The level of intrigue was off the charts for last year’s inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
It was the first Verizon IndyCar Series race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. It would witness a standing start. It had arguably one of the least likely front rows in series’ history with Sebastian Saavedra and Jack Hawksworth nailing the timing in mixed conditions to start first and second.
It then had a crazy start line crash and the winner save just enough fuel to bring it home. It also had a picture perfect race day and a great walkup crowd.
By contrast, Saturday’s second edition of the GPI was, to me, the race equivalent of a college freshman who became a sophomore and was mailing it in for a biology class. He or she just needed to get the grade, get through and move on to the more crucial next step.
Whereas last year’s Grand Prix featured anticipation, this year’s featured exasperation.
It suffered from complications of “meh,” “May-itis,” overall fatigue and two better-than-expected lead-ins – the most recent series race at Barber Motorsports Park on April 26, and the much-anticipated debut of super speedway aero kits last Sunday.
There were positives to take away from this year’s event. For one, getting a title sponsor was a huge get, and Angie’s List signage was all over the IMS road course to go along with it.
As Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles told me in an interview, this was a case of the series “checking the box” before they even got to the race weekend.
The second was, aside from the Turn 1 multiple-car mess that kicked off the race, this was a needed clean race for the series. Long Beach needed to be clean, following two debris-littered caution-fests at St. Petersburg and NOLA.
This one needed to be clean because most of the teams have been flat out, thrashing to switch cars from road course-spec back to oval-spec, road course-spec again and now back to oval-spec for the rest of the month. With 23 of 25 cars finishing Sunday and the only two who failed due to mechanical issues, it was a mostly clean day at the office.
Thirdly, this event does give the full complement of Mazda Road to Indy series a showcase weekend at IMS. The seven races for Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 had more entertainment than most of the IndyCar race, and the enthusiasm from the drivers, teams and their families is infectious. While cynicism and skepticism can often rule the day in IndyCar, all involved here truly appreciate the opportunity to race at IMS, knowing that it’s their first step to one day racing in the Indianapolis 500.
Lastly, this gives folks who might not be as inclined to visit IMS on a day with huge crowds an opportunity to do so. RACER.com’s Robin Miller estimated roughly 20,000 in attendance with the Indianapolis Star’s Curt Cavin going double that, in the 40,000 range. The actual number most likely lies in the middle, and while Miles told me advance ticket sales were on par with where they were pre-race last year, it’s a near definite certainty that Saturday’s threat of rain hurt the walk-up.
However, there were certain issues that emerged during that made for a less than satisfying race weekend experience.
The “meh,” first. While the grounds, turn grandstands and certain other grandstands are lined with fans around the road course, the “feel” of the weekend just didn’t really exist. Friday for example was qualifying day, but it felt like a glorified practice day.
Saturday, pre-race, it looks very, very strange seeing empty grandstands either side of the front straight. Again, granted, these are not good seats for a road course race. But from an optics standpoint, the largely empty front straight just does not give off a good look for the series.
A pre-race fan walk was a good idea in theory, but not in execution. Crews and workers involved in the race should not have to be dodging selfie-obsessed fans mere minutes before the green flag, as they’re trying to do their jobs. The post-race track invasion though? That was great, and if it can be done earlier to ensure fans see the podium ceremonies, even better.
For “May-itis,” there is a faction of folks who prefer the month of May to the series itself, and that’s fine. But as IMS track president J. Douglas Boles told me earlier in the week, the sale of “Opening Day” Sunday May 3 didn’t work as it was thought of as either a test, or not really “Opening Day.” To have the “May-itis” interrupted by the GPI as almost something of a speed bump en route to the rest of the month on the oval didn’t quite work.
Would GPI work on the opening weekend of the month? It did last year, I thought, and there’s a part of me that thinks it would again in the future, even if it meant a tighter turnaround Sunday for oval opening day the next day.
There’s going to be fatigue either way, it seems. Last year, the oval opening day suffered after the Grand Prix. This year, the Grand Prix seemed to suffer after oval opening day, and it seemed there was an overall fatigue element given the New Orleans, Long Beach and Birmingham cross-country jaunt in as many weeks, and the car changeover between road course and oval spec.
Miles has made no secret of his appreciation for having four straight weekends on ABC from the GPI through Detroit, with the highlights Indianapolis 500 qualifying and the Indianapolis 500 itself on back-to-back weekends. But if the overall goal of increased ratings doesn’t materialize as hoped given the run of events, the best interests of the competitors must be achieved first.
Overall, I wrote going into the weekend that this race needed to avoid a “sophomore slump.” And while it was a clean race and a decent event, the fact it was at IMS and inevitably compared to everything else that is “oval dominant” in May meant it just didn’t feel as big-time as it could, or should feel.
Ideally, the powers-that-be work to correct the “feel” of the event even more for 2016 so that it has a truly “grand” feel beyond the Grand Prix name in the race title.