IndyCar filling major hole with Northeast expansion

As a fellow that’s lived in the northeastern part of the U.S. for almost a decade, I’ve considered the IZOD IndyCar Series’ midwestern core to be both a help and a hindrance. While the sport will always be concentrated in that part of the nation due to the presence of the Indianapolis 500, it needs to be able to sustain itself outside of the ‘friendly’ confines.

Fans have known this for a while now, yet us folks in the Northeast haven’t really gotten a true effort from IndyCar. Watkins Glen International is a fine road course and as the track where I saw my first IndyCar race, I have a soft spot for the place. But its position as the lone open-wheel outpost in this densely populated part of the country has also bugged me. The Glen can draw fans from the U.S. and Canada, but let’s face it — the Northeast has needed at least a few more events on the IndyCar schedule before the region could truly be dubbed ‘covered’ by the folks on 16th and Georgetown.

But that problem appears to have been solved. In the last month, the Indy Racing League has announced that their top series will be visiting the streets of downtown Baltimore (Md.) and, now, the one-mile oval of New Hampshire Motor Speedway next summer. NHMS will hold their event on July 30-31, 2011, and the Baltimore Grand Prix weekend will come right after on Aug. 5-7.

Short of sticking a street fight in the middle of New York City, this may be as good as it gets for IndyCar fans in this neck of the woods. The New Hampshire event basically takes care of the New England region, while the Baltimore race covers the Mid-Atlantic — and both of them, with a proper promotional effort, can suck in fans from the NYC region as well.

But perhaps the most important thing for ovalistas in the IndyCar fan base is that another speedway is on the docket.

“As evident last weekend in Iowa, our cars produce tremendous racing on short ovals,” said League CEO Randy Bernard, who was on hand for the announcement. “Additionally, New Hampshire Motor Speedway is strategically located in the Northeast, which fills a geographical gap in our schedule. I have to thank [Speedway Motorsports, Inc. owner] Bruton Smith and [track general manager] Jerry Gappens for giving us a great opportunity here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.”

The announcement culminated with two-time Indy 500 and IZOD IndyCar Series champ Dario Franchitti taking three hot laps around NHMS in his No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing machine prior to the start of today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup event at the ‘Magic Mile.’ The folks at SMI aren’t wasting any time either in trying to get people in the stands for next July, with tickets going on sale tomorrow and going for $35 to $75.

Gappens, long a fan of the Indy 500, has been working toward nailing down an IndyCar event at his facility for several years, and now that he’s got it, he thinks that the fans in New England — which get plenty of open-wheel exposure through the entertaining antics of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour —  will take to IndyCar.

“As an Indiana native and a fan of open-wheeled racing, I strongly believe that the people of New Hampshire will embrace this new breed of speed much like they do NASCAR,” he said at the announcement, which also revealed that the Firestone Indy Lights will be on the undercard. Gappens said that he wants the aforementioned Modifieds involved, too.

But beyond the fact that the Northeast is now well-represented on the IndyCar landscape, the announcements of Baltimore and New Hampshire gaining events can also be interpreted as a sign that the League is attempting to break away somewhat from ISC-owned tracks. The company, which is owned by NASCAR’s France family, has long been slammed by IndyCar fans as an entity that can only be bothered to promote NASCAR events.

And considering that IndyCar is targeting a 17-race schedule for 2011, there may be a couple of tracks that get dumped this offseason. ISC-owned facilities like Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway always seem to be mentioned as places that might get the axe, and we’ve even heard rumors fly about ALL the ISC tracks going bye-bye (a.k.a. “the nuclear option”). That’d be quite a bold statement from Bernard and Co., but would it be a wise one?

ISC may be the ‘Evil Empire’ to the faithful, but their major presence as a track conglomerate ensures that the League will have to deal with them. Maybe it’ll be at a reduced level in the future, but erasing them from the picture entirely? Is IndyCar powerful enough to pull something like that? We all know the answer. On the bright side, the strengthening of the bond between the series and SMI is definitely a good move for the former. Bruton Smith’s organization is a big hitter and Bernard is glad to have its help.

But more importantly, the last month has shown that showed that the League is taking a major and necessary step. By expanding to the Northeast, the IZOD IndyCar Series is now putting itself in front of millions of potential new fans. It’s a big risk, for sure. Baltimore isn’t exactly a hotbed for motorsports and the last time the series raced at NHMS, it couldn’t draw flies to the grandstands. But if the folks in Charm City and at SMI put the necessary effort behind pushing their respective events — and the league improves upon its on-track product — the rewards could be great.

The Northeast may or may not prove to be a haven for IndyCar racing, but sooner or later, the League had to take the shot. And now it has.


Materials from league and track press releases were used in the making of this article.