Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Does IndyCar Need an Independence Day Weekend Race?

Championship contenders running into each other was the theme from the weekend, whether it was in Austria or London. Sébastien Buemi won the second Formula E title by scoring fastest lap. Nicolas Prost swept the London weekend. A famous car owner made more history. A driver got to celebrate a victory after not being able to nine years ago. A few teams are still rolling after success at Le Mans. There was a rally in Poland and a sprint at the Nürburgring. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Does IndyCar Need an Independence Day Weekend Race?
The United States shut down this weekend. Highways were clogged with SUV full of families heading to destinations to celebrate the United States' independence from the British and some of those destinations were racetracks. NASCAR cycled back to Daytona for a night race. IMSA ran its third endurance race of the season, six hours around Watkins Glen. While two of Americas top series were at legendary venues, IndyCar joined the masses and took a holiday.

IndyCar has raced on Independence Day weekend before but for the last twenty years the series hasn't been married to one destination to celebrate the holiday. IndyCar use to run the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb every July 4th however it was never a popular event with the AAA and then USAC regulars. The Unsers dominated, Mario Andretti won it once, A.J. Foyt never attempted it and Al Rogers, Wes Vandervoort and George Hammond are all in the IndyCar history books as race winners but never raced anywhere but Pikes Peak.

Other than a few trips to Pocono, Michigan and Mosport during the 1970s, IndyCar didn't race on Independence Day weekend regularly until the 1982 season when the inaugural Grand Prix of Cleveland was held. IndyCar visited Cleveland for ten consecutive years on Independence Day weekend but then the race bounced around a little bit from the middle of August to the middle of July. Loudon hosted IndyCar on July 5th, 1992 but then moved to an August date.

After the split occurred, Cleveland moved back to Independence Day weekend for a few seasons until it became a late-June race in its final years of the event. The IRL ran at Kansas but in the unpopular heat of the afternoon and Kansas eventually moved to April but the cooler temperatures didn't draw better crowds. For four years, Watkins Glen hosted IndyCar on Independence Day weekend but just like Kansas, the race didn't draw the size of crowd the track wanted. When IndyCar returned to Pocono in 2013, the race was held on Independence Day weekend but the crowd dropped off in 2014, likely because of heavy traffic, as the Poconos are already a popular holiday destination for residence from New York and New Jersey.

An Independence Day weekend race could be a great event but IndyCar would need to find the right place that would draw a regular crowd. There aren't many current tracks on the IndyCar schedule that could move to Independence Day weekend. Pocono seemed like a perfect place but it didn't work out. Iowa could be a great event but Iowa's schedule it tightly packed with NASCAR weekends in the middle of June and late-July.

Belle Isle might be the best race to move to Independence Day weekend. First, it would move the doubleheader away from the Indianapolis 500 and give the teams a slight break after working for three consecutive weekends at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Second, if Belle Isle became an NBCSN broadcasted weekend, it would allow NBC to cross-promote the IndyCar races with the NASCAR race at Daytona. An IndyCar race could be in the afternoon; pre-NASCAR race viewing on Saturday and the second race from Belle Isle could be promoted within the NASCAR race on Saturday night.

One downside to moving Belle Isle would be shifting the jam-packed end of spring to a jam-packed summer. Slotting Belle Isle into the Independence Day weekend gap would create four consecutive weeks of racing. IndyCar is running three races in four weeks with Road America being separated by this off-weekend from a back-to-back at Iowa and Toronto. IndyCar could swap Belle Isle and Iowa but the series could run the risk of hurting two races by swapping dates. Iowa could benefit from being the race after the Indianapolis 500 as it would get out from being sandwiched between NASCAR weekends and be the first major race of Iowa's season but at the same time it would occur while schools are still in session and maybe less fans would be willing to go out if the race is on a Sunday afternoon.

I bet you are screaming, "return to Cleveland! Cleveland is the answer" after reading the first seven paragraphs and after IndyCar's successful return to Road America last week. Unlike Road America, Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport hasn't been used by a motorsports series since the last time an American open-wheel series was there in 2007. Road America had regularly been used between IndyCar races. It was making money from a NASCAR and sports car weekend and the track has been making upgrades. Road America got a notable company in Kohler to sponsor the IndyCar race. Cleveland has been sitting idle all this time. IndyCar has been out of sight and out of mind in the city. Mike Lanigan was the Cleveland promoter but after reunification he focused on getting Houston back on the schedule. He was successful but Houston lasted two years. Cleveland would be starting over from square one just like Milwaukee and we all know how Milwaukee floundered around for five seasons with minimal gains and no promoter able to take it to the next level.

Outside of Cleveland, what other new/returning venue could IndyCar go to? Michigan for a 500-miler? Gateway? Chicagoland? Portland? Maybe IndyCar could head to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve seeing as how Bernie Ecclestone no longer fancies the venue but I am sure Canada Day weekend is just as difficult to schedule for as Independence Day weekend.

Maybe the best thing for IndyCar is to have Independence Day weekend as an off weekend. The teams get a much-needed weekend off. Fans can make other plans and enjoy the holiday with family and friends and not have to worry about missing a race or setting the DVR. There are plenty of other weekends in summer for IndyCar to have our attention. I think even fans can appreciate having a week off from IndyCar, especially a holiday weekend.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the Formula E season finale but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the Austrian Grand Prix.

Brad Keselowski dominated the NASCAR Cup race at Daytona, leading 115 laps. It was Team Penske's 100th NASCAR Cup Series victory. Aric Almirola won his first Grand National Series race in nine years on Friday night.

The #5 Action Express Racing Corvette DP of João Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi won the Six Hours of Watkins Glen and led an Action Express Racing 1-2 finish with the #31 Corvette DP of Dane Cameron and Eric Curran finishing second. The #8 Starworks Motorsports Oreca of Renger van der Zande and Alex Popow won in Prototype Challenge. Ford GTs finished first and second in GTLM with the #67 Ford of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe on the top step of the podium and the #66 Ford of Joey Hand and Dirk Müller next to them. Christian Nielsen, Jeff Segal and Alessandro Balzan won in GTD in the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3.

Mitch Evans and Jordan King split the GP2 races from Austria. King led an all-British podium with Oliver Rowland in second and Alex Lynn in third. Charles Leclerc and Ralph Boschung won the GP3 races.

The #58 Garage 59 McLaren 650S GT3 of Rob Bell and Álvaro Parente won the Blancpain Sprint Series race at Nürburgring. The #33 Belgium Audi Club Team WRT Audi R8 LMS of Christopher Mies and Enzo Ide won the Qualifying race.

Andreas Mikkelsen won Rally Poland after entering the final day trailing Ott Tänak by 21.3 seconds.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar will be at Iowa.
Formula One will be at Silverstone.
NASCAR runs another Saturday night race, this time at Kentucky.
World Superbike comes to the United States and Laguna Seca.
IMSA travels across the border to Mosport.
V8 Supercars race on the streets of Townsville.