By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
Author’s note: This is part of a 10-part series discussing tracks around the world that I feel would be a good fit for the Verizon IndyCar Series. The opinions here are expressed solely of the author and not necessarily of the Motorsports Tribune.
IndyCar has a presence in Ohio right now with it’s annual trip to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, but an even bigger presence was felt when the Champ Car World Series raced at the Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, Ohio.
The grand prix was the first race of any kind to be held on the runways and taxiways of a normally operating airport. The long runways made for a very wide and bumpy 2.106-mile circuit that allowed plenty of room for passing as well as some challenging tight corners. The Cleveland skyline and Lake Erie also provided a nice backdrop for the circuit.
The airport layout also presented a challenge to the promoter as the airport would be shut down for a week prior to the race while the track was set up and the track would be torn down almost right after the race was over.
The track was a mainstay on the CART/Champ Car calendar from 1982-2007 CART came to the airport for the first time in 1982 and featured local hero Bobby Rahal taking his first Indy car win in the race. The races frequently drew out very large weekend crowds and had a festival atmosphere to it with a parade being held for many years.
The race also nearly switched alliances to the Indy Racing League in 2000 when it was announced that the all-oval series would run at the airport following a fallout between CART and the race promoter. The race was to be held on a 1.2-mile oval circuit rather than the road course.
The switch was not well received among the local fan base and ultimately was dropped from the IRL calendar when the airport refused to make some FAA mandated changes to the airport. CART then returned to race at their traditional race date.
The race still had a very good fan turnout well into the 2000s after CART became Champ Car and the series even experimented with a race held under the lights in 2003. The race signed a new deal with Champ Car in 2007 to run until the 2012 season with Mi-Jack Promotions, owned by Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing co-owner Mike Lanigan, serving as the promoter. Series veteran Paul Tracy won the 2007 round to claim his 31st and would be his final Champ Car victory.
Why the fallout?
When Champ Car was absorbed into the IndyCar Series in 2008, Cleveland was left out in the cold despite the race being ready to go for its traditional Fourth of July weekend race. Talks between series and Mi-Jack officials continued for some time, but the race was left off the 2009 calendar and talks for a 2010 return soon fizzled out as well. Ultimately, the promoter was unable to draw together the sponsorship dollars to cover the rising sanctioning fee costs.
Mike Lanigan still owns the rights to the race, despite not having promoted a race since the 2014 Grand Prix of Houston. Talks briefly resurfaced in 2015 of rehosting the race for a 2016 return, but the city was focused on hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention which took support away from any other potential summer events.
That being said Verizon IndyCar Series CEO Mark Miles and Lanigan have both expressed interest in coming back to Cleveland if everything can come together. As far as fan interest goes, all indications look like there is interest from the locals to bring the race back. With that kind of support in mind, there is a reason to believe that a fan turnout would be quite good.
While there is concern about the fan turnout with IndyCar coming back after being gone for such a long time, the fact that there is still local interest is a good indicator.
As far as where it fits on the calendar, the race’s traditional Fourth of July weekend could possibly be a good choice. The only issue is that Mid-Ohio, which is only a 90-minute drive from Cleveland is scheduled for the final weekend in July, and having two races in the same market that close to each other is not a good idea.
If all else fails, a date in between Texas and Road America in June would not be a bad idea.