Monday, April 16, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Keeping the Lights On

Alexander Rossi bossed the Long Beach weekend. A handful of drivers had a weekend to forget. There were passes to remember from IndyCar to Pirelli World Challenge to European Le Mans Series to Formula One. Max Verstappen continues to allow people to question his maturity. Toro Rosso drivers got together. Formula E visited the Pope, got blessed and put on its best race of the season. Coincidence? World Superbike returned to Europe and was in Spain. NASCAR had another race rained out to a Monday. Neither Taylor brother get a victory at Long Beach but Cadillac keeps winning. Jason Anderson is another step closer to clinching the Supercross championship. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Keeping the Lights On
We all know about IndyCar's new television deal and many are excited about what it could mean for the future of the series. Most have viewed the move to NBC as the sole television partner as a positive for the series. However, this television not only impacts IndyCar but the Indy Lights series as well.

IndyCar will have eight races on network NBC next year while the remainder will be shown on NBCSN but it is unclear what Indy Lights' presence on television will be in 2019 and beyond. All we know is Indy Lights will be a part of the IndyCar package on NBC Sports Gold and purchasing that package will allow fans to see every Indy Lights race live. However, Indy Lights doesn't need to be put behind a pay wall. It needs the opposite.

The grid was down to nine cars for this year's season opener at St. Petersburg and we aren't sure two of those cars will be back for the second round of the season at Barber. The grid once thought to be growing with the introduction of a new chassis three years ago has fallen back to pre-Dallara IL-15 levels and once again we find ourselves wondering what is next for the series.

The series did see a boom as Carlin came over to the series, 8 Star Motorsports moved over from sports cars and Juncos Racing expanded its operation. The grid had 13 cars for the 2015 season opener and the following year saw more additions to the grid with 16 cars including the likes of Felix Rosenqvist and Dean Stoneman coming over from successful careers in the European junior series.

However, the last two seasons saw Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Carlin both withdraw from the series to focus on IndyCar operations. No other teams have entered the series since 2015. Andretti Autosport is propping up half the grid. It seems a series with a $1 million scholarship to move up to IndyCar should be doing better than this.

Everyone keeps saying IndyCar should incentivize IndyCar teams to field cars in Indy Lights but the problem is there is not enough for IndyCar to offer to change the minds of Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Bobby Rahal to enter the series or Sam Schmidt to return. Indy Lights isn't a cheap series. Mike Hull estimated on The Marshall Pruett Podcast it costs $1.8 million to run an Indy Lights program. Penske has a three-car IndyCar effort; Ganassi and Rahal both run two cars. An extra test day from IndyCar or an extra set of tires each race weekend isn't going get these guys to spend almost $2 million to run one Indy Lights car.

Making Indy Lights into a profitable series is what could draw some of these car owners to the series and with a new television deal and the chance that every race could be showed on television is a step in the right direction. It is not clear if it will be possible for Indy Lights to get a few races on network NBC next year along with IndyCar races but the series desperately needs that to become attractive to sponsors. I can't imagine more than five Indy Lights races being shown on NBC next year but five Indy Lights races on NBC would give a sponsor more possible exposure than the current predicament.

Indy Lights cannot completely control its television exposure but it can control the series and the costs and if the series is hoping to increase the grid maybe it could look to reducing the schedule as a cost-cutting measure. It was not that long ago where doubleheaders were rare. The 2013 season had 12 races and no doubleheaders and in 2014 the street course races were single-race events. The change would take something away from a weekend schedule and it would create a vacancy on either a Saturday or Sunday but it has to be considered and maybe in turn of doubleheaders Indy Lights could run slightly longer races. Instead of having a 35-lap race and a 40-lap race at St. Petersburg there could be one 50-lap race.

Cutting back on doubleheader races could allow Indy Lights to allow a few more oval races on the schedule. Currently, there are ten tracks that make up the Indy Lights calendar; five road courses, three ovals and two street courses. If each track had one race it could allow for two tracks to be added to the schedule and the current IndyCar weekend without Indy Lights races are Phoenix, Long Beach, Belle Isle, Texas, Pocono and Sonoma. Phoenix and Pocono would likely be the two tracks to benefit the most from an Indy Lights race.

It would be a change but a change is necessary if we want Indy Lights not only survive but become a thriving series. It might be difficult to pull off Indy Lights races on network television because time is precious. An Indy Lights race fits nicely into an hour television window but will NBC have an hour to offer before or after an IndyCar race? IndyCar isn't NBC's only sports property and every sports governing body holds events on weekends and is hoping for a big draw to impress sponsors. However, IndyCar doesn't need NBC to bend over backward to accommodate Indy Lights. A reduced schedule with a few network races could enough to turn the tide for Indy Lights and get the grid back up to 16 cars or more.

We have been so focused on IndyCar but we cannot forget about Indy Lights. The series was on the right foot not too long ago but now it has to redefine itself once again. The car is not the issue this time. Incentives are not going to get more teams into the series and incentives should not be what it takes for teams to join Indy Lights. The series needs to make more business sense for teams.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Alexander Rossi but did you know...

Daniel Ricciardo won the Chinese Grand Prix.

The #5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac of Filipe Albuquerque and João Barbosa won the IMSA race from Long Beach. The #4 Corvette of Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin won in GTLM, their second consecutive class victory at Long Beach..

Daniel Mancinelli won the Pirelli World Challenge race at Long Beach.

The #24 Racing Engineering Oreca-Gibson of Oliver Pla, Norman Nato and Patrick Pilet won European Le Mans Series season opener from Circuit Paul Ricard, a victory on Racing Engineering's ELMS debut. The #15 RLR Msport Ligier-Nissan of John Farano, Rob Garofall and Job van Uitert won in LMP3. The #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of Miguel Molina, Liam Griffin and Alex MacDonald won in GTE after Molina made a pass on the final lap on the #88 Proton Competition Porsche of Matteo Cairoli.

Sam Bird won the Rome ePrix.

Ryan Preece won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Bristol.

Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies split the World Superbike races from Aragón. Sandro Cortese won the World Supersport race, his first career victory in his third start and his victory since the Moto3 race at Phillip Island in 2012.

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Minneapolis, the final triple crown race of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar ends its three-week stretch of races at Barber Motorsports Park with the Road to Indy back in play.
Marc Márquez looks for another MotoGP victory in the United States and in Austin, Texas.
World Superbike heads north to Assen.
NASCAR has its first night race of the season at Richmond.
Supercars will be at Phillip Island.
Super Formula opens its season at Suzuka.
The Blancpain Endurance Series opens its season at Monza.
Supercross will be in Foxborough, Massachusetts.