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.
When it comes to more ovals on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar the first track that comes to mind is Michigan International Speedway.
Outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 2-mile oval in Brooklyn, Michigan is probably one of the most iconic ovals to have hosted an IndyCar race. The track hosted Indy car racing from 1968-2007 and gave us some of the most breathtaking moments, close finishes, surprise winners and some of the most blistering speeds ever achieved in American open wheel racing.
Al Unser, Jr. won the fastest 500-mile race in then series history in 1990 at an average speed of 189.727 mph.
The track was a staple on the USAC and CART schedules from 1968-2001 and gave us arguably the best oval track racing of any series on the planet. With the track’s wide surface and steep 18-degree banking, there were multiple racing grooves and plenty of room for passing. That led to some of the most competitive races in oval racing history especially when the Handford Device was introduced.
The Hanford device was a metal plate mounted to the rear wing which punched a large hole in the air and allowed for easier passing. The 1998 US 500 resulted in 63 lead changes including six in the final 10 laps with the late Greg Moore out-dueling the Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates of Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi. The 2000 edition featured a youth vs. experience duel between a then young Juan Pablo Montoya and Michael Andretti that ended with Montoya coming out on top by 0.040 of a second.
Another facet of MIS was the toll that it took on both man and machine, especially when the race began hosting a 500-mile race in 1981 after Ontario Motor Speedway closed. There were several cases when less than 10 cars would finish the race due to a combination of accidents or engine failures.
So why did Indy car racing cease at a track so deep rooted in the sport’s history? The answer for both series is a bit complicated.
In CART, there were safety concerns throughout the years and a few nasty accidents occurred at the track, including a few career ending ones for future team owner Chip Ganassi, Emerson Fittipaldi and Danny Sullivan. The worst incident at the track was in the 1998 US 500 when a tire from the crashed car of Adrian Fernandez was launched into the crowd, which killed three spectators.
The grisly incident cast a pall on the race and the series as CART took some heat for not stopping the race when the spectators were fatally injured and crowds dwindled year after year until CART left in 2001.
The track also was also the stage for one an infamous day in American Open Wheel Racing – May 26, 1996. Indianapolis Motor Speedway formed the Indy Racing League that year and reserved 25 spots for the series regulars, which essentially locked CART out of the 500. CART elected to rent the track and host a 500-mile race directly opposite the Indy 500. The race was marred by a nine-car wreck occurred as the field was coming to the green flag.
Polesitter Jimmy Vasser went on to the win the race in his backup car and even exclaimed jokingly “Who needs milk?” in Victory Lane. CART took a black eye for the whole debacle and the race, while its intended form was abandoned and the US 500 brand was switched to CART’s traditional mid-summer event.
Following the ’98 race, attendance continued to decline and in 2001 neither side agreed to continue racing at MIS. CART did go out in style in their final race at Michigan in 2001 with Patrick Carpentier taking his first career win after dueling with Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta and Michel Jourdain, Jr. on a late restart.
The race then switched alliances to the Indy Racing League for 2002.
The IRL rounds saw a slight uptick in crowds at the beginning but eventually faltered by 2007. The track was also forced to switch dates in 2007 which put it a hasty two weeks before the track’s NASCAR race. The track then proposed in 2008 that the track switch back to a twin 200-mile format to generate publicity, but IRL officials balked at the idea. MIS then cut the line and IndyCar has not returned to MIS since.
The final race was held on August 5, 2007, with Tony Kanaan taking his second career win at the track in a race marred by muggy weather and a six-car pileup that sent Dario Franchitti flying down the backstretch.
Why go back?
All negativity aside, what does a return to Michigan International Speedway bring to the table for IndyCar?
First off, the racing would be absolutely riveting. If the racing at sister track Auto Club Speedway from 2012-2015 was any indication, there is a reason to be excited. Granted a pack race would be a bit hectic, but with a new aero package coming for IndyCar in 2018, series officials have a clean sheet of paper to work out an ideal racing package.
The return of an iconic venue like MIS to IndyCar also could potentially draw out a decent crowd. Phoenix, another historic Indy car venue, returned earlier this season and the track had an impressive marketing effort that resulted in a decent spectator crowd and nearly every corporate suite was sold. MIS is owned by the International Speedway Corporation, which also owns Phoenix and has taken a new liking to IndyCar since Jay Frye was hired as president of competition and operations.
Frye’s NASCAR background has aided in getting ISC venues such as Phoenix and Watkins Glen back on the calendar and there have been rumblings of talks between IndyCar and other ISC tracks as North America’s top open wheel series continues to move forward.
As far as where MIS could fit on the calendar, history would tell you that a mid-July race would be the best fit but the current schedule would make it tough. Mid-Ohio, which is only a 3-hour drive from MIS, is scheduled for July 30 and oversaturating the market would not be good. August would also be tight being that the track hosts a NASCAR event on the second weekend in August.
June would have the same issue with the NASCAR race and factor in that the Belle Isle Grand Prix is also in June, which also is oversaturating the market.
That all being said, a September date might be something to explore or even a season finale date. The season finales on ovals have produced much-needed action and drama where the season finale at Sonoma Raceway this year saw virtually no passing. With that in mind, MIS could prove to be a very good season finale and with the weather generally being cooler in September, racing conditions would be ideal for both fans and drivers.