Why the time was right for IndyCar's return to Richmond

Why the time was right for IndyCar's return to Richmond

09/03/2019

Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan expect compelling racing when IndyCar returns to Richmond in 2020.

Richmond Raceway president Dennis Bickmeier has long coveted an NTT IndyCar Series race and pulled the trigger as soon as an agreement made sense.

Bickmeier has served in his current capacity since 2011 and recently oversaw a $30 million renovation to the track’s infield and external entertainment facilities. In addition to a pair of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekends, the track also debuted a grassroots weekend this spring with Late Models and Modifieds.

Richmond Raceway had a new facility and wanted to showcase it as many times as possible over the course of a year.

Enter IndyCar, which will race at the .75-mile short track on June 26-27 next season.

With the Circuit of the Americas replacing Phoenix Raceway this spring, there was a need for an additional short oval on the IndyCar Series schedule. It’s even more valuable to have a new oval on the schedule with the sanctioning body unable to reach an agreement with Pocono Raceway, which will fall off the schedule for the foreseeable future.

Indy cars have raced at Richmond, but not since the Indy Racing League contested events from 2001-2009. These are vastly different cars with a considerably more talented roster.

Bickmeier is an IndyCar fan and having the opportunity to showcase its current roster on his new facility was a project several years in the making.

Here is everything you need to know about IndyCar’s return to Richmond in 2020.

WHY NOW?

For Richmond, the decision to acquire an IndyCar date comes down to diversifying the schedule and responding to fan demands.

“I’ve been here since 2011,” Bickmeier said. “Questions I get asked a lot: ‘When is INDYCAR coming back?’ The other one is: ‘When is the Truck Series coming back?’ We’re delivering both of those to the fans around here in 2020. I feel good about that.”

As for IndyCar, there was a street race in nearby Baltimore from 2011-2013. While that race didn’t have staying power, it was an attempt to race at a popular market for the Indianapolis-based open-wheel series.

The Richmond-Baltimore markets tend to be top-five for IndyCar each race weekend and that’s something league CEO Mark Miles wants to tap into.

“Television, they seem to always almost be top-five wherever we race,” Miles said. “We know there are IndyCar fans here. We have a pretty good sense that these folks we are sitting here with know how to get them to the track. It’s hard to do, but it’s an obvious place to get to. We wanted to get this done. We’re glad. We’re going to see what happens next year.”

WHAT KIND OF RACING TO EXPECT?

With short ovals, delivering an exciting race can kind of be a tricky proposition.

On one hand, the races at 7/8-mile Iowa Speedway are generally compelling as have been the races at 1.25-mile Gateway, which features a much narrower Turns 1 and 2. On the other hand, IndyCar could never get the formula right at flat one-mile Phoenix after a three-year stint from 2016-2018.

IndyCar president Jay Frye expects something closer to Iowa, especially with the league’s current commitment to lowering downforce and increasing horsepower.

“With this current car, less downforce, more horsepower coming, look at Iowa the last few years in ’17, we still had the manufacturer kits that had the high downforce,” Frye said. “We had about 300 on-track passes for that event. In ’18 we had almost a thousand with the current car, current configuration.

“We feel good about the direction. We’re going to come back in October and have a test with Firestone with a couple cars, then March with the full field. We’re going to make sure we give fans a good show. I think we’re going the right way.”

Drivers Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan agreed with that assessment.

Kanaan said Indy cars had too much downforce the last time they raced here. And to his point, this is when the league was still aiming for pack races each year at intermediate tracks. He recalled being wide-open at Richmond and not being able to even pass back markers.

Kanaan says Firestone produces a much better tire for less downforce these days too.

“Last time we were here, we didn’t deliver what the fans wanted,” Kanaan said. “Since Jay and Mark came onboard, they’ve been working extremely hard with Firestone and Dallara to get the right package. I believe we found that. If you guys watched the last two years in Iowa, how the race has been. This track is extremely similar.

“I’m not expecting anything less than 800 passes here when we come back.”

Dixon expects there to be passing opportunities when they come back to race, especially following a tire test in October.

“Yeah, I think three and four will be a lot easier to run side-by-side,” Dixon said. “Definitely tightens up a little bit out of two, the banking pulls off. I think that will create opportunities to dive underneath somebody.

“Tony kind of touched on it. I think tire deg is really a big thing for great racing. We see that on road, street and ovals.”

THE END OF SUPERSPEEDWAY RACING?

Much was made about Pocono Raceway’s compatibility with the modern IndyCar Series following yet another crash-marred event in 2019. Auto Club Speedway in California also fell off the schedule in 2015 after pack racing, and the resulting crashes, in front of a scarce audience discouraged IndyCar from extending its stay.

Does a de facto Richmond-for-Pocono swap represent a sea change for IndyCar to move away from speedway racing beyond the Indianapolis 500?

Mark Miles offered a definitive no.

“I don’t think it’s a pronounced long-term strategy,” Miles said. “We think it’s generally a good balance between the road courses and the streets and the ovals of both types.

“It just seemed like a great opportunity for us for 2020 to be in Richmond given everything that’s already been said. I wouldn’t read too much into it in terms of long-term strategy, but we’re very pleased with where this leaves us on the 2020 schedule.”

COMPANION RACES, TITLE SPONSOR

The IndyCar weekend does not currently have a title sponsor, although Bickmeier says his team is making progress on that front. The weekend is also not expected to feature any companion races, simply focusing on the NTT IndyCar Series on Friday and Saturday.

“We’re going to build a celebration of speed around this that’s going to launch Friday night, Friday evening, when they’re out practicing,” Bickmeier said. “Then, like I mentioned, there’s going to be a lot going on the racetrack itself. Really kind of building a real festival around this.

“I got to tell you, Richmond, Virginia, is a very festival-centric town. That’s the approach we’re going to take to this race weekend as well. I think that’s what’s going to attract, whether you’re a long time INDYCAR fan, casual IndyCar fan, you just want to try it out, Richmond loves their festivals. We need to build the next big festival here in Richmond. That’s what we’re going to do.”


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