INDIANAPOLIS — The beat goes on — and on and on and on.
The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule was recently released and it included a couple of key changes. Richmond (Va.) Raceway is in and Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway is out. Pocono, according to the current trend, is too dangerous for Indy cars.
Fifty years ago, championship racing — known today as Indy car racing — entered into the most enduring identity crisis in the history of motorsports. Once a sport that raced primarily on ovals — both dirt and paved — and an occasional road course, in 1971 the sport abandoned dirt racing and over the next decade began a longstanding shift toward road and street racing.
It would be easier if we forgot that inconvenient history and focused on current affairs, but the issue continues to dog Indy car racing. Factions within the sport have been fighting each other for 50 years: More ovals! No, less ovals!
Pocono was the latest high-speed oval up for debate. After a couple of serious crashes over the past few years, a growing number of drivers and team owners spoke out against returning to the giant 2.5-mile track.
The issue here is both cultural and generational. Over the past 20 years only a handful of drivers in IndyCar have come from an oval-racing background. There isn’t any question: High-speed ovals carry a higher degree of risk than road or street courses. For many young Indy car racers, fast ovals initially push them outside their comfort zone. Some racers adapt, but many never quite get comfortable with this form of competition.
Most current Indy car drivers are diplomatic about the topic, but it isn’t difficult to sense that most prefer road and street courses. That’s only natural; that’s where their roots lie. So with any dramatic crash or injury on an oval there is often quick pushback that perhaps these tracks are too fast and too dangerous.
In recent years we’ve seen at least one Indy car regular avoid ovals altogether, allowing their team to sub somebody else in for those races. This is as it should be; the people risking their neck should have the ultimate say in where they want to race. If you aren’t comfortable racing at high speed on an oval, don’t do it. There is certainly no shame in that.
How about this novel idea: Instead of changing the schedule — and walking away from ovals because contemporary Indy car drivers don’t want to race there — maybe we should change the personnel.
Let there be no doubt, there are hundreds of sprint car and midget racers in America who would leap at the opportunity to race an Indy car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Richmond, Iowa Speedway, World Wide Technology (Gateway) Raceway — and yes, Pocono.
In fact, given a couple of days for some phone calls we could easily guarantee enough candidates to fill the starting field — twice, maybe three times.
This is where the cultural divide in Indy car racing is most evident. For a great number of people within the sport, the mere mention of the words “sprint car” or “dirt” can trigger hysterical screaming, seizures and gnashing of teeth.
Here is the elephant in the room, the topic nobody wants to acknowledge. The fastest track on the IndyCar Series schedule is the beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s only a matter of time before it is suggested that the Indianapolis 500 is “too fast,” because contemporary drivers are not comfortable with 230-plus mph. When that happens, the debate will rage with renewed vigor. And the stakes — for the entire sport — will be vital.
It isn’t polite or comfortable to point out that likelihood, but it is likely, nonetheless.
After decades of struggle and division, IndyCar has made great strides in recent years to stabilize its schedule, its teams and the overall series. Some of the races have been very competitive and entertaining and there is a growing and positive momentum surrounding the series.
However, the recent debate about Pocono has exposed the divide that continues to haunt Indy car racing. A faction within the sport believes a modern Indy car has no place on a high-speed oval and belongs on a road or street course. Shorter ovals — such as Richmond, which is a three-quarter-mile track — are grudgingly accepted. Based on the outcome, this faction got its wish as Pocono disappeared from the schedule.
The debate will go on … and on and on and on.
But always remember: Every weekend at short tracks across the nation there are hundreds of American racers who dream of racing an Indy car — on every type of course — at high speed. All they ask is for a chance.