Are Club Tracks the Answer for IndyCar?


It’s a hot topic: the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is leaving many cold.

With just 16 races across 15 events this season, the IndyCar tour will hit its halfway point after the second race in Detroit during May’s final weekend.  Formula One and NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series will only be a third of the way through their calendars then.

That makes a fast-paced schedule for a fast-paced series, and it’s fast falling out of favor with fans who want more races and with team owners like Chip Ganassi who struggle to justify the financial implications of an extended off-season.

While Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar’s parent company, won’t yet change the deliberate, pre-Labor Day ending, he sees opportunities to expand the schedule on the other side.  With those plans, Miles targets 20 races.

He’s certainly capable of growing the series.  Doing so in a way that pleases all constituents, however, is proving harder.

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Miles wants international races, as Brant James reports, but team owners Ganassi and Roger Penske hesitate.  Fans and TV partners may not like the time zone differences on that front, either.  Miles targets Boston for a season finale, but debacles with the Olympics bid lead to questions of Boston’s ability to host logistically demanding events — and Bostonians’ willingness to welcome them.  A return to Cleveland may be coming, but that’s a summer race, keeping the calendar condensed.  It also fails to add a new geographic market in a series that poorly serves fans in many parts of the country.

If those proposals do little to address the question of how IndyCar improves its schedule, the answers might be found in Avondale, Louisiana.

There, NOLA Motorsports Park hosts IndyCar for the first time this weekend.  It’s an event created under Mark Miles’ watch by ever-enterprising promoter Michael Andretti.  If it’s a success, it just might be the model of the future.

NOLA isn’t like most IndyCar venues — even the permanent road courses like itself.  It’s a club track.  It doesn’t host the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship like Mid-Ohio or the Sprint Cup Series like Sonoma.

No, NOLA hosts something entirely different: bachelor and bachelorette parties.  Corporate events.  Birthdays.  Weddings.  If you want cars on the track, try arrive-and-drive karting or open track days for anyone — not just Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Juan Pablo Montoya — to bring their personal vehicles for hot laps.  There are similar events for motorcycles, too.

Outside of IndyCar, the closest things you’ll get to racing at NOLA are experience packages in various exotics for high-speed, high-priced fantasy camps.

There are even plans to bring in real estate, building something of an automotive “country club.”

The concept might sound odd, but it’s exactly what IndyCar needs amidst scheduling woes.  Club tracks have something other venues lack: an alternative revenue stream.  That positions them both to pay IndyCar sanctioning fees and to justify doing so.

When race fans come to NOLA this weekend, and when the nation sees it on TV, there’s something to sell.  Enjoy the race?  Bring your car out and drive the track.  Want to go faster?  Do the Grand Prix Experience.  Looking for an event space?  It’s right there.

NOLA isn’t just selling tickets.  It’s selling an entertainment destination.

Adding IndyCar gives visibility to that pitch, and it adds allure to it.  Now, NOLA can be marketed to club racers, corporate training hosts, or event planners not just as a top-tier facility, but as one that has been raced on by names like Hélio Castroneves and Marco Andretti.

Other club tracks can increase their value by doing the same.  Permanent road courses and ovals do not get those benefits; all they can do is drive admission and place some trackside ads.  Street circuits rely on economic impact figures that can be tossed aside as soon as new politicians take power or tourism never materializes.  Turnover on San José, Baltimore, São Paulo, and others highlights a real flimsiness in the supposed benefits of street racing.

Put simply, paying for a race is an easier pitch when there are incentives to host one.  Club tracks have them, and they have the ability to pursue them through a unique business model.

Club tracks wouldn’t just add dates, either.  They solve the off-season problem, too.  Most of them are in warm climates — it’s hard to operate such a weather-sensitive business anywhere else.  These venues become prime candidates to host races in February, March, or even earlier, cutting into the long hiatus on the exact side of the schedule that Miles and IndyCar want to.

There are downsides, of course.  Club tracks lack the prestige of historic settings like Road America or Laguna Seca.  They are rarely in major cities, as street circuits are.  Designed for amateurs, they may not have the most inspiring layouts, either.

Those tradeoffs will be put to the test this weekend.  If they prove minor, IndyCar’s next major play could be ordering a few more like NOLA.

Should they do that, schedule talk will really heat up, and this time, in a way that won’t leave IndyCar burned.