Monday, July 10, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: 2018 IndyCar Schedule Talk

Hélio Castroneves ended a drought and there was a brief shower at Iowa. NASCAR had two rain delays in Kentucky and one race was pushed back a day. Drivers are bickering over jumped starts in the world of Formula One. A familiar face continues to win in Formula Two. World Superbikes were at Laguna Seca and American Jake Gagne scored a point in each race running in place of Nicky Hayden on the factory Honda. An Australian ended a drought. A past champion got back on the top step of the podium in Super Formula and held off a worldwide stud in the process. A car finished its race on its lid at Mosport. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

2018 IndyCar Schedule Talk
There are fewer days left in 2017 than days completed and IndyCar has completed almost two-thirds of its 2017 schedule with another race six days away. The IndyCar season will be over before we know it and unlike the last decade we aren't heading into an offseason uncertain what the schedule is going to look like next year.

The schedule is pretty set. A few dates may be hanging in the air but we know the outline of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.

St. Petersburg is set for March 11th. Long Beach is set for April 15th. The Indianapolis 500 is tentatively set for May 27th but who knows. Maybe that will change. Maybe after 101 Memorial Day weekends they will try something else. If the Indianapolis 500 will be May 27th than I think we can pencil in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis for May 12th. Belle Isle is planning to be the weekend of June 1st-3rd. Road America is set for June 24th.

Those are six events and I am sure once a few more races are in the book we will start hearing the 2018 dates for these summer races. However, there are a few suggestions I would like to make.

Let's start with the front end of the schedule where Phoenix and Barber remain to be scheduled. April 1st is Easter. NASCAR heads to Phoenix on March 11th and the common thinking seems to be to pair Phoenix and Long Beach for a western swing of races. April 7th is an open date but that could be too close to the Cup date. Another issue is NASCAR goes to Talladega on April 29th, pretty much forcing Barber to be the weekend of April 22nd. Perhaps Barber could be April 8th and Phoenix could be April 21st. Either way, three consecutive weeks of racing seem inevitable next April. I would lean toward Phoenix-Long Beach-Barber and give the teams two weeks off before the Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend.

When it comes to the July portion of the season, I would like to flip the Toronto and Iowa weekends. The main issue is Iowa occurs marginally too late for a Sunday race and Toronto is shown live on CNBC because it goes head-to-head with the NASCAR race. We all agree IndyCar should avoid going head-to-head with NASCAR but a problem next year is Daytona and Kentucky are a week later because July 4th falls on a Wednesday. As much as I would like Iowa to return to a Saturday night, that doesn't seem likely and it kind of works out. Iowa could be July 8th, the day after Daytona, but it would have to be at least three hours earlier than it was this year, and Toronto could be July 15th, the day after Kentucky and both could be live on NBCSN.

The one unavoidable clash seems to be Mid-Ohio and the NASCAR weekend at Pocono. It seems destined for those races to both fall on July 29th. The one solution I would suggest is running Mid-Ohio at noon Eastern and squeezing the race in prior to the NASCAR race. NASCAR start times are getting later and later. The Pocono race in June started closer to 3:30 p.m. than 3:00 p.m. IndyCar could easily start a race at noon and be off the air with enough time for an hour pre-race show for the NASCAR race.

After Mid-Ohio, August seems fine. Pocono should be August 19th, the day after NASCAR race at Bristol, and the following weekend is an off weekend for the Cup series. The NASCAR Xfinity Series is scheduled to be at Road America on Saturday August 25th but that could be a nice lead in for the Saturday night race at Gateway. I see no reason why Watkins Glen should move off of Labor Day weekend, September 2nd, next year.

An issue arises with the season finale. This year marks the second year Sonoma will take place on Sunday evening, after the opening race of the Chase from Chicagoland with coverage starting at 6:30 p.m. ET and green flag closer to 7:00 p.m. ET. Next year, the Chase doesn't open at Chicagoland but at Las Vegas. Why NASCAR would schedule the Chase opener for a Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas in September when it will be hotter than that time IndyCar raced at Fontana in late-June is beyond me but it is happening. That race will be on NBC, meaning it will likely still be a 3:00 p.m. ET start because they will want the race to lead in to Football Night in America at 7:00 p.m. ET.

NBCSN will be open but what if IndyCar waited a week for the season finale? The week after Las Vegas is Richmond, which is a Saturday night race. If IndyCar waited a week it could have an open Sunday with no NASCAR and the race wouldn't have to start so late. I understand why Sonoma starts as late as it does now because of NASCAR and the NFL schedule but 7:00 p.m. ET; 4:00 p.m. Sonoma time isn't ideal. It is hard on any NFL Sunday to try and get attention but a 5:15 or 5:30 p.m. ET start, which is around halftime for the late-afternoon NFL games, could be better.

There is one other suggestion I would make for the 2018 schedule. Expansion does not appear likely for 2018. The wind is no longer in Portland's sails. IndyCar might be heading to a 1.25-mile oval in Puebla, Mexico but that still seems to be in the air. Any flyaway race, whether it be China, Dubai or somewhere else in the world might be too late to schedule but there is one place I think IndyCar should go to in 2018.

New Hampshire International Speedway will not be hosting NASCAR next September, as its loss is Las Vegas' gain. What if Sonoma stayed the third weekend in September and remained at its 7:00 p.m. ET start after the NASCAR race at Las Vegas and Loudon hosted the season finale a week later on Sunday afternoon?

Hear me out on why Loudon makes sense seven years after IndyCar's one-off return to the one-mile oval:

First, Loudon is losing a race and there are plenty of race fans that are accustomed to heading to the track at the start of autumn. IndyCar could step in. It would be a chance to give these fans something when it appeared they were losing a date and IndyCar could work out some deal for fans that had tickets to this year's Loudon Chase race. It could offer a discount of some sort for those who had tickets to this year's autumn NASCAR race at Loudon and bought tickets for what would be an autumn IndyCar race.

Second, while Loudon isn't wine country, it could be a great weekend of racing. Loudon could not only be the site of the IndyCar finale but it could host the finales for the other three Road to Indy series, the NASCAR Modified Tour could join the weekend, this September's NASCAR date even has a late model stock car race. Even if only Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and NASCAR Modifieds joined IndyCar on the ticket it would be a great weekend.

Third, it would be another oval and the season finale would be on an oval. The one negative about Sonoma is it has never produced great racing. While the 2011 Loudon race will be forever remembered for Brian Barnhart being the only man to fail to see it was raining and deciding the race should go green, it was actually a pretty good race, even with a 32-lap caution for a drizzle, and hindsight shows it is quite unfortunate the race was killed without giving the DW12 chassis a chance to race there.

The positive thing for IndyCar is for the second consecutive year it appears the series will be able to retain 100% of its races. IndyCar needs stability to have any hope of growing and it needs long-term stability. Two years of stability is great but it is the furthest thing from success. Success comes after two decades of stability. IndyCar is a tenth of the way there.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Hélio Castroneves but did you know...

Valtteri Bottas won the Austrian Grand Prix.

Chaz Davies and Jonathan Rea split the World Superbike races from Laguna Seca.

The #31 Action Express Racing Cadillac of Dane Cameron and Eric Curran won the IMSA race from Mosport. The #38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca of James French and Pato O'Ward won in Prototype Challenge for the sixth consecutive race. The #25 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing BMW of Alexander Sims and Bill Auberlen won for the second consecutive race in GTLM. The #57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi of Lawson Aschenbach and Andrew Davis won in GTD.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race from Kentucky. Kyle Busch won the Grand National Series race. Christopher Bell won the Truck race.

Matheus Leist won the Indy Lights race from Iowa. Oliver Askew won the U.S. F2000 race.

Charles Leclerc and Artem Markelov split the Formula Two races from Red Bull Ring. George Russell and Raoul Hyman split the GP3 races.

Hiroaki Ishiura won the Super Formula race from Fuji.

Scott McLaughlin and Jamie Whincup split the Supercars races from Townsville.

Gianni Morbidelli swept the TCR International Series races from Oschersleben.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar crosses the border to Toronto.
Formula One heads to a staple event: The British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
Formula E finally gets to sleep, as they will be in Brooklyn.
FIA World Endurance Championship is back at the Nürburgring.
NASCAR will be at Loudon.