Back when I was still at Northeastern University, I wrote a bi-weekly web column on the state of the Indy Racing League (now IZOD IndyCar Series) for Panther Racing. I remember one piece from 2004 or 2005 – around the time that the IRL was mulling over more road and street course racing – that had me go off in a rant about how the league couldn’t turn its back on its oval heritage.
At this point, the split with CART/Champ Car was still in high gear and I remember ending the piece with some overdramatic line about how the IRL was set to become what it was meant to destroy. We all know what happened after that.
Eventually, the twisty tracks came along at a larger rate and now, the re-unified IZOD IndyCar Series now strives to maintain a 50-50 balance (or something close to that) between the speedways and the road/street courses.
My upbringing as an oval fan began with NASCAR. Yes, NASCAR. It was my “first love” when it came to racing and when I eventually got hooked on the IRL a few years later, the appreciation for speedway racing continued on. But as the series evolved, my views on road/street racing did too and I gained a deep appreciation for the discipline for a variety of reasons.
For starters, road and street course racing has become the equalizer for teams outside of the Big Two of Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, who have won the bulk of the ovals for several seasons now. Familiarity breeds contempt and as we’ve seen Ganassi and Penske continue their domination of the series, fans look for teams and drivers that can pull one over on them.
Luckily enough, most of those would-be challengers – drivers like Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan and Justin Wilson, to name a few -- have solid road/street skills. That’s why we’ve found ourselves looking forward to courses like Toronto as they hold the promise of a shakeup to the routine, even as one of those Penske drivers, Will Power, has held the title of “king of the streets” for some time.
Then there’s witnessing the ability of those racers as they maneuver the cars through tight turns, trying desperately to out-brake their rival and come out the other side with position. A well-timed pass in a hairpin or a narrow left or right-hander requires equal amounts of strategy and chutzpah. It all makes for great television and even greater entertainment for those in attendance.
Even when they can’t pull it off – a prime example being Helio Castroneves and Paul Tracy’s crack-up at Toronto in 2009 – it can still lead to memorable moments such as the subsequent raining-down of boos upon poor Castroneves for his role in Canada’s favorite son getting knocked out of his home race.
On a more simple level, these races also allow us to stretch our legs a little bit and get a feel for other parts of the world. By that, I mean we’re not held to closed courses. Part of the fun of watching a road/street event is seeing the cities and their local pride, whether it manifests itself as packed hillsides at Barber and Mid-Ohio or party-goers enjoying the festival atmospheres of a St. Petersburg or a Long Beach (and hopefully, a Baltimore later on).
Our next stop on the schedule, Toronto, has shown to have plenty of pride for its IndyCar event in the past, but as the event hits its 25th anniversary, it finds itself in rehabilitation. A return to the glory days will have to come bit by bit. That said, it remains an integral part of the sports scene up there and every summer, the city gets to show itself off.
Finally, there’s the versatility aspect. The gradual addition of road/street racing up to its current form in the IZOD IndyCar Series has given it a bigger scope than an all-oval series could ever have, even if the latter had ALL the legendary open-wheel speedways -- Michigan, Fontana, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and the like. I’d certainly be happy to watch such a series, but the 50/50 balance of the current IndyCar forces drivers to truly be great at everything. It makes for a high competition level and that, in turn, gives the series more respect in the eyes of the public.
So while I still prefer ovals to road/street courses, I certainly know why there are so many diehard fans of the twisty tracks. Like speedways, these events have their own good things to bring to the table – exciting racing, scenic views, loyal fans and generally helping to make the argument that IndyCar has the best drivers on the planet.
My evolving thoughts on this have also been helped along by an open mind, so if you’re an oval traditionalist, I urge you to try and give the road racing discipline a fair shake. Hopefully, you'll find that you can indeed enjoy the best of both worlds.