Iowa was a reminder of why IndyCar needs more bullrings

Iowa - 2023 - Indycar
Iowa - 2023 - Indycar

“We’ll be back,” Hy-Vee chairman Randy Edeker said prior to the final 250-lap contest during the Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend doubleheader. It’s a statement I want to keep hearing around IndyCar and short-oval racing.

The series’ return to Iowa Speedway last year offered up a perfect reminder of how few things in racing are more spectacular to behold than watching open-wheelers rip around its various bullrings. And we need more.

Looking back 30 years, we had plenty. The 1993 CART IndyCar Series schedule presented 16 races, one fewer than today’s 17-round calendar, and four of the stops — a quarter of the season — was spent on short ovals. In 2003, with the all-oval Indy Racing League, five of the 16 tracks were short ovals, and in 2023, we’re stuck on two short-oval stops with the Saturday-Sunday races at Iowa’s bumpy 0.875-mile test of patience and bravery, and the final oval of the season, hosted just outside St. Louis, at World Wide Technology Raceway’s unique 1.25-mile challenge.

Former short-oval tops at Phoenix, Milwaukee, Loudon, Nazareth, and Richmond were the norm. Some were flat, some had banking, and they all delivered excitement, just as modern IndyCar fans have witnessed at Iowa.

And sure, it would be nice to know that someone other than Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden is a lock to win in Iowa, but we weren’t lacking in thrills throughout the rest of the field as rising and falling fortunes moved drivers in and out of the spotlight. So let’s do more.

“The oval piece is what differentiates us from anything else in the racing world,” Penske Corporation president Bud Denker told RACER. “We’re never going to lose sight of that at Penske Entertainment. We don’t need less ovals; we need more ovals. But the right ovals.”

Denker, who leads Penske’s Detroit Grand Prix event promotions team and plays a central role in making the Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend happen in Iowa, wants more Iowa-esque drama to offer the series’ fans.

“You saw this at Iowa where the track’s worn out, the tires do exactly what they should be doing with degradation, so if you put a new set on, you’re seconds faster and the passing is so formidable,” he said. “But it’s the timing of when you go to new tires that makes the difference, and if you get the setup wrong or the timing of your stops wrong, you get trounced.

Milwaukee’s last stint on the IndyCar calendar ended in 2015, but there’s talk that the Mile is being primed for a return. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

“So that sort of excitement is what we’re looking for in another short oval. I agree on that, Roger [Penske] agrees, and that’s something we’re focused on.”

The latest calendar rumors have the August Indianapolis road course round being traded for the long-awaited return to the Milwaukee Mile. Additional rumors suggest WWTR’s short oval, which ran as a doubleheader in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, could return to the twin-race format in the future.

“I think the idea of a night race one day and a day race the next provides some diversity as an idea to develop,” Denker said when asked about WWTR. “We haven’t crossed that bridge for 2024, but would never rule it out.”

Take the Iowa doubleheader, add in Milwaukee, give fans twice the amount of racing at WWTR, and IndyCar has the magic formula to showcase its greatest strength. Find ways to incorporate Richmond’s 0.75-mile whiplash into the schedule before the end of the decade, and figure out how to bring IndyCar back to the northeast at one of its ovals, and we’ll have a perfect calendar.

​To get there, Denker says new regional promotional partners like Hy-Vee, the midwestern grocery store chain, will be needed to turn the events into similar versions of Iowa where musical acts — more than just motor racing — attract new and larger audiences.

“For us, the fact that we produce our own shows and it takes a lot of capital goes into whether we can do something,” he said. “We have that in Detroit with General Motors which allowed us to have concerts there. And what Hy-Vee is doing in Iowa is unlike anything taking place in our sport.

“So give me 10 more event partners like GM and Hy-Vee, and we can leverage this model and replicate it elsewhere. Having these short ovals is key to our docket, for sure.”

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