Ingram's Flat Spot On Alabama Bound by Jonathan Ingram I'm headed to the Barber Motorsports Park this weekend, scene of the first race by the IZOD IndyCar Series on the undulating Alabama track. It's always nice to have race weekends...
Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
I'm headed to the Barber Motorsports Park this weekend, scene of the first race by the IZOD IndyCar Series on the undulating Alabama track. It's always nice to have race weekends relatively close to my home in Atlanta, but I wonder about the level of interest from area residents and how the racing will turn out on a relatively narrow, twisty circuit.
I've seen this movie before and the ending has not always been a great one. Under various formats and names, Indy-style racing has come to the Southeast regularly since I first moved to Atlanta in 1979 -- and invariably has failed to stir enough interest. If NASCAR can sell well in the Midwest, I wonder, why doesn't Indy racing do well in the Southeast? If the IZOD IndyCar Series does well in Kentucky and Texas, why not in the heart of Dixie?
It's not the first time or the last time I'll say this, but the best race I ever saw at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where I've been covering events in 1976, was the first Indy Racing League event on the 1.5-mile circuit won by Buddy Lazier in 1997. They raced three-wide at times at speeds considerably faster than NASCAR events before Lazier emerged the winner over Billy Boat. When I asked friends from Charlotte who had been in the grandstands about the race afterwards, they complained about not being able to see the numbers or identify the cars due to the high speeds! (And yes, they were NASCAR fans.)
The first lap of 200 mph I ever witnessed in person was a qualifying lap by Tom Sneva on the old true oval on the south side of Atlanta. From its formation in 1979 until 1984, CART raced at what was then known as the Atlanta International Raceway, but never created much of a stir despite some very fast races before moving on. The Indy Racing League came to Atlanta as well in the late 1990's, but didn't deliver enough of a crowd to continue.
There was some tragic luck, of course, for the IRL down South. The fan deaths due to a wheel that got knocked into the grandstands in Charlotte in 1999 concluded the run of an event that seemed to be building momentum. The IRL continued in Atlanta through 2001 before the lack of fan interest took it off the calendar.
The return of IndyCar to the Southeast is funded primarily by George Barber, the founder of the track bearing his name. With a layout initially designed to attract a round of the MotoGP world championship, Barber has yet to create something akin to a major event at the facility just east of Birmingham. (Everybody and his uncle wanted to come see the US F1 test scheduled for the facility back in February. Alas, that deal did not pan out.)
Perhaps this time will be different -- despite a schedule that falls on the weekend of The Masters in a state with a fondness for golf. A double-header with the Grand-Am Rolex Series, which is already established at the track, and IndyCar may prove to be a winner.
The IndyCar series may not have major sponsorship on enough of its cars and it may have more than its share of paying drivers one way or another. But as it has for the past several seasons, the series has some world class drivers, interesting personalities, good competitive racing and a solid line-up of teams using the standard Dallara-Honda package.
There is the sort of feel-good story emerging in the IZOD series that tends to resonate with racing fans. Having labored in the vineyards without a whole lot of success, Will Power has emerged as a winner in the season's first two events -- after coming back from the broken back suffered at the Infineon Raceway last season.
On the other end of the scale in a series that never seems to run out of interesting stories, can Graham Rahal and Sarah Fisher make things happen in a marriage of necessity? Will Danica Patrick continue to emerge as a decent road racer -- and continue finishing ahead of Andretti Autosport teammates Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti? Will the established big guns at Penske and Ganassi start taking over once again?
The challenge for new IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, actually on the job little more than a month, will be to translate a compelling series into better TV numbers and more ticket sales in markets outside of strongholds like Indy, Long Beach, Texas and Canada.
The Birmingham area is as good a place to start as any. And maybe even the acid test.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.