Tonight's Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway will probably be one of the most exciting races of this IZOD IndyCar Series season, just because Chicagoland races usually are. Remember Sam Hornish Jr.'s win in 2002 over Al Unser Jr., to this day the closest victory in IndyCar Series history? Helio Castroneves coming from last place in 2008? Ryan Briscoe over Scott Dixon last year?
Unfortunately, it may also be the last Chicagoland race for the IndyCars. A track staple since its opening in 2001, this race may go away after nine years, as has been discussed to death on many other fine blogs.
In case you've missed it, though, a key reason why Chicagoland may lose its IndyCar date has to do with schedule realignments in NASCAR. Chicagoland is owned by the International Speedway Corporation, which has strong ties to NASCAR. The Sprint Cup Series will now run the first race of its playoffs at Chicago in September, and the second-tier Nationwide Series will run at the track on June 4 - the week after the Indianapolis 500. To run that weekend would be to go against the series' deal with Texas Motor Speedway, owned by ISC rival Speedway Motorsports Incorporated, where that track hosts the first race after Indy every year.
In fact, most of the ISC tracks on the IndyCar schedule this year - Chicago, Homestead, and Watkins Glen (a race I normally attend) - may be gone next season, though Kansas will probably remain. Former races at Richmond, California, and Michigan are gone as well. Relations between ISC and IndyCar are not bound to be the finest anyway, as ISC clearly has NASCAR priorities, and also hired longtime Indianapolis Motor Speedway employee Joie Chitwood to run their flagship track at Daytona.
Meanwhile, an alliance between SMI and IndyCar, much like the one that existed in the sanctioning body's formative years, continues to get stronger. The new race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is bound to be popular with fans and drivers alike, even if partially serving as a surrogate for the Milwaukee Mile. Las Vegas will be a welcome addition and a wonderful series finale, if CEO Bruton Smith's plans come to fruition. Races at Texas and Kentucky are always fun to watch, and Infineon Raceway actually put on quite the show this year.
Randy Bernard said in IndyCar's Loudon press conference, speaking of Smith and SMI, "If you hang out with champions, you become a champion." Hitching a ride to SMI is one way to do that, especially when Smith is showing a strong willingness to work with the series, much in the way IZOD has been on the sponsorship front. A stronger IndyCar-SMI partnership also opens a gateway for returns to Atlanta, which only has one NASCAR race weekend next season, and Charlotte, now that Humpy Wheeler is gone and the track's 1999 incident is a distant memory, could follow as well.
ISC could lock IndyCar out of some of the top ovals in the United States, sure, but only Chicago, Kansas, California, and Michigan are really suited for IndyCar racing. The first two are 1.5-mile ovals that could be replaced by SMI tracks, while the latter two haven't really hosted IndyCar races in recent memory anyway.
While Watkins Glen will be a great loss as well, it's not as if IndyCar can't return to some of the other top road courses in the country. Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca tops the list of road courses that currently don't have events, and promoters in Cleveland, Houston, and Quebec City have expressed great interest in bringing IndyCar to their cities. In fact, the original plan for the Cleveland event was to run a doubleheader weekend, with one race on the old Burke Lakefront Airport road course layout and another on a new oval layout. That event would be one of the coolest on the schedule, and also serve (in a general sense) the midwestern market.
Yes, we could be losing a fantastic race in Chicagoland for next season, and as such, we ought to be savoring every moment of tonight's event. But while scary, the proposition of some new venues on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule is not going to set the series back, or send it into a death spiral. As long as the powers that be make smart and strategic choices, bringing the series to the right markets, we can do just fine without.