Thursday, August 25, 2016

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Schedule Provides Continuity

Three races remain in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season but the 2017 schedule was released today and it was a monumental feat for North America's premier open-wheel series.

All 15 events from the 2016 season will return in 2017. It is the first time IndyCar has retained 100% of the races from a previous season since the 2007 season. Along with all 15 events returning, Gateway Motorsports Park will return to the IndyCar schedule and the race will take place under the lights 366 days from today. Gateway hosted seven IndyCar races from 1997-2003, the first four were apart of the CART schedule with the final three being IRL events. Seven different drivers won at the track and they are Paul Tracy, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Al Unser, Jr. Gil de Ferran and Hélio Castroneves. Team Penske won three of the seven races including the final two at the track.

There was one date shift that has created a very big break right after the season gets started. Phoenix moves from the first weekend in April to the final weekend in April after Barber on Saturday April 29th. With Phoenix moving, there will be a month-gap between the season opener at St. Petersburg on March 12th and the second round of the season at Long Beach on April 9th. While that isn't ideal for IndyCar, it is better than the series rushing and trying to find a stopgap solution. Perhaps in 2018 a well-planned event could fit into late-March.

Personally, I would love to see an oval dropped into that early spring gap. Homestead once hosted an IndyCar race at the end of March but I really wonder how many races the state of Florida can host in the first three months of the year. Think about it? There is the 24 Hours of Daytona at the end of January; two weeks later is the start of Speedweeks with the first weekend hosting Daytona 500 qualifying and then the Daytona 500 itself. After a week off, Daytona Bike Week starts. After another week off, IndyCar is at St. Petersburg and then the 12 Hours of Sebring takes place. Deep down, I would love to see IndyCar go to Darlington at the end of March because I want to see what it would look like and I think Darlington could be a surprise market. As much as we think the south in NASCAR country, Barber Motorsports Park has put on a great event each year and it is down the road from Talladega. I think Darlington could do well as it gives local race fans another event and there would be plenty of space between it and the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend.

Despite the early break, the IndyCar schedule has kept that fast paced start to the season. After successive weekends racing at Barber and Phoenix, the series will take a week off before starting three consecutive weeks of action at Indianapolis with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Indianapolis 500 qualifying and then the Indianapolis 500. The Belle Isle doubleheader returns the week after the "500" and Texas wraps up a five consecutive week run of on-track action.

Road America rounds out the month of June. July has three races in a four week span with Iowa and Toronto in successive weekends before ending the month at Mid-Ohio. Just like 2016, there will be two weeks off between Mid-Ohio and Pocono but, just like 2016, Pocono will be the start of three consecutive weekends of racing from Pocono to the return to Gateway and Watkins Glen will stay on the schedule at Labor Day weekend. Two weeks after Watkins Glen will be the season finale at Sonoma.

One thing that hasn't been announced is start times for the 2017 races. We know Phoenix, Texas and Gateway are scheduled for Saturdays, so those will likely night races. If there is one thing we all could agree on is Pocono should not be scheduled for 3:00 p.m. ET. That race should be scheduled to go green no later than 1:00 p.m. ET. There are 11 races scheduled for the same day as NASCAR Cup races but most of those are races that are scheduled to happen before NASCAR night races (both Indianapolis races, Watkins Glen), before NASCAR races in the Pacific Time Zone (St. Petersburg, Road America) or will be in the Pacific Time Zone (Long Beach, Sonoma). However, with most NASCAR races scheduled to start between 2:00 p.m. ET and 3:00 p.m. ET in 2017, perhaps an races, such as Mid-Ohio, could be run at noon ET before a NASCAR race starts at 3:00 p.m. ET (in this case Pocono).

We could see more venues added for 2018. Portland has been in the conversation of returning to the IndyCar schedule for the last few months. Portland use to take place during the Portland Rose Festival in June but with the already crowded June slate for IndyCar, the race would have to take place at another time. I doubt Portland could go in late March. Maybe it could fall in August. International races are apparently still on the table as Mark Miles mentioned a potential international race in February 2018. International is a broad term. It could mean Mexico City, which was a rumored destination for IndyCar this season in February. However, international could also mean a flyaway race to China or Dubai or somewhere else around the globe. We are at the point though where Mark Miles has been saying international races are going to happen since 2014 and they have yet to happen and it's not just one race that has failed to materialize, it has been China and Dubai and Brasilia.

Overall, I think IndyCar did a great job with the 2017 schedule considering it maintained stability from one year to the next. The one concern I do have is many events are contracted through 2018, which isn't a bad thing but my concern is what if a half-dozen events decide after 2018 not to renew? IndyCar could be in a dire situation come 2019. That probably won't happen but it's the doomsday scenario that none of us want to see happen. Maybe after 2017 a few races will sign another extension through 2019 or 2020 or maybe even further into the future.

I have said it before and I will say it again, the IndyCar schedule can't get much better. Outside of adding another two or three ovals, preferably Fontana, Milwaukee and/or one of Kentucky, Michigan, Richmond, Loudon or Chicagoland and adding Austin and maybe Laguna Seca, the IndyCar schedule is great. Road America is back. Phoenix is back. IndyCar should probably do all it can to revive Texas and Iowa and continue to cultivate Pocono. Mid-Ohio and Barber get great crowds. Long Beach is phenomenal. St. Petersburg has solid footing. Toronto's future is a little shaky considering how beat up the track is and the event doesn't grab the same amount of attention in Toronto that it once did. With all that said, if the 2017 IndyCar schedule were to remain for the next twenty years, I don't think many would complain.

Today's announcement was great for IndyCar. For the first time in a long time, there appears to be some continuity in IndyCar.