Monday, July 2, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Now We Can Talk Schedule

June ended on a hot note and July only got hotter. A familiar livery got its first victory in over five years. Frontrunners were dropping like flies in Austria. Formula Two is having clutch problems. Two former Formula One drivers won in Super GT. Every session was close in MotoGP and Marc Márquez's marvelous ride earned him his fourth victory of the season and extended his championship lead. There was Kyle-on-Kyle violence in Chicago. Frédéric Gabillon won the Oval World Challenge; therefore, Frédéric Gabillon is the best oval racer in the world. Who saw that coming? Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Now We Can Talk Schedule
I have a rule that you can't talk about the next year's schedule until halfway though the current year. It is now July. Six months are behind us. It is time to have our first conversation about the 2019 IndyCar Series season and the first thing that comes to mind is are more races in danger than we previously thought?

Phoenix is already gone. Texas is doing its yearly bluff that IndyCar might not return but one of these years it will be true. Pocono has been getting better attendance each year but will 2018 be enough to warrant a 2019 return? Toronto has been in an odd place since 2015 and it feels like that race is slowly getting squeezed out of Exhibition Place. Sonoma seems to be on the fence. Belle Isle might have been seemed to be in greater damage a month or a month and a half ago when it seemed like protests were held weekly in the city. It appears to have calmed down but it only takes the right pissed off local citizen to pull the plug.

That covers six of 16 current venues. They are not all going to disappear, Belle Isle will be fine, but nobody would be surprised if another joined Phoenix out the door. I am hopeful all will stay on but it could be a quiet exit for another venue, just like Phoenix. This year's Phoenix race wasn't the greatest in the world but it wasn't a disaster. For three years Phoenix remained stagnant and while it was home to IndyCar's preseason testing the issues with on-track action was too much to overcome or at least a stellar crowd didn't cancel it out. There wasn't anger behind this split. In the past we have seen IndyCar leave venues with a bad taste in everyone's mouth. That wasn't the case and the same could be true for all the venues above.

The departure of Phoenix exacerbates IndyCar's big problem of lacking races at the front end of the schedule. For the last three seasons there have been three weeks between the St. Petersburg season opener and the second round of the season. Losing Phoenix adds another week to that gap. I am ok with IndyCar having two consecutive weeks off once in a while. The August break is understandable but I do not think it is good the series has one race and then goes dark for a month.

There is no quick solution. Long Beach is April 14th. That isn't budging and I don't blame it. Next year does pose another problem and that is Easter falls on April 21st, a weekend when Barber would normally fall. It would make sense for Barber to be the following week on April 28th but NASCAR is at Talladega that weekend. Barber was run in early April for the first four editions and it could be a stopgap replacement on April 7th but there would still be a three-week gap between St. Petersburg and the second round of the season. So we are right back where we started.

Homestead has been floated out as the possible replacement for Phoenix. It would not be irrational to race there in March. IndyCar went there for 15 years between CART and the IRL and outside of the final two years, which were held as the season finale in October, Homestead was frequently one of the first races of the season in late winter or early spring.

I don't see Homestead being a net-gain and that is a problem for IndyCar and one that should be explored (and will be explored here) at a later date. Where is IndyCar wanted? Where do people want to see IndyCar? I am not sure Miami is it. There is no sign Miami is it. Why go? How many times has IndyCar gone to an unknown market in hopes of sparking interest but wound up gone before most people ever knew the series came to town? There isn't a lot of time for research and trial balloons and when races drop off the schedule a replacement has to be found quickly but IndyCar needs not to jump at the first open venue but work to finding the right venues for the series. Not saying the series isn't but let's go to venues that are most likely to succeed long-term.

Let's say Homestead does fill the space between St. Petersburg and Long Beach, what does that mean for Barber? Would the race still be April 7th to avoid Easter and the Talladega NASCAR race? Would the race move to May 5th and not only create a back-to-back with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but also create six consecutive weeks of on-track action from Barber to the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to Indianapolis 500 qualifying to the Indianapolis 500 to the Belle Isle doubleheader to Texas?

I think we could be looking at Barber moving to April 7th and if Homestead is added to the schedule it would be the week prior to Barber because the week after St. Petersburg is the 12 Hours of Sebring. That would create a five-week stretch of St. Petersburg, an off week, Homestead, Barber and Long Beach but it would create another issue in not only having Easter off but April 28th and May 5th off, three consecutive weeks off before the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. We moved the problem from late March to late April. We moved the problem, not solved it. Terrific.

Pocono has had really good races and the crowd has grown slightly from the first race back at the track in 2013. Is it enough for the track and series to continue? You have to hope so because there aren't many other tracks that will produce the same kind of racing that Pocono does and IndyCar needs not only ovals but another 500-mile race is nice to have. There shouldn't be just one 500-mile race. IndyCar needs these longer races to liven up the schedule and mix it up between the short ovals and street courses.

I don't see the summer changing but I am still concerned. Besides Toronto and Pocono, I am concerned about Iowa. The crowds aren't what they once were at the 7/8-mile oval for all series. The NASCAR races didn't look good in June. The IndyCar races the last few years have had smaller crowds. There is some push for the race returning to a night race but I am not sure that would be the answer. After all, the track wanted an afternoon race and it wanted a late-afternoon race at that. This year's race is a more reasonable hour but something is going to change soon at Iowa and with no NASCAR Cup race in sight I wonder how long it will continue to host IndyCar, especially if the crowd continues to shrink.

At the end of the season, we think Sonoma will be back but that has been put on the fence and the loss of Sonoma would open a spot for the season finale. Sonoma has been on the schedule since 2005 but has resembled Phoenix in terms of lack of crowd and on-track action. Gateway has a lot of momentum of becoming the season finale since the crowd was outstanding last year but even the track is not sure it wants to move from a Saturday night late in summer to an afternoon Sunday in September against the NFL.

IndyCar has been presented with a great opportunity to end its season on network television when NBC takes over but I am not sure it is worth cutting off its nose despite its face. Gateway drew close to 40,000 people in year one. I do not think IndyCar should take its one promising race and rip it out of the ground and hope it will have the same flourish elsewhere in the schedule. Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles talked about date equity when he got the job and this is a chance to stand his ground. Despite how enticing it may be to have the finale at Gateway it needs to consider what is best for Gateway. I think the series should let it be.

What happens with the coveted season finale spot? Sonoma is the boring bet. It has been good to IndyCar but it hasn't been good for IndyCar. I don't think any other race could move to the season finale position and there isn't a track out there waiting in the wings to take over that spot and provide a positive atmosphere for crowding a champion.

A lot will happen over the next few weeks and months and we have to talk about where IndyCar should go, not in actual locations but in terms of philosophy and what the schedule should look like and I am not talking about Cleveland and adding nine ovals. We need to come up with a long-term game plan. IndyCar had stability for a short period and now it is back to a revolving future. There are a lot of positives around IndyCar but there is a sense of uncomfortableness that never seems to go away.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Frédéric Gabillon and Marc Márquez but did you know...

Max Verstappen won the Austrian Grand Prix.

George Russell and Artem Markelov split the Formula Two races. Callum Ilott and Jake Hughes split the GP3 Series races.

The #99 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca-Gibson of Stephen Simpson, Chris Miller and Misha Goikhberg won the 6 Hours of the Glen. The #66 Ford GT of Joey Hand and Dirk Müller won in GTLM. The #96 Turner Motorsport BMW of Markus Palttala, Don Yount and Dillon Machavern won in GTD.

Kyle Busch won the NASCAR Cup race from Chicago, his fifth victory of the season. Kyle Larson won the Grand National Series race. Brett Moffitt won the Truck race, his second consecutive victory and third victory of the season.

Francesco Bagnaia won the Moto2 race from Assen, his fourth victory of the season. Jorge Martín won the Moto3 race and took the Moto3 championship lead.

The #39 Lexus Team SARD Lexus of Heikki Kovalainen and Kamui Kobayashi won the Super GT race from Buriram. The #11 Gainer Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Hironobu Yasuda won in GT300.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar is in Iowa.
NASCAR is back in Daytona.
Formula One concludes three consecutive weeks of racing at Silverstone.
IMSA will be at Mosport.
Supercars have a pair of street races in Townsville.
World Superbikes has its final round for over two months at Misano.
Super Formula has its first race in two months at Fuji.