Thursday, August 2, 2018

The 2019 IndyCar Schedule: What Do We Know So Far?

August is here and we are heading into the final quarter of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season. With a championship battle to keep an eye on we also have to pay attention to what is happening off the racetrack and one topic we are fixated on is the 2019 schedule.

What do we know so far?

We know Phoenix is leaving.

Sonoma is gone.

We know St. Petersburg will be March 10th.

We know Long Beach will be April 14th.

Easter will be April 21st.

The Indianapolis 500 will likely be May 26th, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend again.

Road America has announced a June 23rd date.

Iowa will shift back a few weeks and return to a Saturday night race in 2019 on July 20th

Laguna Seca will return to the schedule for the first time since 2004 and host the season finale on September 22nd.

All signs point to Barber, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Gateway returning in 2019 though dates have not been announced.

Portland has a contract through 2020 and if it were to return on Labor Day weekend the race will occur on September 1st.

There has been no word on whether Pocono will be back but there has been no word that Pocono is moving on from the series.

Texas is bashful over whether it will return and though it gives the impression it will be back it has not dismissed it will not be back.

Belle Isle seems likely to return but the organizers are fighting with protesters over the event.

There are a couple key things to keep in mind when looking at the openings in the current skeleton of a schedule. First, at the start of the season the loss of Phoenix has increased the gap from the season opener at St. Petersburg and what would be the second race of the season at Long Beach. There is a possibility that a race is found to fill the late-March/early-April gap but nothing has been announced. There is one current option that could fill the void.

Barber has been late-April for the last five years but the first four editions were held in the early part of the month. The race could be forced to move back to the start of the month. With Easter falling on April 21st the only other late-April date is April 28th, however NASCAR is at Talladega that weekend. The Barber race could fall to the first weekend in May but that would increase an already chaotic part of the schedule with the possibility of teams being at a racetrack for six consecutive weeks if Barber fell in May.

It would make the most sense for Barber to move to April 7th, the week prior to Long Beach. It would create a three-week gap from Long Beach to the likely date of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but it would give teams a nice breather before the hectic second quarter of the season. But Barber falling on April 7th would only maintain the current three-week gap from St. Petersburg to the second race of the season. It is a catch-22 situation for the series with no quick solution nor long-term solution.

If Belle Isle and Texas return to the first two weekends of June then the first half of the season will be the same except for the absence of Phoenix and Barber moving up a few weeks. After Road America is where it gets interesting.

Iowa's move back to a Saturday night race sees Iowa fall between the Toronto and Mid-Ohio races and could create three consecutive weeks of racing with a two-week break between Road America and Toronto and a two-week break from Mid-Ohio to Pocono. One way this could be relieved is if Mid-Ohio shifts back a week to the first weekend of August. It would move the two-week break from August to the start of July but it would spread out the races for the teams. Another issue for Mid-Ohio is the NASCAR Xfinity Series race is scheduled for August 10th and moving the IndyCar race back a week would create back-to-back weekends of major competitions and arguably the tracks two biggest events.

If Pocono returns, the end of the season should remain the same with Pocono followed by a Saturday night race at Gateway and Portland on Labor Day weekend. The one change would be the season finale would fall a week later than 2018.

The schedule shifts are good for IndyCar from a television point of view. While IndyCar might not race the first two weeks of July it would allow IndyCar to race without going head-to-head with a NASCAR Cup race. Toronto would be held the Sunday after the Cup race at Kentucky on a Saturday night and Iowa would be the Saturday night before the Loudon Cup race. An extra week between the penultimate round and the season finale might seem like a possible momentum killer, especially since Laguna Seca will be a week deeper into the NFL season but the Laguna Seca race will take place on a Sunday, the day after the Cup series will run at Richmond.

The one hiccup IndyCar can't seem to avoid is Mid-Ohio. This year it was run simultaneously as the Cup race at Pocono. Even if it were to shift to the first weekend of August it would be head-to-head with the Cup race at Watkins Glen. There aren't many options for Mid-Ohio and it would not be smart for the race to have a seismic shift. The one hope might be for the Mid-Ohio race to start earlier in the day and get the race in before the Cup race starts and instead of showing live on CNBC with an encore after the Cup race on NBCSN, the race would be the opening act of the afternoon. This year's IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio took an hour and 44 minutes to complete and the Cup race did not start until after 2:30 p.m. ET. It would not be crazy to think the IndyCar race could start at 12:15 p.m. ET and the NASCAR race could start closer to 2:45 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. ET and provide a day of wall-to-wall motorsports coverage.

There could be a saving grace for Mid-Ohio in that it could go head-to-head with the NASCAR Cup race but not have to take place on CNBC because network NBC will show eight races next season.

It seems like the current network races of St. Petersburg, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis 500 and the two Belle Isle races will stay the same with the only known addition being the Laguna Seca season finale. None of that has been confirmed other than the Indianapolis 500 will be on NBC but if it were to play out this way that would mean two network spots would still be open.

I do not know what the network strategy would be but it could be a simple move to have Mid-Ohio be on NBC and avoid a race having to move to CNBC but I think NBC will want to maximize the potential audience and going head-to-head with a Cup race on the sister channel NBCSN is robbing Peter to pay Paul for the company.

I think Pocono could be a likely network event, should it return to the schedule in 2019, and the reason being that Pocono has fallen the day after the Cup race from Bristol the last few years. It would allow the race to get promoted during one of the most popular Cup races of the season and it would have no competition that afternoon. After last year's Pocono race with 42 lead changes I think NBC will want to show another oval race and Pocono would be a great show. Once again, we aren't sure how the Pocono race will do with the universal aero kit and we are all skeptical after this year's race at Indianapolis but IndyCar has been trying to figure it out with aero changes and a 500-mile race might be better for a network window because it would be at least a three-and-a-half or four-hour window for the sponsors. I think sponsors would want to be on network NBC as long as possible and a road/street course race such as Toronto or Mid-Ohio might not even be a three-hour window.

If the five current network races, Pocono and Laguna Seca all end up on NBC, what could be that final network event?

I think Portland is a good shout because if Pocono were also a network race it would mean three of the final four races would be on network NBC and could set up nicely the championship fight before the finale. On top of that, Portland could be the lead in for the Southern 500 and provide a full day of motorsports on network television. I think Road America is another event that would be a good showcase on network television.

Outside of those two, I do not think Texas, Iowa or Gateway would get the spot because none would draw a respectable number to justify a primetime Saturday night window. Barber and Long Beach will have to compete with the end of the NHL season and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs so I do not think there is space for either to squeeze into a network window but Long Beach has history and the picturesque California city might be fit to be showcased on network television.

It is a paradoxical situation. There is a lot of time left and yet time is running out. We aren't sure what other venues could come onto the schedule and fill the vacancy for Phoenix. Homestead and Richmond have gone quiet. Austin could mean the end of Texas Motor Speedway and be one step forward, two steps back. Outside of those three venues there hasn't been another track in the conversation for hosting IndyCar in 2019 but like I said, there are still a lot of time left. A venue could come up in the next two weeks and come the Sonoma weekend could be ready to sign a deal and be announced.

The key thing is to breathe during this uncertain period. It will work itself out. It always does.