Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Challenge Accepted

IndyCar has cleared March 8th on all of our schedules. The series has decided not to join Pirelli World Challenge at Austin or run a race or test elsewhere in place of the Brasilia failure. Two hundred and ten days will pass between IndyCar races when the engines finally fire on the streets of St. Petersburg on March 29th.

It's a shame. I was optimistic that IndyCar was going to pull something off. I knew it was going to be a struggle but like I was saying last week, fans are starving for racing. Getting a race together anywhere would have been a positive for the series. It wouldn't have the type of promotion or crowd of a race that was on the initial schedule but this was a case where IndyCar should have sacrificed a profit and made sure they supplied the fan base with a race on a date that fans were preparing to finally see their favorite drivers and teams on track. If anything, the piecemeal event with PWC at Austin could have been the launchpad to a future long-term event at the United States' premier road course with a bigger and better event being prepared for 2016.

IndyCar gets a bad wrap for bonehead decision after bonehead decision that makes them appear run worse than Chivas USA but I truly believe they could have pulled this event off. Remember, they got reunification worked out in a month. They got Champ Car teams Dallara chassis and Honda engines and fitted Long Beach and Edmonton onto the schedule. The entry list for the season opener at Homestead was 52.9% greater than if reunification had not happened. Homestead 2008 was the largest grid outside the Indianapolis 500 since the 2002 IRL season finale at Texas. If IndyCar could have done that in a month's time, I have faith they could have gotten their 22-24 teams down to Austin for a race on a weekend a race was already scheduled to take place.

While there won't be a race March 8th, I still think IndyCar should add a race. Squeezing one into the schedule is tough and adding a points-paying race to the end would not sit well with Sonoma as they have been promoting their race as the season finale.

A exhibition race at the end of the season would be an acceptable option but it has to set itself apart from the other 16 championship races. The Mazda Road to Indy series and PWC end their seasons at Laguna Seca on September 12-13th. I stated an IndyCar exhibition race alongside the PWC and Road to Indy coronation ceremonies would be acceptable replacement for the Brazilian cockup and one of my followers suggested bringing back the Marlboro Challenge.

For those of you who don't know about the Marlboro Challenge, it was IndyCar's equivalent of an all-star race. Back in the days when tobacco money funded motorsports like an 85-year old oil tycoon to a 21-year old girlfriend, Marlboro offered a million dollar prize for any driver who could win the Marlboro Grand Prix at the Meadowlands, Marlboro 500 at Michigan and the Challenge, a sprint race held the day before a schedule CART race. If a driver won two of the three legs, they were rewarded with a $150,000 prize. The 100-mile Challenge was held six times with the streets of Miami, Nazareth and Laguna Seca each hosting it twice.

The field for the Challenge was filled with race winners and pole winners between Challenges, the defending champion and defending Indianapolis 500 winner with the highest drivers in points yet to meet the criteria above added if the field was not big enough. Ten drivers started each edition of the Challenge. The neither the million dollar nor $150,000 prize was ever rewarded.

The more and more I have think about it, the more and more I think IndyCar should bring back the Challenge. Obviously it wouldn't be sponsored by Marlboro but this could be a big opportunity for Verizon.

1. There were eleven winners last year in IndyCar. There are two less races on the 2015 schedule but does anyone envision any fewer than eight drivers winning this year? Filling the field wouldn't be difficult.

2. Many want to return to Laguna Seca and here is IndyCar's opportunity to get back to the most beautiful race track in the United States. Plus, with seven months until the scheduled race weekend, there is plenty of time to plan it properly.

3. September 13th is a Sunday and NASCAR is off that day as they run Richmond the night before. It might be the season opener for the NFL season but forget about the NFL and do your own thing. NBCSN won't have much on that Sunday afternoon and knowing typical Laguna Seca weather, that wouldn't prevent a crowd from showing up.

I would keep the 100-mile distance but I would have the field feature a dozen drivers. Naturally being filled by race winners first before considering other competitors. I would reserve a spot for the Rookie of the Year considering the possibly rookie class for the 2015 schedule. Gabby Chaves and Luca Filippi have been confirmed, Sage Karam is likely to be in Ganassi's fourth car and we can only hope and pray Conor Daly finally gets the opportunity he deserves. If there are still spots open, I would then fill with remaining pole-sitters considering Verizon sponsors that as well.

Using the results of 2014 season Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon, Mike Conway, Hélio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan, Sébastien Bourdais, Carlos Huertas and Ed Carpenter would all get a spot, leaving one remaining. If you were to give the final spot to the Rookie of the Year, Carlos Muñoz would be in. If you were to give it to the winless drivers with the most pole-positions, then it would be Takuma Sato. I could live with either of those drivers being in the event.

To make this event different from the other 16 IndyCar races, I would make the "Verizon Challenge" a chance to draw in young fans by doubling not only as an exhibition race but a scholarship opportunity for college students.

Each driver would represent a selected student. The winning driver would earn a $200,000 prize, half going to the team and the other half being a scholarship to the student the driver represented. This would be the case for the other 11 drivers and students with second place splitting $150,000, third $125,000, fourth $100,000, fifth $80,000 and sixth $75,000 with each finisher in the back half of the grid splitting $50,000. As someone experiencing first hand the struggles and worries of being able to pay off tuition and student loans, IndyCar would look great if they could throw a lifeline out to a few individuals.

I am almost inclined to say the participants should not necessarily be IndyCar fans. This selection process should not be on the hands of IndyCar but of those of Verizon. Have it be a big campaign through the summer in Verizon stores across the country. Have ads promoting the chance to win at least $25,000 a scholarship with a chance for a $100,000 scholarship. This wouldn't necessarily become an IndyCar thing but become a national scholarship project being run and funded by series and their title sponsor.

Another reason why I would rather have the participants not be IndyCar fans is because the series has to grow their fan base. Instead of trying to get me or another 20-year old who watches every race even more interested, try to get 18-year old Susie Smith from Boise, Idaho who has never been to an IndyCar race interested because they could help her pay for her college education as well get a trip to Northern California to be at the race. Try to get Bill Johnson, a junior at Clemson University who is struggling to get by, interested because any drop in the bucket will help.

If you can slowly turn the Susie Smith's and Bill Johnson's into Simon Pagenaud fans or Ryan Hunter-Reay fans or Will Power fans because they share a bond by that driver helping them pay for college, I am all for it and if you were to do that every year, slowly but surely you are getting another batch of 18-25 year olds interested in IndyCar. College students need all the help they can get and IndyCar taking a step forward to help others could go a long way.