Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Schedule Daydreaming and the Alonso-Webber Incident Revisited

Multiple times I have stated my disdain for scheduling talk because it is mostly speculative yearning for races that have been gone for many years when in reality these races will likely never return in our lifetimes and if they do, our hair will be graying or completely gone. I am very well resigned in the fact Road America, Michigan, Phoenix, Richmond, Loudon, Laguna Seca, Motegi, Watkins Glen, Cleveland and Portland are never ever going to return.

When it comes to street circuits, they are just like women heading to Wilt Chamberlain's apartment. They are here and gone and then a new one enters. Surfers Paradise, São Paulo, Baltimore, Denver and Vancouver are gone and now you hear about places like Boston lining up, wide-eyed looking at the anomalies Monaco, Long Beach and Toronto thinking it is a great idea but when the first bill comes, they will wonder what the hell they were thinking like the 32-year old married man with a kid who went out drinking with his single buddies on a Monday night and paid for it on Tuesday. 

Looking at the current crop of IndyCar races, it is actually scheduled pretty well. Other than a few decisions that go against all common sense (Houston the last weekend in June and now won't return in 2015 and likely will never return after a rare third chance and Fontana on Labor Day which appears to be moving somewhere in June, which I guess makes a little more sense in terms of weather but less sense as IndyCar has about seven events wanting one of the four weekends in June), the IndyCar schedule is pretty well structured. Eighteen races in twenty-three weeks, which is really fifteen events because there were three doubleheaders. I will tell you this right now: The pieces between St. Petersburg in March and Sonoma in August don't have to change. A few need to be shifted but altogether it is a respectable schedule.

The IndyCar season does smother fans in it's compaction to five and a half months and once it ends it leaves us disappointed it is gone. Seeing how the powers that be are adamant to end by Labor Day, the only option for schedule expansion is at the beginning of the year. Only problem is racetracks in many regions of the country are surviving the final days of the brutal winter that time of the year and the pleasant weather just after Labor Day with leaves changing color and cider flowing into mugs has been deemed inadequate for IndyCar.

The bookends need slight work and here is how I am going to try and sell it.

Open the season with Fontana the Sunday after the Super Bowl. It gives the series a big kickoff event. You could spend the entire week using the Los Angeles-area as your hub for promotion. The weather is better than Labor Day weekend. Better chance of rain but I'd rather dodge rain drops than risk heat stroke and skin cancer. You could have two days of promotion Tuesday and Wednesday, two days of testing Thursday and Friday before opening the weekend on Saturday and race on Sunday afternoon, noon local time.

Of course Fontana (like most ovals) needs more support series. Bring back Indy Lights to Fontana, see if you can get Pirelli World Challenge to run the roval, call up Robby Gordon to bring Stadium Super Trucks, whatever it takes. Ovals have to provide more on-track action. Heck, run 100-mile qualifiers on the Saturday like they use to for the California 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway (Of course, 11 car qualifiers on a 2-mile oval would be sparse but the only way to boost the grid to 27-30 total cars is to make the race financially viable to teams. But that's another story). Give the two fans, who are already shelling out $80 for race day a reason to spend $40 for Saturday.

A few issues with Fontana moving to February: The NHRA starts their season at Pomona that time of year, which is about a half hour from Fontana. It would be nice to think since Auto Club sponsors both facilities, something could be worked out to make sure these two events would not be scheduled on the same weekend but you never know what people making at least six figures are thinking at times.

Second issue would be AMA Supercross, who also run that time of year in the Southern California area. Bright side is Supercross races on Saturday nights and if IndyCar runs Sunday, the races wouldn't be happening simultaneously. Now if Supercross is at San Diego that weekend, it would be less of an issue than if it was at Anaheim as San Diego is two hours south from Fontana, an hour further than Anaheim.

After Fontana, tie into the California trip a two-day test, Tuesday and Wednesday at Sonoma. Many teams go out to Sonoma that time of the year already and it gives them some time before the road course portion of the schedule gets started.

Everyone would get the next weekend off as it looks as the teams are going to have to get everything packed up before heading to Dubai and Brasilia. After a trip halfway around the world, a week off to reset the batteries before St. Petersburg. Once again, nothing from St. Petersburg to Sonoma needs to be changed or be added. Maybe make sure Pocono and Iowa have suitable dates and aren't jumping from July to June every season. Other than that, it's fine.

Now that Houston is gone and the Toronto race is moving to Mosport tentatively for a year, will we still have three doubleheaders? If Toronto is returning to Exhibition Place in 2016, then it would makes sense for it to remain a doubleheader but since Houston is gone, does another track get the privilege of hosting two races in a weekend? Or is two doubleheaders enough? I thought three was a good amount but I am not sure if scheduling them so close together is a good idea. You had Belle Isle at the beginning of June, Houston at the end of the month and Toronto three weeks after Houston. Let's not forget to mention Texas, Pocono and Iowa which were all between Belle Isle and Toronto. IndyCar did nine races in two months this season. Is that really practical going forward?

As much I would like a third doubleheader at St. Petersburg or Mid-Ohio or at an oval such as Iowa, I think two is sufficient considering how tightly packed the schedule is at the moment. If they were spread out like they were in 2013, I'd be all for a third doubleheader.

As for season finale, this would be a venue currently not on the IndyCar schedule that the series is going to have to sell on being the season finale. There are so many places which would make fantastic hosts for the season finale. The status quo has been ending the season on an oval since reunification and it was  their predecessors IRL's MO to end on an oval. I understand that. Fontana last Saturday night was wide open. One mistake or pit lane speeding penalty and you were behind the 8-ball and in the DW12-era, it's been harder to make up on ovals. With cautions few and far between, when you fall a lap down while serving a penalty, you are likely to stay a lap down.

With that said, I see nothing wrong with ending on a road course, especially because you can tie together all the Road to Indy season finales in with IndyCar. This year, you had all three junior series end at Sonoma while IndyCar had one final excursion to go. Road America and Laguna Seca come to mind. Both are the essence of American road course racing with deep history. You could bring all three Road to Indy series and have Pirelli World Challenge tag along as well.

Then there are the oval options. If Michigan returned with 500 miles, it would turn the Triple Crown into a Grand Slam and Michigan has this mystique with historically great open-wheel racing that has been gone far too long. Problem is Michigan doesn't have lights but they wouldn't be needed with average highs around 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, if IndyCar is set on the season finale being a Saturday night race, Michigan is out and the only other oval that makes sense to me would be Kentucky Speedway. With Indiana a hop, skip and a jump away, it would be the next best option in hopes of drawing a decent size crowd on a Saturday night. Would Kentucky be 500 miles though and if it wasn't would it be double points?

It is unprecedented for a mile and a half track to host a 500-mile IndyCar race. All IndyCar 500 milers have been on tracks two miles or larger. If Fontana wasn't double points this year, the championship would have been decided at Sonoma, so that is something to keep in mind. It wouldn't make sense for a Kentucky season finale to be double points if it was only 300 miles while Texas and Iowa at similar distances were still regular point totals. I wouldn't be against Kentucky being 500 miles but we would have to see what the drivers say.

Alonso-Webber Incident Revisited
Let's go back to last year's Singapore Grand Prix. Remember when Mark Webber broke down at the end of the race and caught a ride back to the pit lane from Fernando Alonso?

And Webber was sequentially penalized because it was his third reprimand of the season. At that time, I was against the penalty feeling that Webber shouldn't have been reprimanded. Drivers have been giving other drivers a ride back to the pit lane for decades, why should it be a problem now?

However, today I was thinking about what happened last month with Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward, Jr. I realized we could have been having this conversation about drivers' safety when outside of their vehicle for a year now instead of a month had Webber been hit.

Despite that reality, I still want to see drivers getting lifts back to the pit lane when their car fails them. Here are my premises: Webber's intent was different. He wasn't angrily going after a car, looking to do who knows what. He didn't enter the race track until Kimi Räikkönen and Alonso were nearly at a complete stand still. The lighting is much better. The race was over and cars were going at much slower speeds, however so was Stewart under caution and we know that result.

Don't get me wrong, it is safer for a driver to stay in their car or with track marshals but I still feel, while putting themselves in harms way, drivers getting rides from other drivers is a great sight. It's not be the safest thing in the world but neither is driving at 180 MPH, which they do for a living. I don't want to see motorsports be completely sterilized of danger. It is an inherited part of motorsports and an inherited part of the men and women who participate in it. They are risk takers.

It's going to sound harsh but there times and places to take risks. As a generalization for every form of motorsports, from Formula One to Formula Ford, IndyCar to NASCAR, sports cars to touring cars, MotoGP to flat tracks, dirt tracks or pavement, approaching a moving vehicle is risky but there are times and circumstances when it is a better idea than other. During a race, it isn't a good idea. After the checkered flag has waved and with cool heads, it is still risky but that would be the time and state of mind to do it.