It would appear that talks of trying to bring the premier American open wheel racing series out of the country are on halt for now as, with the debut of the 2018 schedule, the only non US dates that remains is the Grand Prix of Toronto at Exhibition Place. There were rumors of a potential expansion to Mexico City or a return to Surfer's Paradise in Australia, but neither materialized in time, leaving only one new track to join the IndyCar schedule. That track, of course, is Portland International Speedway which takes the place of Watkins Glen.
Christian Fittipaldi leads the field around Portland International Raceway back in the Champ Car heyday. Photo Credit: Portland International Raceway/Dan Boyd.
Indycar, and before that Champ Car, has a rich history with track. The series ran there uninterrupted from 1984 to the final season of 'the split' in 2007. Race winners include such legends as Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser, Jr, Alex Zanardi, and Danny Sullivan. Portland was home to the closest ever road course finsih in IndyCar history when, during the 1986 race, Michael Andretti's car ran out of fuel on the final lap, allowing his father Mario to beat him across the line by .07 seconds. It then beat its own record in 1997 when Mark Blundell beat Gil de Ferran by a mere .027 seconds. That record still stands as the closest 1-2 finish in all of history.
Portland is a fantastic track with multiple overtaking opportunities that seems to always produce good racing. Furthermore, its location is ideal of IndyCar. Its location in the Pacific Northwest allows for IndyCar to plant its flag firmly on all four corners of the United States market.
But the addition of Portland comes at the expense of Watkins Glen, one of the historic and most iconic tracks in North America. The Glen fell back onto the calendar several years ago when during the disaster that was the scrapped Grand Prix of Boston.
While seeing an important piece of American racing history fall by the wayside, it is still an overall net gain by IndyCar. Yes, Watkins Glen did serve as a near perfect sponsor race, as so many of the New York firms that slap their logos across the cars were able to send delegates upstate to attend the race, and in turn be pampered by teams, the fact remains that Watkins Glen is tied to history and the track itself reflects that.
Perhaps the biggest sources of pride for the Glen was its hosting of the F1 United States Grand Prix in the 60s and 70s. At the time it was a great track and reflected the safety push Jackie Stewart put forth during his time in and out of F1. Armco lined the track to protect the drivers from high speed collisions with trees as well as protect spectators of a car plowing through their midst.
But, since the that safety push in the late 1960s, the safety conditions around the track have not improved. Yes, there are state of the art medical facilities, chopper pads, trained response workers, but those are safety precautions designed to assist when something when a car on track comes to a sudden stop. They are there to come to the aid of a driver in need. The problem is that the track and barriers of Watkins Glen do very little to prevent a driver from actually being in need.
The blue Armco at Watkins Glen may been state of the art in 1972, but in the modern day, it's nothing short of dangerous. Photo credit: The Apex.
IndyCar has taken great steps in developing technology aimed at ensuring driver's safety. The series recognizes that oval racing at 220+ MPH creates an inherent danger. The SAFER Barrier, developed by the series, works as a natural cushion dispersing energy outwards and lessening the impact of a crash on a driver. It has done wonders and, no doubt, has saved the life of many a driver.
It's a great piece of technology. The SAFER Barrier makes racing safe. But Watkins Glen doesn't have it. No, they have Armco. They same 'cutting edge' technology that existed back in 1972.
And while there are plenty of barriers that are close up to the track at Portland, there is also a key difference. Portland has runoff areas. It's not like Watkins Glen where one mistake puts your directly into the barrier. There is room to syphon off speed along the grass in Portland.
Watkins Glen used to be one of the greatest parties in racing. When F1 called the track home, all the drivers would stay at a lodge not far from the track and, to put it bluntly, party their asses off. But those days are over. That James Hunt model of driving is outdated, just as is the track at Watkins Glen.
So while it may be sad to a track with such history disappear, it is far better to see it replaced by one that is far safer.