Monday, March 28, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Pack a Lunch

Easter Monday is here and not much happened over the holiday weekend. No NASCAR overtimes, no Formula One qualifying debacles, no high-flying Supercross action, no IndyCar traffic jams and no grimes about Balance of Performance. Despite it still being March and spring being a week old, it was a refreshing weekend and it's good to have the batteries fully charged with an appetizing April and a monumental May ahead of us. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Pack a Lunch
The 11-year wait is over. IndyCar will have a twilight party in the desert at Phoenix Raceway with the 250-lap Phoenix Grand Prix. We have been longing for quite sometime. Mark Miles gets his balls busted quite often and at least 95% of the time it is warranted but the five-percent of the time he isn't being tortured is because Phoenix and Road America have returned to the IndyCar schedule under his watch.

Everything has sounded positive about this race weekend. The track seems happy with ticket sales. The test at Phoenix a month featured a crowd so large the track had to open another parking lot for spectators. Desert Diamond West Valley casino was announced as title sponsor for the race early last week. The quarrels over downforce level and what the race package should be have died down since the February test and I think some are still concerned about what the racing will be like but I am sure a balance will be found. While some fear the race will be processional and cars will have difficulty getting out of line to make a pass, if Firestone brings a tire that falls off like the one they bring at Texas than I think that could make up for any downforce concerns.

The one issue have with the Phoenix Grand Prix weekend is the schedule. Both Indy Lights and IndyCar will be at Phoenix with the Indy Lights race taking place at 1:30 p.m. local time (4:30 p.m. ET) and the IndyCar slated for a 6:15 p.m. local start (9:15 p.m. ET).

Why is there a four-hour gap between the two series? Who is going to head to the track in the heat of the afternoon to watch Indy Lights and then spend at least four hours putzing around the race track waiting for the IndyCar race to start? I am sure someone came up with a reasonable explanation for such a schedule but to me it makes no sense at all. It does a disservice to Indy Lights, which put on really good oval races last year at Milwaukee and Iowa in year one of the IL-15 chassis. It does a disservice to the fans who either have to show up at the track by 1:30 p.m. if they want to see both races and will force them to be there for as long as eight hours.

The Indy Lights race should be much closer to IndyCar race time. Consider MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3. This weekend at Argentina, the Moto3 races is at 1:00 p.m. local time, Moto2 is at 2:20 p.m. local and the MotoGP main event is set for 4:00 p.m. local. At most, there will be an hour between the Moto2 and MotoGP race. The races aren't spread out with Moto3 at 9:00 a.m., Moto2 at noon and MotoGP at 4:00 p.m. That would be too much down time between races. Races should come right after the other.

The Indy Lights races should have been scheduled for a more reasonable hour. A 4:00 p.m. local start would have the race over by 5:00 p.m. and give fans a little over an hour until the IndyCar race. Heck, I would be alright with the Indy Lights race starting thirty minutes later and there being about 45 minutes between the races. That won't happen because of pre-race festivities. Every race needs to have the drivers on a stage and a ceremonial lap around the track to wave to the fans and the whole schtick. I would rather they introduce the drivers on stage, get them to their cars, sing the anthem and then fire the cars up. Not every race needs the pageantry and I am sure people would get over if they didn't see driver X ride by in the bed of a pickup truck with a cheap smile and unaffectionate wave.

But if the only downside to this weekend is the Indy Lights race starting too early in the day then that's not a bad problem to have at all.

Head-to-Head With the Final Four
Ok, another downside with Phoenix is it is the same night as the Final Four of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. There are four sporting events you don't go head-to-head with if you are IndyCar: The Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, the World Cup Final (Men's and Women's) and the men's Final Four.

However, maybe IndyCar can catch a break here. While the Final Four is highly watched, it doesn't draw a Super Bowl-level number (nothing but the Super Bowl does). Last year's Final Four game between undefeated Kentucky and Wisconsin had 22.6 million viewers, the most-watched semifinal game in 19 years and the most-watched college basketball game in cable TV history. Don't expect those types of numbers this year but they will still be around 20 million. In 2014, Kentucky-Wisconsin set the record for most-watch college basketball game in cable TV history with 16.3 million viewers.

I don't see the ratings dropping to 2014 levels and there are some interesting storylines in this year's Final Four. Villanova looks to win its first national championship in 31 years and they will take on Oklahoma and arguably the best player in college basketball Buddy Hield in the first semifinal, but that game will be finished well before the IndyCar race starts. North Carolina-Syracuse starts at 8:49 p.m. ET and when the IndyCar race goes green, that game will almost be at halftime. Both schools have massive followings and 10-seed Syracuse could become the highest seed in tournament history to win the national championship game. North Carolina, as we all know, is a big motorsports market. It might be known for NASCAR but there are a lot of general motorsports fans in that area.

Will a decrease in viewers in North Carolina kill the IndyCar rating? Probably not. The IndyCar rating could be Dead On Arrival for all we know. The good news is Arizona got bounced early from the tournament, Notre Dame lost in the Elite Eight, Indiana was out in the Sweet Sixteen and Butler and Purdue didn't make it past the first weekend. If Arizona had made it, the track could have been hurt at the gates. If any of the Indiana teams had made it, it would have dented the TV rating.

IndyCar and Phoenix were fortunate this year and should try to avoid this weekend next year. Either that or race on Sunday afternoon when there is no basketball and the NASCAR race will be on the East Coast. However, I do like the idea of a Saturday night race and to preserve that IndyCar and the track might have to shift this race weekend back a week but the only problem with that is the second weekend in April is when NASCAR runs on Saturday night at Texas. Next year, the third weekend of April is Easter weekend.

So what do IndyCar and Phoenix want to do? Do they want to keep playing roulette and hope none of the Final Four teams are from Arizona or Indiana, move the race to a Sunday afternoon or do they grease some palms and see if they could work something out so this race can be on a Saturday afternoon but not go head-to-head with NASCAR?

Decisions, decisions.

Winners From the Weekend
There wasn't a lot going on this weekend but did you know...

In Taupo, New Zealand, Ash Blewitt, Ryan Yardley and Michael Scott won the final races of the 2016 Toyota Finance 86 Championship season from Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar's Phoenix Grand Prix from Phoenix Raceway.
Formula E comes to the United States and will race in Long Beach.
MotoGP heads to Argentina.
Formula One will be in Bahrain.
NASCAR returns to Martinsville.
World Superbike is at Aragón.
The second round of the V8 Supercars season is at Symmons Plains.
World Touring Car Championship opens its season at Circuit Paul Ricard.
AMA Supercross heads to Santa Clara, California.