The future of IndyCar at Pocono Raceway is in jeopardy because of a dramatic attendance drop expected for Sunday's race.
IndyCar returned to Pocono last year after a 24-year absence for the first race of a three-year contract. Track CEO and President Brandon Igdalsky said this week he planned to speak with IndyCar CEO Mark Miles and other series executives about possibly dumping the final year of the contract.
Igdalsky refused to divulge numbers, but said ticket sales "were kind of scary" compared with last year. While the track does not disclose attendance figures, about 30,000 to 35,000 fans were estimated at last year's race.
Igdalsky said he brought the series back because track research showed fans wanted the racing and would support IndyCar. He will not guarantee IndyCar will race at Pocono in 2015. "As of right now, I can't say yes or no," he said. "We can get out (of the contract). If we have to, we'll do it. No sense in losing money, especially a significant amount of money."
Pocono Raceway has had two NASCAR weekends on the schedule for decades. He blamed the fans — not a glut of racing in the mountains — for the possibility of IndyCar leaving the track. "The big thing is the fans," Igdalsky said. "The fans begged us to bring it back. Every study and report we did, they all said they'd come. But they're not coming in the numbers we need them to come in. Are these fans really here? In Pennsylvania? In the Andrettis' backyard? Why aren't they coming out? Where are they?"
A number of factors could be involved, including an undesirable holiday weekend date. The IndyCar race is sandwiched between the June 8 and Aug. 3 Sprint Cup races. The race also added 100 miles this year, and is now a 500-miler.
Igdalsky said he came out of last year excited about the turnout and had great hope for mutual success with the series. Tickets start at just $25 for the grandstand and children are admitted at a reduced rate. There are a variety of ticket packages that include amenities such as a fan session with Mario Andretti.
"You'd think Mario Andretti could help you sell a bunch of tickets," Igdalsky said. Jay Frye, chief revenue officer for Hulman Motorsports, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. This isn't the first time Pocono and open-wheel racing have reached a crossroads. During the days of the dueling USAC and CART series in the late 1980s, Pocono racetrack founder Joseph Mattioli wanted out. Mattioli, who died in 2012, chose not to seek a new deal after 1989.
Indianapolis 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay said the series needs to race in the East. "We're in the right market," he said. "We need to be putting on our races there. It was a major part of the schedule back in the day, and it seems to be that now it is again. Hopefully, the fans will receive us well there. If we keep on putting on great shows, there's no reason it can't work."
NASCAR star Jeff Gordon attended last year's IndyCar race and couldn't help but notice the difference in attendance between the two series. "I am very, very appreciative of this sport and this series that we are in because when you drive in that tunnel for an IndyCar race, and you drive in here for a NASCAR race, you get a perspective of how big our sport is," he said.
Gordon also said how much he loved attending the race and how "very cool" the open wheel cars are. Igdalsky, Mattioli's grandson, said he would not use his NASCAR receipts to prop up IndyCar race losses. He said he was happy with attendance for the June NASCAR race and numbers are "looking great" for August's NASCAR race.
But fans have balked at shelling out more money on IndyCar. "They do a lot more talking than acting, for one," Igdalsky said. "It's kind of a shame if it does go away because of the fans. If IndyCar racing goes away from Pocono, it's because the fans did not come out and support the event."