SPORTS

Iowa Speedway becoming 'crown jewel' for IndyCar Series

Track, series working on 2016 date; series wants to return, track ensuring it's a smart business decision

Cars pass the grandstands during the IndyCar Series Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway on Saturday, July 18, 2015. (Cliff Je
Cars pass the grandstands during the IndyCar Series Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway on Saturday, July 18, 2015. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
/

NEWTON — In the wake of the Iowa Corn 300, social media was once again buzzing about the show the Verizon IndyCar Series put on at Iowa Speedway.

For the past several installments of the yearly open-wheel visit to the 7/8-mile track in Newton, close racing and thrilling finishes have enthralled fans and delighted sponsors who shell out millions of dollars to promote races. But unlike their NASCAR counterparts where the schedule rarely changes, the scheduling for the IndyCar Series leaves some doubt year-to-year about stops on their tour — the Indianapolis 500 notwithstanding.

So after another nearly unanimously popular event, is IndyCar’s future firm at Iowa Speedway? To ask track President Jimmy Small, it’s likely, if not certain.

“IndyCar is, hands down, the best race here. We want to keep it here. It’s a part of our vision to raise the overall profile of motorsports. I can’t imagine it not being here,” Small said on Saturday. “They were the first sanctioning body to take a chance on us, first major race to happen here at Iowa Speedway, and there’s a lot of significance involved in their presence.

“This race, this series is really important to have here for a number of reasons.”

Where a series sees a venue fit into its plans and where the venue sees the series fitting into its plans don’t always match up.

As of this race weekend, IndyCar, by all accounts, sees Iowa Speedway as an important and vital part of its schedule because ovals are still a major part of the plan. The track and region have a major role in that, because the fans that attend the races are among the most intelligent and dedicated IndyCar fans on tour.

The evidence for that comes from people who follow the series to every track, stay in all those cities and interact with those fans. Longtime motorsports journalist and unabashed critic of racing, Robin Miller, has changed his tune over the years on where Iowa Speedway stacks up in the IndyCar mix. If you asked him in 2007, he couldn’t have wanted IndyCar to go elsewhere more. But he stood on pit road Saturday night and said on live television Iowa Speedway provides some of, if not the best racing all season.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“This has become one of the four or five best stops on the whole circuit,” Miller said. “In terms of racing, it’s always one of the best races. In terms of fans, they get it; it’s probably first or second. People wear T-shirts, they watch television, they watch other races, they come up and talk to me intelligently about racing.

“I think what you’ve got here, is I think IndyCar has figured out this is one of our crown jewels and they ought to keep this thing.”

IndyCar racers and team owners consistently praise the track and fans for the same reasons Miller mentioned.

They don’t want to lose a trip to the Midwest, either, which has historically been the foundation of open-wheel racing in the United States. Between that at the tradition of ovals in IndyCar, it’s more than appreciated.

“I think it’s really important because we don’t want to lose ovals,” said team-owner Michael Andretti. “It’s part of the tradition of IndyCar racing and this is a very important track. I think it’s very important to keep it on the schedule and I hope they’re going to be able to do it.”

Small said he’s had multiple conversations with IndyCar about 2016, even one in which the series brought him an offer for a date for next season.

The ball is squarely in Small and his staff’s court, as it were, to figure out a way to make it work for 2016. Even if there’s a desire for the race to return, Small has to be a businessman first and a fan second, because he still has a bottom line to consider. Iowa Speedway still is not removed from the financial pits it was in before NASCAR purchased the track in November 2013, so financially sensible decisions need to be made.

“You can’t overlook all the elements involved in bringing in a racing series,” Small said. “Between ticket sales, sponsorship and everything else we do here, it’s really important that we continue the tradition on that side of things too.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“We took over this business, we’re happy to be here and we’re here for the long term, but we have to make really good business decisions, too. It’s really tough out there and we’re doing everything we can to make this a more hospitable place and bring fans back that maybe have been turned off in the past.”

It’s those fans, and how many of them show up for the IndyCar race weekend, that provide a positive from Iowa Speedway’s perspective on bringing the series back.

Iowa Speedway does not release attendance information each year, but Small said the IndyCar event is always either first or second on the track’s attendance list for race events. The NASCAR Xfinity Series U.S. Cellular 250 weekend — which is always the first weekend in August and was the first Xfinity Series date Iowa Speedway received — is the IndyCar date’s rival.

This year’s version of the Iowa Corn 300 saw a somewhat late-arriving crowd, but a nearly full grandstand by race’s end and a packed concourse and tent area full of guests from Iowa Corn. Though it may not be the sold-out status it once was, Small and his staff were happy.

“Between the two, they’re pretty close. Weather always has something to do with it,” Small said. “Both those races and weekends are looking really good right now, relative to last year.

“With the momentum they’ve got on that (IndyCar) side, if I were to make a guess, I would say this weekend will be the one (with highest attendance) this year.”

So if there’s any trepidation from Small and Iowa Speedway, it’s in the desire to be 100 percent sure they’re making the track viable as a business. One of the keys to making the Xfinity/U.S. Cellular 250 date so popular is fans’ ability to know each year they can plan a trip around the first weekend in August. One of the most important ways for an event to make financial sense is having the date equity to count on and plan around.

Raising the profile of motorsports, endearing their fans, pleasing sponsors and a pure love of racing are all legitimate reasons for bringing the IndyCar Series back not just next year, but long term.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“We want them to be back. It’s just tough balancing the business side with the passion side,” Small said. “We’re talking about 2016 and they talked about date equity when I talked to them (Saturday). That’s really important to them, and I was really happy to hear that.

“We have to make smart decisions, and it has been one. You can’t do nine years in a row of anything without it being a good venture. We’re all over getting this done and getting them back.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.