Monday, September 14, 2015

Musings From the Weekend: Give the People More

MotoGP had a thriller. So did Pirelli World Challenge. Champions were crowded around the globe. The floodgates have opened for one driver in Japan. The Chase was set in Richmond but it wasn't that exciting. Audi was embarrassed at Oschersleben. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Give the People More
I have been thinking about the IndyCar schedule and how the series can capitalize on the momentum from the 2015 season. Television ratings were noticeably up, which was something IndyCar really needed. The ratings still have a ways to go until the are in a really good position for IndyCar but perhaps there is a way for IndyCar to get on television more during a race weekend.

For the Sonoma season finale, IndyCar had a Saturday practice session and qualifying shown live on NBCSN and that was really only possible because the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was off. Getting live practice and qualifying sessions on television is arguably as important as the race itself. The one benefit to getting practice shown live is it's likely the only live sports on television at that time. What else is on at 2:00 p.m. ET on a Friday? It becomes programming that people will just put on in the background of a break room or what a teenager home during summer break will flip on when he or she is bored of ever app has popped up that week.

But live practice and qualifying also keeps viewers up-to-date and allows a person to watch the weekend progress. Instead of just turning on the race on Sunday and finding out about the grid, a person can actually watch it all be set and hear about IndyCar news such as silly season, rule changes, etc. and be on point when the race comes around. When none of these sessions are on television, I can see how a person has trouble getting into a race and IndyCar in general. However, if they see practice or qualifying and then are told there will be race the next day or two days later, it could give someone something new to try over the weekend.

IndyCar is in no position to demand NBCSN to show practice and qualifying live, even if it would get better ratings on a Friday afternoon than the hunting and fishing programs that normally fill the NBCSN weekday schedule. However, what if there was another way IndyCar could get on television?

Here is what I was thinking: Have preliminary races on road courses and non-500 mile oval races the day before the main event and have the races count toward the championship, that way they would have to be shown live on television. These wouldn't be full doubleheaders like we have seen at Belle Isle and Toronto, rather it would be a shorter race that would give fans a taste of what is to come the next day.

Instead of full-length races, I was thinking that there could be a 100km preliminary race on road courses and 100-mile preliminary races on ovals. The shorter distances could fit nicely in a shorter television window and it would provide fans with two entirely different races. The preliminary races would be sprints and would be a very strategic race. Take Barber for example. One hundred kilometers at Barber would be about 26 laps. Josef Newgarden stretched his fuel at Barber this year and did 27 laps on the final stint to win the race. The distance could set up for drivers to try and stretch their fuel and make it without stopping or it could have drivers decide to go all out for 15 laps, stop and put on fresh rubber and then work to try and chase down the drivers hoping to stretch it.

These preliminary races would also change a weekend format. For road courses, Friday could feature  a practice session followed by knockout qualifying to set the grid for the preliminary race and the pole-sitter would still get a point. Saturday could feature a warm-up session and then the preliminary race and Sunday would be the main event. I would use the results of the preliminary race to set the grid for Sunday. It would make the preliminary race must see and it would encourage drivers who did not qualify well to take a risk and try to improve their starting position for Sunday.

Since ovals are two-day shows, the first day could feature a practice and qualifying with the preliminary race in the evening. This would actually benefit ovals as it would give fans a reason to show up on the first day of the weekend and it would give ovals more on-track activity, something IndyCar oval weekends desperately need.

As for the points for these preliminary races, I would prefer something that would only reward the top finishers. You know I am a sucker for the 9-6-4-3-2-1 system but perhaps they could adopt the current Formula One system of 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 but I think that would be too many points and too many positions being rewarded. Perhaps middle ground could be found. Maybe 15-8-6-4-2-1. I wouldn't give out any bonus points in the preliminary races. If you want the points, you are going to have to finish in one of the few points-paying positions.

A few things: I wouldn't do preliminary races on street courses because of how physical they are and the chance of crash damage is so high already on street courses that it wouldn't be worth it. Also, because street courses tend to have tight schedules as you could have seven series sharing track time. I wouldn't do preliminary races for 500-milers because the teams already have 500 miles ahead of them. They wouldn't need another 100 miles put on their plate.

There would be a few weekends where the preliminary race would be tough to get it. For example, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is on a Saturday, which means the preliminary race would be on Friday. However, the sunset this year for the Friday of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend was 8:46 p.m. ET. You could start the preliminary race at 7:15 p.m. ET on Friday, it would be great for people getting off from work and it wouldn't be on a school night and the race could get it before sunset. The other issue is the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is an ABC race. The preliminary race wouldn't be shown on ABC and ESPN is pretty busy during May with the NBA playoffs and NBCSN is busy with Stanley Cup playoffs. IndyCar could be able to squeeze it in, especially if an NBA playoff game isn't starting until 8:00 p.m. ET but it would be a tight squeeze.

The NASCAR Truck Series traditionally run the Friday night before the IndyCar race and it normally starts pretty late to avoid the Texas heat. Perhaps IndyCar could get the preliminary race in before hand but it would be held before it starts cooling down.

The real plus to the preliminary races is it would get IndyCar on television for two days, which means more exposure for sponsors. The races could be shown within a 90-minute television window and it would be a good kick start to a race weekend.

Cement Who You Are
The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule has yet to be released and I think we are all a little dreading the day it comes. While we know Road America will be back, we also know Fontana is gone and Pocono and Milwaukee are teetering while Phoenix appears to be a Hail Mary.

One of IndyCar's problems is it's schedule has not been set in stone for years. You would have thought reunification would have solved these calendar issues but it hasn't. It has actually made things worse. The fluidity of IndyCar's calendar makes it impossible for fans that live within driving distance of tracks to become fans and IndyCar can't develop an identity if the places they go are always changing.

Look at NASCAR's 1972 season and look at today's schedule. While places like North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, Trenton, Nashville and Texas World are gone; the schedule looks pretty similar to today's calendar. The Daytona rounds are in February and Fourth of July weekend. The Charlotte races are still Memorial Day weekend and mid-October. Dover is still June and late-September/early-October. Bristol is still in April and the second Bristol race has shifted from July and has been in August since 1976. Michigan is still mid-June and mid-August.

Richmond was in February and September. The September round has never moved and the February date has slowly shifted to it's current position in late-April, where it has been since 1996. Darlington might be down to one race and the Southern 500 might have been in May for a decade but it's back on Labor Day weekend. Atlanta is also down to one race but that race is back in late-February/March where an Atlanta has been for years. Talladega is still in May and the second date has moved from July to October, which makes a lot of sense because who would want to go to Alabama in July?

For the tracks that no longer exist, their places on the calendar have been replaced by tracks in the area. Ontario is gone but Fontana has taken its place in March. Riverside is gone but Sonoma is now held in late-June instead. Texas World has been replaced in mid-November with Texas Motor Speedway.

And it's not just NASCAR that has kept its schedule consistent. The NHRA schedule has pretty much remained untouched for decades. Pomona seems to have always bookended the calendar. Phoenix has always been in February with Gainesville in June. Rockingham is gone but Concord has taken its place in early spring. Englishtown has always been around late-May/early-June. The Western Swing has always been Denver, Sonoma and Seattle from late-July though the middle of August. Brainerd has always been the round before Indianapolis and Indianapolis has always been Labor Day weekend. Reading has shifted a few weeks but is still one of the first round of autumn and Dallas has always been in the middle of October.

IndyCar needs to sit down, put its schedule together and say, "this is it." They need to say these are the races we have, these are the places we are going to go and these are the dates we are coming to town for many years to come. It can't afford to continue to shuffle races and the series may need to accept losing money for a few years if it means allowing a race and fan bases to grow. IndyCar should have done this in 2009 but there is not time like the present to get their house in order.

Keep Pocono in late August, move Milwaukee back to the week after Indianapolis, move Belle Isle to Fourth of July weekend and move Toronto back to mid-July. IndyCar should have kept Fontana in the middle of October because look at the crowd in 2013 when the race was in October.

And 2014 on Labor Day weekend...

And 2015 at the end of June...

IndyCar would have needed to find a race or two to fill September if Fontana was in October but that isn't impossible.

IndyCar needs to stop pussyfooting. They need to etch their calendar in stone. IndyCar wants growth? IndyCar wants new fans? Don't rely solely on a video game idea (that is a blog for another day) and have your races become staples in local communities. People should know when the race is in town and the race should become like clockwork. People in the Milwaukee should know early June IndyCar is coming to town. People in Iowa should know that mid-July means IndyCar is returning. But it takes time to condition people to know when the races will be in town and IndyCar can't move races after two or three bad years. IndyCar needs to go where they want to be and be patient.

Patience is something that few have when it comes to IndyCar but those messiah moments aren't going to happen. The series isn't going to have a cosmic boom that all of a sudden causes 2.5 million people to tune into each race, 100,000 people to attend each race and hundreds of millions of sponsorship dollars to be transferred to team owners' bank accounts. It is going to take time.

The Chase is Set
Matt Kenseth won at Richmond and the 16 drivers who were in the Chase entering Richmond were the 16 drivers who will make up the Chase.

Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch all won four races and will be tied for the championship leader entering Chicagoland next week. Joey Logano is the lone driver with three victories. Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Carl Edwards each have two victories. Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex, Jr. and Denny Hamlin each have one victory to their name.

Five drivers made the Chase on points. Jamie McMurray qualified for his first Chase while for the second consecutive season Ryan Newman made the Chase without winning a race. Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer also qualified for the Chase on points. Paul Menard is the second driver to be making their Chase debut this year as he advanced on points.

Menard was the final driver to make the Chase as he finished 17 points ahead of Aric Almirola. Almirola finished fourth at Richmond and was the top finisher without a race victory. Had Almirola won the race, he would have made the Chase even if he trailed Menard in the championship standings.

This will be the first Chase ever not to feature at Roush Fenway Racing driver. Greg Biffle was 19th in points, 99 behind Menard for the final Chase spot. He finished four laps down in 31st on Saturday night.

Champion From the Weekend
Championships weren't just awarded in Laguna Seca this weekend.

Sébastien Ogier clinched his third consecutive World Rally Championship after he won Rally Australia. Ogier heads back to Europe with a 101-point lead over Volkswagen teammate Jari-Matti Latvala and with three rounds remaining there are a maximum of 84 points left on the the table.

The victory in Australia was Ogier's 31st rally victory and puts him solely into second all-time in rally victories, breaking a tie with Marcus Grönholm. Sébastien Loeb is the all-time leader in rally victories with 78.

There are three rallies remaining in 2015. The next round takes place in Ogier's home country of France for the Tour de Corse. This is the first time the Tour de Corse is on the WRC calendar since 2008. Rally de Catalunya and Wales Rally GB will close out the season.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about what happened at Laguna Seca, Richmond and Rally Australia but did you know...

Marc Márquez won MotoGP's San Marino Grand Prix in dramatic fashion as the track went from dry to wet and back to dry.

Mark Winterbottom and Steve Owen won the Sandown 500.

Timo Glock and Tom Blomqvist split the DTM races from Oschersleben. It was Blomqvist's first career DTM victory.

Kazuki Nakajima won the  Super Formula race as he won at Autopolis.

José María López and Tiago Monteiro split the WTCC races from Motegi.

Johann Zarco won the Moto2 race from Misano, his third consecutive victory and sixth of the year. Enea Bastianini scored his first Moto3 victory in front of his home fans.

Chase Elliott won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Richmond.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One will move at a snails pace in Singapore.
FIA WEC and IMSA tag-team Austin for Lone Star Le Mans.
The Chase begins in Chicago.
The Blancpain Endurance Series closes out their season at the Nürburgring.
World Superbike returns to action at Jerez.
Super GT will be at Sportsland SUGO.