Worlds will collide at Iowa Speedway this weekend when the Izod IndyCar Series visits for the Iowa Corn Indy 250.
The six-year-old layout 45 minutes east of Des Moines represents a clash of oval racing disciplines because it combines the sub-mile length of a short track with the racing characteristics of a superspeedway.
In the bigger context, Iowa is an interesting player in the IndyCar Series' identity as the league attempts to determine the right mixture of road racing and ovals.
Under INDYCAR sanction, the IndyCar Series has gone from 100 percent ovals (16 of 16) in 2004 to just one-third (five of 15, with a potential 16th event to be determined).
While Eddie Gossage has taken over from Tony George as the pitchman for Indy cars on ovals, he is facing a tough sell. The main reason that some 20 oval tracks have come and gone from the IndyCar schedule is that they have been unable to attract large enough crowds to make a profit on an open-wheel race.
Fans are vocal on forums and blogs in their support of oval races, but they haven't been putting their money where their mouth is. By contrast, attendance is on the rise at most, if not all, of IndyCar's events on street circuits or natural-terrain road courses.
Iowa has been the rare exception among ovals. Texas Motor Speedway's Gossage might laugh at the notion of 35,000 fans as a good crowd, but it looks a lot better packed into a stadium that holds 35,000 than it does in a facility three or four times that size.
So while Iowa may be small in terms of numbers compared to Indianapolis or Texas, it's a winner in terms of perception and local participation. The best of both worlds would be for IndyCar to fill those 100,000-seat venues, but even NASCAR struggles to do that these days.
The ovals versus road racing question is a hot-button issue because IndyCar is looking for a quick-fix replacement for its canceled race in Qingdao, China. Within the paddock, support is overwhelmingly in favor of attempting to get on board with an already scheduled American Le Mans Series event at the Road America road course in Wisconsin.
But there is also an opportunity for IndyCar to add an oval race and create a more balanced schedule. While IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard ruled out Kentucky Speedway, Michigan International Speedway has indicated interest. There was even thought of adding a second race at Texas Motor Speedway, the track that has hosted more Indy car races (23) since 1997 than any other venue, but Gossage declined.
Meanwhile, Iowa Speedway offers its own unique challenge to the competitors and rulemakers. The aero package in the past has always been closer to a short oval setup, but look for the trend of decreased downforce to continue this weekend. That could result in slower lap speeds and a different style of racing.
The biggest difference this weekend in the attempt to spice up the oval racing show is the introduction of heat races as an experimental way to determine the starting field. After practice times are logged, the odd-numbered drivers from ninth back will stage one heat race, the even-numbered competitors will run another, and the top eight will race to determine the order at the front of the grid.
Each 30-lap heat is expected to last 12 to 15 minutes, and there are questions and concerns -- OK, complaints -- even before a wheel has been turned.
One top driver estimated that a draft around Iowa's 7/8 of a mile is worth about a tenth of a second per lap. What's to stop the three Penske, four Ganassi or three Andretti cars from running around as a group attempting to tow themselves into the top eight?
The track suits me, and I have always done well there. I am not sure about the heat races for qualifying, but I need to take advantage of my previous experiences and hope that we can be in contention for another podium finish.
”-- Tony Kanaan
The encouraging thing is that IndyCar and one of its promoters are willing to shake things up. Iowa has always drawn comparatively strong first-day crowds of 5,000 to 8,000, and the heat races should deliver significantly more excitement than single-car qualifying.
"I'm interested to see what we have with the new car and new downforce," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, winner of last weekend's IndyCar Series race at the Milwaukee Mile. "With the qualifying heats, it's going to be mixed up. It's tough because you'll really have to take it easy and not hurt your race car in a heat race."
The Iowa races have run the gamut from boring to brilliant over the years. There wasn't much action to speak of until the track weathered in, but the past two years, the winner started deep in the field and drove to the front.
Tony Kanaan has been on both sides of close Iowa finishes, and the 2004 IndyCar Series champion expects more of the same Saturday night.
"The track suits me, and I have always done well there," Kanaan said. "I am not sure about the heat races for qualifying, but I need to take advantage of my previous experiences and hope that we can be in contention for another podium finish."
Marco Andretti is the defending race champion, and he arrives in dire need of a good result after a disastrous start to his 2012 campaign.
"I need a win now more than ever because we've been fast almost every week, but we just keep having something go wrong," he said. "I've been in Iowa a lot lately, doing commercials and traveling across the state promoting E85 ethanol and Iowa Corn, so I'd really love to be able to make it two in a row here Saturday night. It would really mean a lot to me."
Assuming a 16th race is confirmed, Iowa marks the first race of the second half of the season. Team Penske's Will Power holds a 31-point lead over James Hinchcliffe, with Scott Dixon third and Hunter-Reay fourth.