With all the anger and frustration borne out of Sunday's finish for the MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking the only happy person in the paddock was the winner, Ryan Hunter-Reay. But there was one other person that was pleased with the way things turned out at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Jerry Gappens, track general manager and native Hoosier, had fought for years to get his track on the IZOD IndyCar Series circuit. His hopes finally became reality Sunday as a crowd of around 30,000 witnessed a bizarre and entertaining return of major open-wheel racing to New England.
Not that everything was perfect. In addition to helping cause the anarchy that ensued in the closing laps, the rain also undermined walk-up ticket sales on race day, keeping attendance from growing further. But as a promoter, Gappens sounded quite pleased with the memorable ending – and even more so with Will Power’s middle-finger salute to Race Control, which was captured by ABC cameras and went viral amongst the online citizens of the INDYCAR fan base.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Now what if a driver in NASCAR got on pit road and gave the double-bird to Mike Helton and the boys in the booth?’,” he said. “I’d sell tickets to the big yellow trailer for people to sit in on that conversation. But you know what? Will Power had a passion about what he was doing. He had an emotion and this is how he makes his livelihood, so I don’t criticize him.
“[A reporter] showed me a picture of it and I’d love to put it on our ticket brochure for next year. Front cover.”
Perhaps that could be worth a few more tickets for next year’s running if NHMS and its owner, Speedway Motorsports, Inc., decide to keep going forward with hosting the series in years to come. INDYCAR’s deal with the “Magic Mile” was a one-year pact, but considering series CEO Randy Bernard’s comments earlier on Sunday, one wonders if there’s already a plan on the table for 2012.
“I think that we knew from day one that it was an area we were going to have to work on, but it’s an area that we like and a track that we really like,’’ Bernard said. “And, I think that sometimes you have to invest in your future, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Indeed, New Hampshire, with its proximity to the Boston market, as well as the upcoming Baltimore Grand Prix, which stands to pull fans from all-over the Mid-Atlantic, represent a pair of ambitious expansion attempts by INDYCAR.
If the sport is to grow, it’s not only going to have to regain some of the fans lost in the open-wheel schism of 1996-2008, but also make new ones in new places. The Northeast had been underserved following the loss of the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) round, but now, the series aims to build itself up in a densely populated and lucrative part of the United States.
New Hampshire now has a baseline to improve upon. While 30,000 fans is not bad for a sport that hasn’t been seen in the region since 1998, the Magic Mile seats 95,000. Suffice to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done and Gappens knows it.
“I’m an optimistic guy, so you can say, ‘Well, it was a third full or it was two-thirds empty,’” he said. “I say it was a third full and I don’t apologize for any event that attracts 30,000 people to it…Having said that, there’s room for improvement. We need to do better than that and at the end of the day, I’m responsible for selling tickets to New Hampshire Motor Speedway with the team we have in place to do that.”
Luckily for him, he and his team now have plenty of stuff to push to their neighbors if a return engagement for INDYCAR is in the offing for 2012 at Loudon.
Following a rough start on cold tires, the drivers showed that they could certainly produce side-by-side racing at this track. There was a shake-up in the championship. And at the end, of course, there was the restart that triggered so much controversy, even turning Power, his “angry birds,” and even INDYCAR president of competition/chief steward Brian Barnhart into trending topics on Twitter in the United States.
No, this race certainly won’t be remembered for all the right reasons. But it was still quite an afternoon – which was what Gappens was hoping for.
“As a promoter, I love the controversy,” he said. “I like the storyline changes, the drama, the entertainment. We had that today…There’s so many personalities and storylines in the IZOD IndyCar Series and that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to get them here and have them put on a show for the fans.”