The addition of Richmond Raceway to the 17-race 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule coincided with the subtraction of Pocono Raceway, inviting comparisons between the two and prompting the series to try something new.
Pocono’s second act began in 2013 after a 23-year hiatus. It started as a 400-mile event but quickly returned to its traditional 500-mile length the next year, joining the 500-mile races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway as a revitalized version of Indy car racing’s triple crown.
In many ways, Pocono marked the beginning of IndyCar’s ongoing strategy to revisit and revitalize tracks that have historical significance to the series. More old favorites followed in years subsequent to Pocono’s return, including Phoenix, Road America and Watkins Glen in 2016, Gateway in 2017, Portland in 2018 and Laguna Seca this year.
INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles noted both the strategy and some of its highlights when he spoke at a Richmond Raceway event.
“Along the lines of caring about our traditions … we’ve thought long and hard about our schedule strategy and returning to places that mean so much to our fans where we have a bright future, at this point in time, has been important to us,” said Miles.
“So we’re back in Road America and having fabulous racing, fabulous events there. We’re now back in Gateway in St. Louis and the same is happening. We’ve had our second race and they are doing a phenomenal job in reacquainting us to our fans and bringing new fans out in that part of the country. Our finale, our next and final race this year, will be in Laguna Seca — a place that all IndyCar fans know very, very well. And now to be back in Richmond is really the icing on that cake.”
Miles didn’t mention failed returnees — Pocono among them — which have been equally as common as the successes. For every Road America and Gateway, there’s a Phoenix and Watkins Glen. Both were highly anticipated returns that failed to generate the attention needed to once again become fixtures on the IndyCar schedule.
The series’ return to Laguna Seca, while also anticipated, has yet to prove itself, despite already being confirmed as the season finale for a second go-around in 2020.
The challenge facing Richmond is ensuring its event lands on the Road America side of the ledger rather than the Pocono side. While the ovals are wildly different — one a 2.5-mile triangle and the other a 0.75-mile D-shaped oval — both feature only left turns and both seem intent on highlighting IndyCar as the only star of the show.
Part of the success of the returning tracks that have found audiences is the depth and breadth of the value offered. Road America isn’t just IndyCar; it’s the Road to Indy, Global MX-5 Cup and more. While this type of schedule is common for road and street events, it hasn’t been the norm for oval events — until Gateway. The 1.25-mile oval outside St. Louis had four series present for two days of racing. Combined with the other fan-centric initiatives employed by the track and its regional promotion of the event itself, Gateway stands as a new type of oval experience and an apparently wise one.
Based on Gateway’s success, one might expect IndyCar’s return to Richmond to take on a similar flair but track president Dennis Bickmeier made it clear that his venue has a different plan.
“Right now we don’t have any companion race with the NTT IndyCar Series,” said Bickmeier of support series for the June 2020 event. “At this point not sure that we’re going to add anything.
“I’ll say from our point of view … we really, really, really wanted to focus on the IndyCar piece of this, getting it right. Getting it right right out of the gate. We’re really focused on a lot of on-track with these guys: practice, qualifying, racing.”
Focusing just on IndyCar seems reminiscent of the series’ seven-year run at Pocono. With that experiment having already failed, the recreation of it seems foolhardy at best and dooming Richmond to fail at worst. Yet the two-day event at Richmond, while for now featuring just IndyCar, won’t actually resemble Pocono at all.
Like Texas and Iowa, Richmond’s race will run under the lights on a Saturday night instead of replicating Pocono’s awkward mid-afternoon start. And unlike any other oval, the schedule at Richmond will be condensed.
“One of the things we’re going to try here next year is a little different schedule formula,” said INDYCAR President Jay Frye. “We’ll come in Friday night and practice from 7 to 9-ish, I would say is the goal.
“Saturday we’re going to come in and practice, qualify, race. It will be a bam-bam-bam-type thing to try that cadence and formula to see how it’s going to work.”
In short, the contracted schedule will allow Richmond to avoid Pocono’s long stretches of quiet, empty schedule periods. The true test of the new weekend format will be in its execution and its success will be confirmed if the experiment is replicated at other oval destinations that might benefit from a similar approach.
While it may seem that IndyCar has a lot riding on Richmond having traded one former track for another, the series has shown little interest in keeping events on the schedule that aren’t performing as well as they should.
Benefitting Richmond’s return 10 months before the scheduled race weekend is that both the track and the community around it appear keen to welcome the return of North America’s premier open-wheel series. To ensure a long future, fans will need to show their support for the event and its experimental schedule by filling the grandstands and the newly renovated infield on June 26–27, 2019.