Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Fond Farewell for IndyCar

For the last 6 months I’ve been having a thought rolling in my mind that I haven’t been able to shake. It was really stewing for me Saturday night; but I wanted to be sure and give it a few more days to make sure I thought it out before putting it in print…

The IndyCar Series and its fans are going to regret leaving Twin Ring Motegi.

It really is a shame that the series may have turned its final lap in Motegi, Japan, because after you slice it up, you see that it was easily a net-positive for the series and its growth. It’s not to say that leaving Motegi is going to crush the series, just that the race was clear and definite positive for the series and fans, and it’s now going away.

Is the series justified in taking it off the schedule? Truly we don’t know that answer because we don’t know the financial situation of this race’s past agreements, but let’s just tackle a few obvious subjects that revolve races and what makes them tick, in terms of what normally kills off a race.

Was there a lack of support?
Fact is, this may have been the most supported race on the schedule outside of Indianapolis. It was 100% covered. The bill was footed to get teams there, put them in hotels, transport them around, and a sanction fee was paid on top of it. You can’t get around the fact that it was Honda’s race; they owned the track, they paid all the fees, and at no point were they threatening to pull support.  

Was there a lack of interest?
Had you looked at the stands of Twin Ring Motegi between 2006-2008, sure we’d suspect that the demand from fans was an issue. But in 2009 the stands began to get fuller, and then after they switched the race date to be later in the year, which meant much better and predictable weather and coordination with a Japanese holiday weekend; the stands were PACKED in 2010, AND 2011. Some sources in Japan estimate that Motegi on race day in 2011 swelled beyond 60,000 people; Motegi’s total population is under 25% of that; and its not like the track is near... anything; folks were traveling to get to the race.

Was the time-zone difference too much for TV?
For starters, the Olympics… and World Cup... and Formula One… and Australian Open and their subsequent ratings in North America would put the argument of time-difference to rest. But let’s push those aside and realize there is something clearer to see. This past Saturday in North America, the IndyCar race in Motegi finished just after the BYU-Utah football game ended, and BEFORE the Arizona-Stanford game ended, both being broadcast live on ESPN and ESPN2.

It’s actually a weekly practice for ESPN to put games on that late into the night, so obviously it can’t be too much to ask race fans to stay up a little later for 1 race out of the year (not to mention its staying up late on a Saturday!). We’re the ratings abysmal? No, over 100,000 people watched the race live on Versus Saturday, and keep in mind that was going against 3 College football games and the Floyd Mayweather fight.

Did it require too much travel time?
The way they planned the race the past few years, you’d think so; but none of it comes at the fault of Motegi’s logistics. Remember that Motegi used to be 1 week before Kansas on the schedule, and they did it multiple times like that, which means they surely could do that again.

Did it require a week off before the race? Likely, but it isn’t a bad thing, and it’s not the only break in IndyCar’s schedule, in fact there are 10 off-weekends in IndyCar’s schedule this year. That might be too many, but doesn't mean they couldn't cut 6 of them out and keep the one in front of Motegi. Is it harder to do a lot of back to back weekends, sure, but making things easy is a real poor reason to not do something, especially when things used to be tighter without catastrophe.

Was it disliked by the participants?
I have yet to ever see a driver or team member complain about Motegi, but more so, it’s never even neutral when it comes to Motegi, instead everyone involved is always ecstatic about the event, and its fans.

Tony Kanaan: "I had a gr8 time hr n Japan with @IndyCarSeries family. Japanese people were so welcome nd supportive. Thanks Japan hope to come back soon."

Will Power: "Nice to be home...but will miss was a great event...sad to not be going back...great fans and good people"

Dario Franchitti: "Jet lag coming back from japan sucks... hope we go back there to race though, amazing fans, packed the place even after all their troubles."

Marco Andretti: "Tokyo is the coolest city. Going to miss all of my friends here. Heading home!!!"

James Jakes: "Early start on route to the airport, back to the states. What an event this was, I'm gonna miss this place."

Does it fit IndyCar’s best interests?
To a xenophobe it sure doesn’t, but neither does Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre, undisclosed future China race, or street races, or road races, or whatever… but we need to ignore crazy internet people and some silly media folks for a second. IndyCar is an international racing series, no matter how you slice it. There are drivers from over 12 countries, and races in 4 countries, and they are about to add China (and there’s talk of returning to Mexico).

To thin the series should only be racing in the U.S.A. is incredibly shortsighted of the Series’ potential, not to mention bad strategy. The best way things grow in any market, is to fill voids no one is filling. Why get 25% of a track and fan’s attention because you end up being 1 of 4 races they hold in the year, when you can go to places where no one else is and take 100% of what is to take. 50K fans/ticket sales in Motegi without any competition.

Won’t China fill this void?
Not even close. For starters, even if you ignore the government difference, the culture and treatment of the events won’t be remotely alike. China is doing this for the same reason they wanted the Olympics, and the Race of Champions, because they want attention. China wants to use the race to show off their city and country, Japan wanted IndyCars because they wanted their engines and drivers to come home so they could see them in person; and they paid the Series for it, they bought tickets to do so; IndyCar support in Japan is no less worthy than IndyCar support in the States. China is also reported to be a street course (rumored to be building an Oval for the future though).

In fact, China getting added actually throws the reason behind leaving Motegi in the wind. The only reason cited by IndyCar and Honda for letting go of Motegi’s race was that it didn’t generate enough profit on either side for them to fight real hard for it… only except the Series will be visiting China now, meaning some scheduling could easily create a situation for both races to split some travelling costs. But let’s ignore hat aside, neither IndyCar nor Honda ever said the race lost them money/exposure... they just said it wasn’t “enough” to worry about compromising on.

Won’t another track fill this void, should it be easily replaceable?
Quick question, what is the only track in the last decade to regularly showcase 4 and 5-wide racing in IndyCar? Texas tops out at 3, Iowa at 2, and 3-wide at Indy gets Marty Reid into seizures; but it’s always been Motegi with its ridiculously wide track, that has drivers trying a million different lines. The front straight at Motegi is so wide, it could probably comfortably fit cars 13-wide.

Aside from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I think it’s safe to say that the egg shaped oval of Twin Ring Motegi is the most unique track on the schedule. It’s definitely been the only asymmetrical oval on the schedule for the last decade, and unless IndyCar gets Pocono or Walt Disney Speedway back on the schedule, there will never be another non-symmetrical track to challenge drivers muscle memory. Drivers have always voiced a love of the track because of the demands it had, it wasn’t artificially high-banked to create close racing, but it was so wide and with multiple grooves, than it never prevented passing, it very much encouraged it.

Most of all, the oval is the ONLY oval in the world that was built for AND used only by IndyCars. It was a haven that NASCAR would never penetrate.

Another interesting known fact is that this race was Honda’s, and you wonder if with the recent announcement of the return of Detroit Belle Isle (Chevy’s new home race) if Honda will stand for not having its own home race as well.

Beyond the track, is the fact that the fans of Japan are beyond unique; they have their own style, their own pre-race festivities from blue angels style motorcyclists, to insane aerial displays
But more than anything those things, fans filled the track for practice, for autographs, for anything… period, and they treated all the drivers greatly because they were just ecstatic that IndyCar was coming to their country… There was even an exchange program between schools in Motegi and Indianapolis… sorry but no other track will ever replace Motegi’s unique place as an IndyCar destination.

Though this isn’t the first time that IndyCar has parted with a track without attendance issues, unlike Richmond (promoter failed to secure sponsorship) and Nashville (promoter refused to pay non-discounted sanction fee), it is the first time that they’ve left a track without a foreseeable major issue, and worse yet, it was enjoyed by thousands.. and we’re all going to miss it once we realize it’s gone...

Sadly, since folks are too busy watching the championship or arguing about Brian Barnhart, Motegi was not given the kind of sendoff or thank you it deserves, so I’d like to at least end with 11 things I’m thankful Motegi gave us.

11. This ridiculous wreck
Watch it and think about it for a second. Sure we’ve seen wheel to wheel contact, we’ve seen cars get airborne, we’ve seen spins on restarts… but Jeff Simmons and Scott Sharp take it to a new level giving us all 3 including a high speed impact, with the backs of their cars! 

10. Roger Yasukawa lights it up, literally
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to fish out video of this; but in 2008 Roger Yasukawa had to come to an abrupt stop on the front stretch… because his brakes caught on fire! The strain Motegi put on cars is how you knew it was a driver’s track and not foot to the floor.

9. Egg-static egg-splanation
In case you didn’t know Motegi was shaped like an egg… and even if you did, too bad because Jack Arute Scott Goodyear and Marty Reid were bound to bring it up, or even show you an egg.

8. The advent of online streaming
Twitter, Apps and Timing and Scoring have spoiled the fans, but a small few like myself remember where it all started; as the only way to watch Motegi live. Just one screen and one radio feed, and no fancy anything.

7. Formula One Car vs. IndyCar … on an oval … with a standing start! 
As you might guess, considering the current IndyCar wasn’t made for standing starts nor the same amount of power, its beyond ridiculous.

This also wasn't the only time they did this, here's a video from the year before where the IndyCar stays more even

6. De Ferran’s non-spin/spin in 1999
CART was reversing time on car’s spinning out of turn 4 well before Brian Barnhart was even thinking about it.

5. Turn 2 (and 4) – the rookie eaters
Motegi’s turn 2 doesn’t have the storied history that Indianapolis’ 4th turn has, but from a year-by-year percentage, it’s fairly even, it’s a car eater. The one thing Motegi 2 has over Indy 4, is that Motegi often struck in the opening lap(s):

Marco Andretti, Mario Moraes, Kosuke Matsurra and Bertrand Baguette were all recent opening lap Motegi victims. I’m still not sure what is worse, spending all May only to crash in turn 4, or travelling all the way out to Japan to crash in turn 2.

4. The 2009 race – a.k.a. Briscoe loses Championship
A lot of people seem to forget how close Ryan Briscoe was to winning a championship over Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. The 2009 Motegi race was a duel between all 3 drivers, including a lot of hard racing between both Ganassi drivers, until a yellow flag flew just as Briscoe was pitting, which should have given him the race (and locked up the championship)… should have. 

3. Danica’s win
Like her, love her, hate her, it doesn’t matter. Pretending this victory wasn’t significant, is like trying to pretend Barak Obama being the first black president wasn’t significant. But even if you don’t care for Danica too much, Motegi proves yet another thing… their race broadcasters are so much better than ours.

2. The 2003 race
A great race. If you can find it online, watch it. Think about this, Scott Dixon won the pole, Tomas Scheckter ran the fastest laps, Tony Kanaan led the most laps… and Scott Sharp won the race. 

Tons of action between Scheckter, Kanaan, Dixon, Kenny Brack, Michael Andretti and more, and ended with Dixon and Kanaan making contact and Scott Sharp winning.

1. The best command to start engines.. EVER

...and after that I just leave you with this... Tony Kanaan's on-board camera for an entire race at Motegi:


Anonymous said...

I honestly can't think of anything I'd miss less than Motegi. Wait, Barber and Mid Ohio and Infineon are equally "fun" to watch.

SteveJ said...

Correct me if I am wrong...but I believe that it was not the sole decision of IndyCar to not come back. Honda decided that for IndyCar, didn't they, in that Honda was no longer willing to bear the extra costs for transport, etc.?

Allen Wedge said...

You're correct Steve. it was both Honda and IndyCar agreeing that they didn't want to make it work. But from everyone I talked to, it wouldn't have been very difficult to make it work out, they just both decided it wasn't in their best interests to make it work; and since none of us know the actual financials, they could be right. But it was also before China was in the equation, and before Motegi literally packed the stands for its second year in a row.

Dylan, as to the "fun / boring" factor, it all comes to opinions. The only Motegi race I didn't enjoy, was this year, I saw clear plot lines and interest in many years, and some pretty sweet/unique racing. But I'm also the kind of person who wants each race to be unique, I don't want them all to be high banked packed field affairs.

We could argue all day about which tracks we think are boring (*cough* Belle Isle), but the fact remains that over 50,000 people attended the last two races at Motegi; they certainly thought it was worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

What a great post.

Motegi didn't always produce great races but it didn't always produce bad ones either, so in that respect - shocker - it was just like anywhere else. Always was a fan of the unique shape of the track.

I'd hoped Honda would continue to want to pay to bring the series over, I'm sure it was they who paid for CART to go over when there was engine competition so I thought it would be no different this time, though perhaps they paid INDYCAR for more things than they paid CART.

The Japanese fans are incredible and they make me want to go to a race there. I haven't ever said the same about the Chinese, but I suppose there is still time. The Japanese and the Chinese aren't exactly fans of each other so you have to wonder how this news has gone down with fans there who are not aligned with Honda. Or were they all aligned with Honda? Hard to say.

I wonder if we might find Motegi pop up again in 2013 or 2014, on either layout. It wouldn't surprise me and as you say, it makes perfect sense to tie it in with another race in the region to help with travel costs.

Loved the line about crazy internet people, I'm sick of those who complain for the sake of being heard.

Doug Patterson said...

I always enjoyed the Motegi race. As a fan of MotoGP and Formula 1, the time differential never really bothered me as I'm used to watching motorsports at weird hours of the night/morning. The only fiscal concern I had about Motegi was the value to the sponsors. ...of course, I'm not sure what the value is for most sponsors in China, either, but apparently, many have been clamoring for a China race.

Ayasha Kieth said...

Motegi race was very cool and I really enjoy watching it! everyone was giving their best to win the race! :)

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