IRL gives Michigan the boot after 39 yearsWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Michigan International Speedway will celebrate its 40th birthday next season, but its inaugural racing series won’t be around for the commemoration. Indy-car racing at MIS will stop at 39 years with Aug. 5’s IndyCar Firestone Indy 400.
It was the Indy cars that launched the two-mile oval in 1968 and sent it on its way to becoming one of the most influential racing facilities in the country, but apparently the Indy Racing League no longer wants to be a part of it. That despite the fact the race has produced 13 different winners in the last 13 races, the MIS Winner’s Circle has served as an Indy-car “Who’s Who” over the years and the annual event has often outperformed Michigan’s other tenant, the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series.
Ronnie Bucknum’s victory in the inaugural race at Michigan in 1968 was his only Indy-car triumph in an unremarkable racing career, but things became sometimes unbelievable in years to follow in regard to the sleek, fast and sexy racing machines with their wheels exposed.
But the IRL, in its infinite wisdom that is often tempered by its infinite imprudence, has informed MIS, in a somewhat underhanded way, that it is no longer needed as a venue on the IRL’s road map to indifference.
It’s a convoluted story that includes greed and politics, which should surprise absolutely no one who follows professional athletic endeavors.
Here’s the overview in a lug nut:
The MIS IndyCar date has been the last weekend in July in recent years, which has given the track at least three weeks to do its turnaround before the annual NASCAR Nextel Cup circus arrives in the middle of August.
Last year, IRL officials told MIS that this year’s IndyCar date would have to be Aug. 5, which leaves only two weeks before the Nextel Cup race, a very tough marketing situation. But MIS was also advised that it was only a one-year deal and another date would become available for future IRL races.
That didn’t happen. Same date next year. Take it or leave it.
MIS president Roger Curtis left it in a huff.
Curtis said he had a verbal agreement with the IRL that next year’s race date would be July 22. He said he heard rumors last September that the date would not be available and then was officially informed three or four weeks ago that the July 22 date next year no longer existed, at least for Michigan.
“I drew a line in the sand and said our date had to be in July,” Curtis said. “They made it clear they were not going to move us back to July. I said I would cross that line, but let’s find a way to do it. I asked for four or five things I wanted them to help us with and they went down the list saying, ‘No, no, no, no.’ And they made no counter offer. It was like they were holding a gun to our head and saying, ‘Take it or leave it.’
“They were saying, ‘We’re done with you,’ by giving us a date we can’t work with. I’m saying, ‘You guys don’t want MIS. You’ve got the market covered.’ And on top of all that they wanted an increase in the sanctioning fee. That made the message loud and clear that they wanted us to be gone. It makes us look like the bad guys.
“They have no loyalty whatsoever. I asked them why they couldn’t move the Nashville date (second week in July) next year and they said they couldn’t do that. I said, ‘Why not? You told us we had to move our date and we’ve been around for 39 years. The newcomer (Nashville has hosted seven IRL races) gets the pick of the litter.’
“It’s really frustrating. We don’t want our track to have a black eye. They said they didn’t feel we were growing the event. We wanted to promote the IRL, but we needed a date where we could grow it.”
Truth is, MIS hasn’t been able to make the IRL race a growing concern, in some ways because it hasn’t gotten much help from the IRL. And now Michigan, like just about every other NASCAR venue, has to substantially increase its efforts to sell NASCAR Nextel Cup tickets because sellouts are no longer the norm. That’s very difficult to do with another race within two weeks of its marketing window.
The IRL does not have a lot of room to berate MIS for not growing the event when the IRL hasn’t grown its own series. There were 18 cars in the Mid-Ohio starting field July 22. Imagine 18 cars on the wide, sweeping two-mile MIS oval where attrition has often had the last word. When the quality of the product hasn’t appreciably increased, why should the sanctioning fee be enlarged, even though MIS pays one of the lowest sanctioning fees among IRL
There are other culprits in the Michigan squeeze-out, starting with NASCAR, which moved the date of its Indianapolis Brickyard 400 from the first weekend in August to this July 29 to accommodate ESPN.
That’s because ESPN wanted its half of the televised NASCAR season to start with the Brickyard 400.
Curtis asked the IRL if it would give him the Saturday of the Brickyard 400 weekend to run the Indy-car race at MIS. He said he was told that IRL founder Tony George wouldn’t have any of that, considering it head-to-head competition.
And what about Mid-Ohio coming out of nowhere to grab the July 22 date, a date that it will keep in all probability? That’s because Honda, the IRL’s lone engine supplier and sponsor, wanted a race close to its large manufacturing facility near Mansfield.
Of course, if MIS could have sold, say, upwards of 70,000 tickets for its IRL races, we wouldn’t be having this conversation and the race could be run on Easter Sunday for all that matter.
The three options that Curtis reportedly proposed to the IRL, including either the Mid-Ohio or Nashville dates or the Saturday of the Brickyard 400, obviously had no chance. The IRL didn’t see them as options.
Adding Mid-Ohio now gives the IRL three permanent road courses and two street courses, this an organization whose mission statement was to promote oval-track racing in the United States.
John Griffin, vice president of public relations for the IRL, said he was, “Surprised, and it was frustrating for all of us,” when it was obvious that MIS would no longer be associated with the IRL.
Imagine how surprised and frustrated he would have really been if the old squeeze play hadn’t worked and Michigan graciously accepted the August date forever more?