Print and Go Back ESPN.com: IndyCar [Print without images]

Saturday, December 10, 2011
Leaving Las Vegas the wrong call

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Tony Kanaan
Close racing on ovals helped build Indy car racing into a dynamic sport. Can the series survive long term if it leaves tracks such as Las Vegas Motor Speedway?

IndyCar Series officials have assigned blame to the wrong thing.  What they should do is look in the mirror.

The decision Thursday not to return to Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a mistake and won't solve the problem that caused Dan Wheldon's death at LVMS in October.

Blaming the track is like baking a cake with salt instead of sugar in it, then blaming the oven.

IndyCar needs high-speed ovals in big markets unless the series is content to become nothing more than a niche sport or a minor league for Formula One.

American open-wheel racing is based around the most famous oval track in the world -- the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So how in the world does it make sense to center the majority of the IndyCar Series on street courses, road courses and foreign events?

CART/Champ Car went down that road to its ultimate demise, along with allowing the team owners to run the league, the same path IndyCar is headed toward now.

Wheldon's death was a horrible tragedy that shouldn't have happened. But the track isn't the reason.

The reasons include cars racing too fast, a design that could have been safer (and will be this season), too many cars in the race and too many drivers who didn't have the necessary experience competing on high-banked ovals.

All those things can and will be fixed. But IndyCar is fooling itself if it thinks it can run away from its problem by not returning to the place where the problem surfaced.

If IndyCar plans to stop going to tracks where a death has occurred, better start with Indianapolis. Is anyone so naive to think what happened at Vegas couldn't happen at Indy?

Wheldon's car became airborne at Vegas because it was launched off the rear tires of a car in front of it. The chances of that happening in the new car design, which debuts in 2012, are remote because the chassis has bodywork around the back of the tires.

IndyCar also should seriously consider adding an enclosed cockpit, something unlimited hydroplane racing did more than 20 years ago, dramatically reducing fatalities in that sport.

I've heard some experts say it can't be done and won't help. I heard the same thing about the SAFER barrier a decade ago.

Some fans insist a canopy is sacrilege, ending the traditions of open-wheel racing. Have you seen the new car? Calling it truly open-wheel is a bit of a stretch.

Others have said they won't be able to see the driver in an enclosed cockpit. How absurd. All that is visible now is the top half of a driver's helmet.

Dario Franchitti
Racing on ovals is the very foundation of Indy car racing and today's IndyCar Series.

The series must evolve, but moving away from tracks like Las Vegas and Texas Motor Speedway would be an enormous mistake. Texas is without question the best racing in the series. It's also a track that draws good crowds.

TMS president Eddie Gossage said he has not signed a sanctioning agreement with IndyCar for 2012, but he hopes to soon.

IndyCar has yet to announce its 2012 schedule, but as it stands now, IndyCar would close out the season at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. ACS is a 2-mile oval where the cars go flat-out all the way around the track and often bunch together, similar to Texas or Vegas.

So why is it OK to cancel Vegas and not ACS?

Most oval tracks have struggled in recent years to draw decent crowds. But people have the flawed opinion that temporary street courses draw better crowds.

The inaugural event at Baltimore last year, which was billed as a huge success, is reportedly $12 million in debt and may not continue.

The vast majority of auto racing fans in the United States are oval track fans, many of whom grew up going to local short tracks on Saturday night.

For many years, most of these people (especially in the Midwest) were the foundation of American open-wheel racing. Young drivers wanted to race Indy cars. Now they want to race in NASCAR.

IndyCar needs to work to get some of these up-and-comers back, but abandoning high-speed ovals only steers them away.

  

Most of IndyCar's problems still stem from the fact that open-wheel racing endured a bitter feud and a 12-year split into two competing leagues starting in the mid-1990s.

Don't make the same mistakes all over again. Leaving Las Vegas and moving away from high-speed ovals is not the solution.

Making the cars safer, slowing the cars down, marketing the product more aggressively and trying to lure young American drivers back to open wheel is what needs to happen.

One other thing: Wheldon loved high-speed ovals. He excelled on them. I feel confident in saying this is not what he would have wanted.

The blame has fallen on the wrong place. Look in the mirror, IndyCar.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.