Thursday, July 23, 2015

I Don't Know What To Make Of It

IndyCar has wrapped up three consecutive oval races. Each race was pretty exciting. Each race had decent amount of viewers on the tube. Attendance is debatable. Each race ended with a fair amount of buzz.

Has IndyCar found something? That question sounds like IndyCar has had a eureka-moment when really it isn't that simple. While some would love IndyCar to go all ovals and rid themselves of road and street courses, that isn't practical and isn't going to happen. But perhaps a few more oval races can help IndyCar grow. If fans are watching oval then maybe it would be smart to add a few more. I am not saying return to having 14 oval races because that was only practical in a short period of time when the series were split and a series was looking to survive against a much larger rival but IndyCar has room to expand their schedule. I know, easier said than done.

However, I think this recent summer surge for IndyCar isn't just because of ovals. Scheduling has it's own part. The same schedule we were ruing just a little over a month ago has evolved into something that is manageable for IndyCar teams. Three races in four weeks gives the teams regular work but isn't stretching them thin and it also allows IndyCar to be regularly available without being a week-in, week-out viewing regimen. After a decent Milwaukee race, fans were treated with a just as exciting if not more exciting Iowa race six days later. Three in four weeks isn't overkill for either the teams or fans and spreading the races out, especially at the start of the season, would be welcomed by all.

Another factor for IndyCar's stretch of growth is none of these races went head-to-head with NASCAR. It's not realistic to have every race avoid going head-to-head with NASCAR but having a fair share not head-to-head is possible and we are see it. Only five times were NASCAR and IndyCar races schedule simultaneously with a sixth occurring due to the NASCAR race at Richmond being postponed to Sunday, the same time as IndyCar at Barber. Last year, four times there were head-to-head races schedule with a fifth occurring when the July Daytona race was postponed to Sunday and went head-to-head with IndyCar at Pocono. In 2013, head-to-head races occurred nine times, or another way to put it, half the IndyCar schedule was head-to-head with NASCAR races.

While some feared the day NASCAR returned to NBC as it seemed like a death blow for IndyCar, it may turn out to be a blessing as it gives the series a common partner who has zero interest in scheduling races head-to-head. Yes, the Mid-Ohio IndyCar race and Pocono NASCAR race will go head-to-head, meaning IndyCar will be on CNBC but this will be the first time IndyCar has been farmed out to CNBC, something almost every other NBC Sports property has had to do at some point (Formula One is on CNBC this weekend, a few Premier League games each year are shown on CNBC, even NHL Playoff games are shown on CNBC). On the bright side, while Mid-Ohio will be on CNBC, the final two races of the IndyCar season at Pocono and Sonoma will not be head-to-head with NASCAR as NASCAR will run the Saturday night prior to Pocono at Bristol and the Cup Series is off the weekend of Sonoma.

So what can IndyCar do to show that the last month hasn't been just been a blip of success but rather the start of something for an extended period of time? Promotion is key but it is how they promote it. You can put the drivers out there but they need a reason to watch these drivers. For example, I have been calling the final three races "Astor Cup August" because this is it. August is the final month of the season. The champion, the driver who will be hoisting the Astor Cup, will be decided in August. Promote that. Promote that with three races to go, mathematically there are fourteen drivers still eligible for the title. IndyCar doesn't need to follow NASCAR's path and make a structural change to promote the final handful of races that will decide the champion. All they have to do is promote the races that already exist. The same way baseball in October is special; IndyCar should make the most of ending the season in August despite it being the worst time to end the season.

Going back to ovals: I think IndyCar has six strong ovals in terms of what occurs on the race track and the series really only needs two to three ovals more with a fourth to get to an even ten ovals being nice but not necessary. IndyCar puts on really good racing on short tracks and in recent years IndyCar has left some good ones such as Richmond and Loudon. It would be nice to see Phoenix and Michigan return with another short track or two being added as well.

For the last decade, we have heard people around IndyCar and NASCAR talk about weeknight races, more specifically, running on one of the two days after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which are labeled as some of the slowest days in North America for sports. However, a decade later and no series has decided to bite the bullet and take a shot on a race the Wednesday or Thursday after the MLB All-Star Game. Why? No track wants it because of the difficulty to get a crowd to come to a racetrack on a weeknight and probably a little fear from the series that running a race during one of the slowest sports days of the year would not provide the bump in viewership that is expected.

But picture this though: IndyCar resurrects Thursday Night Thursday and run at Indianapolis Raceway Park.  I've heard plenty of people say IRP is too small for IndyCar, which I disagree with, but I think IRP is big enough to have a dozen IndyCars race on it at the same time. IndyCar could split the field in half, run two 75-lap heat races with the top four from each advancing to a 125-lap A-Main and the drivers who fail to advance from the heats heading to a 40-lap LCQ with the top four from that rounding out the field. It would be a throwback to short track roots in IndyCar's backyard. Keep the tickets at an affordable price of $15-$20 and you might get a respectable crowd without having 40,000 empty seats saying otherwise.

Ultimately, whether it is an oval, road course or street course, IndyCar needs to do a mix of improving their promotional efforts and rolling the dice. IndyCar needs to differentiate themselves from other series, whether that's running on a Thursday, doubleheaders or one-day shows. Being different isn't a bad thing and IndyCar should embrace it.

I don't know what to make of the last month for IndyCar. The racing has been really good and numbers are up but I don't want to get too excited. It's kind of like being a Philadelphia Phillies fan this season and if they go on an eight-game winning streak. That's nice but they are currently 19 games out of the division lead and 18.5 games out of the second wild card spot. Winning eight straight is nice but to make the playoffs Philadelphia needs an 18 game winning straight and then end the season just as strong. Maybe if the numbers continue to increase over the next season and a half I will start to get excited but for now it's just a drop in the bucket. When that bucket gets closer to half-full then I might start to believe the last month has been something substantially positive for IndyCar.