In May 2016, Watkins Glen International was the knight in shining armor that saved the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule after Boston fell off in a sea of red tape and disgruntled fans who needed ticket refunds.
When the 2016 deal was struck in May, track president Michael Printup and INDYCAR president of competition and operations Jay Frye had extolled how quick the deal had come together.
“In less than two weeks putting together a major motorsports deal? I’d like anybody to beat that. I wouldn’t want anybody to beat it, because Jay and I own it,” Printup said in May 2016.
But all good things come to an end and despite the buzz, driver excitement and improved track surface, no suitable date was found to continue into the third year of the deal in 2018. The event was co-promoted between the track and INDYCAR, and while Hitachi was a presenting sponsor in 2016 in a year that exceeded expectations, the race did not have either a title or presenting sponsor in 2017 on a weekend that fell short from a numbers standpoint.
Watkins Glen released a statement on Thursday that read in part, “After two years of partnership, Watkins Glen International and IndyCar have agreed to separate for the 2018 season. This is a decision purely based on an inability to find a date that works for the fans, the series, and the track.”
Reading between the lines a bit there in looking at Watkins Glen’s 2018 schedule, while it makes sense on paper to suggest IndyCar could join IMSA’s July 4 weekend at the track, it’s not a realistic proposition.
IMSA has stated repeatedly that while it is happy to partner with IndyCar at the Long Beach and Detroit street races, it does so because that’s the only way for IMSA content to join an IndyCar headliner weekend, and would have no way of getting to those race venues and markets otherwise. IndyCar has not been in the position of needing to join up with IMSA for any of its races, and true to form, IMSA is running at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in May on its own next year – not with IndyCar in July.
Beyond IMSA’s flagship championship, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, it also runs all of its Challenge and one-make series on that weekend, and those series of content would need to be removed to provide an opening for IndyCar to join that dance card. An ISC-owned track, Watkins Glen is also keen on having NASCAR properties – the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and IMSA series – at the circuit.
Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles explained more about the Watkins Glen drop-off during a teleconference later on Thursday.
“There is a change, obviously. Watkins Glen has come off the calendar. I want to take this opportunity to thank Michael and everybody there for being a great partner, jumping into the breach when we had an opportunity late in 2016, doing everything possible to make it work and put on a great event in 2017.
“But it turned out to be a really tough time in New York. So we’re particularly pleased to be able to kind of replace that traditional IndyCar venue, a track that all of our paddock like, with another old friend in Portland. We’re out here now with Graham making the announcement in Portland about returning to Portland,” he said.
Miles rebuffed allegations that Watkins Glen had “bailed out” of the third year of its contract.
“It would be completely unfair to characterize this as them bailing out,” he said. “It was very mutual, great respect. We appreciated the discussions and the process.
“There were discussions with them where we kind of looked week by week from early September, earlier into the summer. There just wasn’t a week that worked on our calendars and theirs.
“We considered all kinds of possibilities, maybe even kind of partnering with other events they already had on their schedule, on weekends, which would have been interesting. But in the end, just none of them really were feasible at this time.
“We have the utmost respect for them. We will continue to keep a dialogue with them. If there is a time when we can revisit it, we’ll be eager to do so.”
Graham Rahal said the lack of fan support at Watkins Glen was a shame considering the speed of the place, and that the date didn’t seem to work.
“I think as a series have to continue to go to places that we see great crowd support. I think if you look at the IndyCar Series across the board, we’ve seen great increases in fans and audience at the track. We have to keep that going,” Rahal explained.
“As much as I — there’s tons of places I’d love to go race at. Selling, I don’t know how many tickets, but the place needs to be packed. A lot of venues that we go to are successful at that. Look at St. Louis, 40,000 whatever people there.
“But we haven’t seen that at Watkins Glen. It’s a shame because it is a great track. But we’ve replaced it with Portland, where I think we can have a lot of success here.”
Quite whether Watkins Glen will have a fourth act with IndyCar remains to be seen (1979-1981, 2005-2010, 2016-2017).