean, come on – why do you think they still have a race in Sonoma? It’s gotta be the schmoozing, because there can’t be more than 10,000 folks at that event.

So how do you get that number to double or triple in Phoenix? I’m gonna make one suggestion and honestly I can’t believe it hasn’t already been done: add more racing.

For the decade or so that Indycar wasn’t in Phoenix your humble host, an avowed oval racing fan, ventured to Long Beach since that had become the closest race. And you know what? It was an electrifying experience because from 8am to 5pm there seemed to always be some sort of racing on the track. Truck races, drift races, sports car races, Indycar ladder series, and for many years the celebrity races. In other words, there was never a moment to be bored.

Now, I get that an oval like Phoenix can’t counter with a convention center full of cars and some other things that Long Beach can do, but they can add more than two things happening on track all race day. That’s right, this weekend there were just two sessions of cars trying to pass each other: a USAC sprint car race and the Indycar race.

This is mind-boggling, because if I go out to Arizona Speedway, a small dirt track much closer to my World Headquarters, I get treated to all kinds of series of racing. Sprint cars, midgets, even those silly bombers. And I’m not suggesting bombers on the undercard for an Indycar race, but for crying out loud we can get more than two types of racing for an Indycar event, right?

I know the ladder series for Indycar are reluctant to race on ovals because mistakes can be extremely expensive. But non-ovals can be just as disastrous. Just ask Aaron Telitz, who after he demolishing his Indy Lights car at St Pete is now attempting to pay for it by peddling t-shirts and oil paintings. I am totally not making that up.

And even if they can’t get any of the ladder series here, are there no other USAC series that could be here? Or a Miata series? Or go-karts? Or…something? If they can add more racing then folks might not mind spending the entire day here, buying more food and beverages and whatever else is being peddled. As it is, I’d estimate about a third of the crowd didn’t even show up until right before the race. Clearly they saw no reason to come early.

Again, I don’t see how the good folks at ISM Raceway don’t get this, because one thing they did on Friday – and there were clearly less than 1000 people there on Friday – was having a quarter midget track set up behind the stands. There had to be several hundred people watching those races from not only the sides of the makeshift track but also from high above in the back of the grandstands.

I guess I’ve burned nearly 1000 words just to say this: People come to races to see racing.

I’m convinced Phoenix can be saved and can develop into a viable event if they start adding more racing to the “race day”. Well, that and make the billboards a little more helpful.

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