The Holiday season is a wonderful time for celebration and reflection, and traditions are the magical slice of our culture that sustain our most important memories, restore our faith in values, and reconnect our paths with those closest to us.
Looking towards the 2016 NASCAR and IndyCar racing season, I pondered the most memorable 2015 track lessons on how tampering with our Motorsport traditions can alter the foundation of a race track’s folklore and jeopardize its viability, or ensure its future success.
IndyCar’s Vortex in Southern California
As a study in contrast, consider the ocean breezes and desert gusts that the Verizon IndyCar series has experienced in Southern California.
As a cornerstone of the Verizon IndyCar series, The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, running 41 years strong, consists of a pilgrimage of 175,000 fans to downtown Long Beach for this annual seaside festival. Each year, I engage with thoroughly satisfied fans from all over the US, as well as internationally, who often vow to return the following year.
Considered the city’s biggest event, the Long Beach Grand Prix showcases races from multiple series, including the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race for charity and the IndyCar series race. This event is intricately connected to the beach scene of SoCal. Tradition is evident everywhere, yet freshened around the edges with new twists, such as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Trucks being added as a supporting event in 2015. Basically, this race showcases great racing in a fun environment for spectators of all ages.
Yet, as an epic Motorsports failure lacking tradition, we only need to look to Fontana, an hour drive east of Long Beach. For 2016, the Auto Club (California) Speedway will not be on the Verizon IndyCar series schedule, after having hosted 14 IndyCar races since its opening in 1997.
On paper, Auto Club Speedway should be a stellar track for IndyCar with low banking and long straightaways. Open-wheel cars have set a pair of world records (including fastest qualifying lap by Gil de Ferran at 241.248 mph and fastest average race speed by Sam Hornish Jr. at 207.151 mph) at the two-mile superspeedway.
This year’s Fontana race was one of the best in memory, with 81 lead changes among 14 drivers, along with Graham Rahal winning the hotly contested race in a shootout finish.
Yet, the Fontana IndyCar race failed to establish any sense of tradition, a direct result of the date having been bounced around for four consecutive years. IndyCar offered up no favors, moving the race to August in 2014 and June in 2015, arguably the hottest times of the year in the valley east of Los Angeles. The June race was assuredly the smallest crowd ever in IndyCar’s history at the track.
IndyCar explored several alternatives to retain the Auto Club event as part of its 2016 schedule, including the track’s request to host the season finale. However, the race had lost its identity among the crowded SoCal entertainment scene.
Consequently, the Auto Club Speedway’s solitary major series in 2016 will now be the NASCAR weekend in March. NASCAR, having fine-tuned it schedule with a west coast swing during the more ambient March time frame, has generated three consecutive Auto Club Speedway sell-outs amid a consistent positioning in the series rotation.
The lesson is not just relevant to IndyCar. NASCAR also has experienced the trauma of messing with traditions, as evidenced by two unforgettable examples.
In 2003, the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina was moved from the mainstay Labor Day weekend it had embraced since 1950. For the diehard NASCAR nation, the Southern 500, which had served as a dynamic link to the sport’s rough and hard-hitting early years, virtually died that day. Instead, the Labor Day date was transferred to the Auto Club Speedway, which couldn’t be further from the sport’s southern roots.
After 12 dismal years shifting around the date, the Southern 500 finally returned to Labor Day weekend in 2015, with a retro motif that included 32 race teams running throwback paint schemes, an in-person celebration of 14 NASCAR Hall of Fame legends, and many other classic touches (such as a pre-race concert by Grand Funk Railroad), delighting fans of all ages who were buzzing about the event.
No surprise, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 throwback theme returns in 2016. Chimes track President Chip Wile, “Labor Day weekend has great historical significance for Darlington Raceway. It fits nicely with our Tradition Continues platform as we enter year two of this successful multi-year celebration of the history and heritage of our sport.”
It’s Bristol, Baby
Since hosting its first NASCAR race in 1961, Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee holds exceptional lore on the NASCAR schedule because of its distinctive features, including extraordinarily steep banking, an all concrete race surface, and stadium-like seating (affectionately described as “The Last Great Colosseum”).
Back in 2007, Bruton Smith (longtime founder and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Bristol Motor Speedway), always willing to experiment in a bold way, chose to repave the track by creating progressive banking so that the one-groove race line could be expanded to allow for more side-by-side racing. However, fans, historically drawn to Bristol by its unique short-track tightness of the circuit and continuous contact between cars, stepped away in droves.
After a steady decline in fan turnout and a drop in ratings due to the lack of bumping and close-quarters racing, Smith polled the fans in 2012 on what changes should be made to the track. Fans spoke loud and clear with a demand to “give us the old Bristol back, please”, which led to a diamond regrinding of the track surface.
In the August 2015 night race, Bristol showcased a noticeably improved fan turnout and a nail-biting finish, with Joey Logano’s victory margin of .22 seconds barely holding up, as Kevin Harvick pursued Logano relentlessly over the final 30 laps.
Now on the upswing, the legendary Bristol Motor Speedway has pivoted its formula in order to restore tradition to a race that had lost its luster, by listening to the fans and taking action, exemplifying why Bruton Smith will be enshrined as a 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee on January 22nd.
So heading into 2016, raise your glass and toast your most essential motorsports tradition, whether it is Monaco, Martinsville, or Indianapolis. And remember, tradition is like good health, never to be taken for granted, so get out there and catch a race in 2016.
By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano