Monday, September 6, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Shopping Schedule

Max Verstappen became the 46th driver to win a race on home soil with his Dutch Grand Prix victory, a race where Zandvoort put grandstands where grandstands have never been before and that was somehow only half of what the intended crowd was supposed to be prior to pandemic restrictions. Americans continue to do well in Formula Three. Supercars continues to tweak its schedule, and Bathurst could take place in December. Juncos Hollinger Racing snagged Ferrari's test driver for the team's IndyCar return. The World Superbike Championship remains contentious. Red Bull's success extends into Germany. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Shopping Schedule
It could be the pandemic, but we have reached Labor Day and have not heard anything concrete about the 2022 IndyCar schedule. 

That is not a problem. There have been plenty of years where the schedule was not released until after the season. With the pandemic, we are just hoping to get through this season before looking toward next year, and almost every series feels that way now. A few championships have released provisional calendars for next year, but an emphasis on provisional. Formula One is still piecing together 2021, MotoGP is not quite set for this season, and NASCAR hasn't announced anything for the future either. IndyCar is moving at the right pace for the time. 

Most of 2021 has felt more normal than not. The IndyCar season was delayed, and races were shuffled around. Some races had restricted crowds. Toronto was cancelled. As the pandemic continues to evolve, mask mandates and social distancing efforts are returning to protect the drivers, teams, spectators and complete these races in the safest manner. But we have reached September with only three races remaining. Most of the races have taken place on their scheduled dates and most had unrestricted or loosely restricted crowds. 

The future is unknown but considering where we were a year ago compared to now, 2022 should be even more normal, though we will likely still be living with the virus and navigating other possible mutations. More than last year, we are proceeding forward as business as usual. The last four months have been business as usual. Racetracks have been allowed to have full grandstands. Baseball games, basketball games, hockey games have all had full houses. Concerts occur all across the country. 

With the vaccine rollout, we are learning to live with the virus and events of full size are now possible without being as risky as it would have been a year ago. But things evolve and if variants become more contagious and more symptomatic, we may be forced back to behind closed door events. That doesn't appear likely anytime soon, but look at the last 18 months, who saw any of that coming?  

IndyCar moves forward, though all we have are pieces for 2022 and not a full picture.

What do we know? 
St. Petersburg is locked in for March 13. 

IMSA released its schedule and has Long Beach penciled in for Saturday April 9, suggesting we know what will take place on April 10. 

Easter Sunday is April 17.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is selling tickets for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 14 and the Indianapolis 500 on May 29. IMS is promoting a return of the IndyCar/NASCAR combination weekend, though no official dates have been given. Let's not be surprised if that weekend stays in August. 

IMSA has Belle Isle on its schedule for Saturday June 4. 

Iowa announced its return with a doubleheader on Saturday July 23 and Sunday July 24. 

Nashville announced it would return on August 7.

What do we not know?
I think all the other events on the 2021 schedule have a deal for next season as well, but that isn't clear. 

We heard Texas has at least one more year left, but we do not know if that will remain in early May, remain a doubleheader or if Texas has any intention of extending IndyCar for 2023 and beyond, especially now that long-time track president Eddie Gossage retired in June. 

While we know IMSA plans on being at Belle Isle on June 4, we do not know if IndyCar will be that weekend. Remember, the original 2021 schedules had IMSA at Belle Isle the Saturday after the Indianapolis 500, but the IndyCar doubleheader was the weekend after that and was going to clash with the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ultimately, a few schedule alterations, including the postponement of Le Mans, moved the IMSA race to the IndyCar weekend. IndyCar could return to the weekend after the Indianapolis 500, which makes sense, or Belle Isle could try this nine-day superweek of racing, which sounds excessive and unnecessary. 

Right now, there are three weekends between St. Petersburg and Long Beach. With Easter on April 17, April 3 is a reasonable expectation for Barber. It could be March 27, but that would be the earliest Barber date in the event's decade-plus history. 

Moving beyond Easter, there are three weekends open before the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. We do not know if Texas will remain a doubleheader, and with Iowa committing to the "Let's Play Two" mantra, the belief is Texas may return to a single-race weekend to keep the schedule from expanding to too many races. If Texas keeps the same weekend as 2021, a Saturday night race would be April 30 or a Sunday race would be May 1. Either way, IndyCar will be taking two weeks off somewhere. There will either be Easter and an off-week or Easter followed by Texas and then two off weekends before the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. 

If IndyCar's summer matches 2021, it would look like the following:

June 19: Road America
July 3: Mid-Ohio
July 23-24: Iowa
August 7: Nashville
August 13: IMS road course

Missing from that summer stretch is Toronto, which has not taken place the last two years. Toronto was to be the week after Mid-Ohio this year, making it July 10, its traditional mid-July date for 2022.

So far, we have 13 race weekends accounted for. That will be at least 14 races taking into consideration the Iowa doubleheader. It could be as many as 16 races if Texas and Belle Isle both remain doubleheaders. 

Three race weekends remain, Gateway, Portland, and Laguna Seca, and we expect the season to end sometime by the final weekend of summer, September 18. 

Gateway should be August 20; Portland would be September 11 with Laguna Seca closing on September 18. This schedule would be somewhere between 17-19 races depending on the number of doubleheaders.

Is that the best to expect?
Pretty much. 

Outside of Iowa, no other new tracks are on the horizon. Richmond has been silent after it was supposed to return in June 2020. No other ovals are out there. There are no rumblings of returning to Austin after its one race in 2019. Our best hope is things remain the same for 2022. 

Could it get better?
Depends on what you view as better. There are adjustments that could be made to the schedule. 

One thing IndyCar benefitted from this season is having races either lead-in or follow NASCAR Cup races. Road America, Mid-Ohio and Nashville were all winners because they were a part of a motorsports filled day on an NBC property. That should continue into 2022 and the Brickyard weekend race should not lead off Saturday afternoon before NASCAR's second division race, but it should lead off Sunday prior to the Cup race.

Portland should move back to Labor Day weekend and run at 3:30 p.m. ET and lead into the Southern 500, again forming a full afternoon into night of racing. 

If Toronto returns that should lead in whatever Cup race is that weekend, whether it is Loudon, Michigan, Atlanta, wherever. 

I am interested in what NASCAR does with the end of July because it will not need two consecutive off-weekends in 2022, as it will not be a Summer Olympic year. However, one of those weeks came because Pocono turned into a doubleheader. I doubt we see Pocono return to two separate weekends, but NASCAR isn't going to add a race to the schedule. There aren't enough weekends in the summer for that off-weekend to move somewhere else in the calendar. IndyCar has already put Iowa onto one of those late-July weekends and IndyCar and Iowa would benefit from promotion during a NASCAR race. Where NASCAR would be that weekend is the mystery. 

Things are changing with NBCSN shutting down at the end of the year, but with 13 IndyCar races on network NBC and remaining races on USA Network and Peacock. The American home for motorsports could still benefit IndyCar greatly and IndyCar should want two or three wall-to-wall days of motorsports with NASCAR and/or IMSA on NBC, with another three or four on USA. That formula worked in 2021 and it should be a regular thing in 2022. There is chance for NBC and USA to be a destination for race fans to turn on their television at noon and be set with racing for the next six hours. 

What about more ovals?
Iowa is a nice snag for 2022, but it only brings IndyCar's oval total back up to four tracks. If Iowa is the only doubleheader there will still be only five oval races. If Texas remains a doubleheader in addition to Iowa, the race total only reaches six. 

IndyCar has been stuck in this five-to-six oval rut since 2012. It can never quite get to seven or eight, but it has seen the likes of Fontana, Phoenix, Gateway, Pocono, Milwaukee, Iowa, and Richmond rotate pass one another. Never have they all fallen on the same schedule at once. If you consider eight ovals have hosted an IndyCar race since 2012, plus Richmond was on the schedule for 2020 before the pandemic indefinitely postponed that return, those nine ovals would be completely sufficient for an IndyCar schedule. It would be a balance between short tracks and superspeedways. IndyCar could have a few 500-mile events and then some elbows out 250-lap or 300-lap sprints. It would be enough to shut everyone up for once. Nine ovals would be great for IndyCar. 

Unfortunately, IndyCar's lack of ovals is also placated by the rest of the schedule. IndyCar does not have the resources to just add five more races. It sounds great to run 22 races, but the sponsorship is not there for the series or the teams to make it work. The series is fretting about going up to 18 races, which is only one or two more than where the series has been for most of the last decade. And IndyCar isn't going to sacrifice successful races at Road America, Barber, Long Beach, St. Petersburg, and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis just to add ovals that have no guarantee for success and will most likely fail. 

Do I wish IndyCar can find a way to get back to nine ovals? Yes. First it has to get back to six or seven, and that is not as simple as it sounds. Especially after seeing the races IndyCar put on at Gateway and knowing how IndyCar races at Iowa, I would love to see IndyCar get back to Richmond and figure out how to return to Milwaukee. ARCA raced at Milwaukee the other weekend. An IndyCar/ARCA doubleheader isn't going to light the world on fire, but the track is still operating if you can make it work. But we know IndyCar had plenty of headaches keeping Milwaukee afloat the last few years. 

IndyCar could bolster its schedule with short tracks. Richmond, Milwaukee and even Loudon would be fun races. IndyCar tried Phoenix and couldn't quite get the package correct, but short tracks could be the answer. I am not sure how many high-speed ovals could be added. I loved going to Pocono and would love to see it return, same with Michigan, but if IndyCar were to add ovals, I highly doubt we would see a half-dozen 1.5-mile ovals fill the calendar, where the risk is inherently higher. 

It is easier sell to drivers on running a mile track or shorter, especially with lower banking. Just looking back at history, the number of injuries on short tracks are far lower, and less severe, than the bigger ovals, and I think drivers who are weary of ovals can see a one-mile track has a much lower risk than the rest of them. If IndyCar needs ovals but if it wants to be a destination for the top drivers, short tracks might be the best answer. 

Timing is not quite on IndyCar's side either. From March through the end of September there are 30 weekends in 2022. IndyCar will likely race on at least 16 or 17 of them. Throw in Indianapolis 500 qualifying weekend and that is 17-18 weekends at the track. It doesn't sound like much, but IndyCar's lack of resources does not mean it can fill 22-23 weekends out of 30. There are not enough viewers, which means there are not enough sponsorship dollars, which means there is not enough manpower for IndyCar to only have seven or eight off-weekends in a seven-month period. Spreading the schedule into February or October wouldn't make it any easier either. 

The Peacock Problem
By the way, the 2022 season plans on having two IndyCar races exclusively streaming on Peacock. 

My question is what racetrack is going to take that deal? What track will de-value its own race by having it exclusively on a streaming platform, which will have fewer viewers than any time slot on network NBC or USA? No track is going to want that deal. 

My first thought was doubleheader weekends make the most sense. If you put the Saturday of Belle Isle and Iowa on Peacock, both events would at least get a Sunday race on television, and preferably both Sunday races would be on NBC. You could use Sunday to recap Saturday at the start and then get into the race. Those races and their partners would get network airtime and that should be enough to satisfy them. 

The only problem is Iowa has already announced both races will be on NBC, and as much as Roger Penske should fall on his own sword, neither Belle Isle race will be exclusively on Peacock. 

I don't see any other play for IndyCar that will be highly successful when it comes to assigning the Peacock races. Any race you move is a loss for that track, a loss for that event and a loss for IndyCar. IndyCar cannot afford to have a race that is completely hidden. I understand this is the wave of the 21st century and IndyCar just has to bite the bullet, but guess who doesn't have to bite the bullet? 

The tracks.

If Road America is put on Peacock, its race loses value, it loses sponsors and partners, promotion dry up, fewer people attend and then Road America is off the schedule. Who wants to sign up for that? It goes for every track. Gateway, Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio, you name it. 

IndyCar must play ball with the tracks for any Peacock race to work. Does IndyCar have to add two doubleheaders to make up for two Peacock races and assure each track shows a Peacock race, plus one race on television? It might be the only way IndyCar can pull this off. 

We await IndyCar's 2022 schedule. It feels like we will not see many major changes, but with the way the series is moving, the new television deal and the pressure for IndyCar to maintain its multi-track discipline identity, change is inevitable. 

Champions From the Weekend
Dries Vanthoor and Charles Weerts clinched the GT World Challenge Europe championship with their sixth-place finish in the 3 Hours of Nürburgring. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Max Verstappen, but did you know...

Denny Hamlin won the Southern 500, his first victory of the season. Noah Gragson won the Grand National Series race, his first victory of the season. Sheldon Creed won the Truck race, his second consecutive victory and his third of the season.

Arthur Leclerc, Victor Martins and Dennis Hauger split the Formula Three races from Zandvoort. It was their second, first and third victories of the season respectfully.

The #63 Lamborghini of Mirko Bortolotti, Marco Mapelli and Andrea Caldarelli won the 3 Hours of Nürburgring.

Liam Lawson swept the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from Red Bull Ring. Lawson has three victories on the season.

Toprak Razgatlioglu won the main World Superbike races from Magny-Cours with Jonathan Rea taking Superole victory after Razgatlioglu was demoted for a track limits violation. Razgatlioglu leads the championship by seven points, but Rea has the advantage on victories nine to eight. Dominique Aegerter and Manuel González split the World Supersport races. It was Aegerter's ninth win of the season and González's first career victory. 

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar's antepenultimate round from Portland. 
Italian Grand Prix from Monza. 
IMSA strolls into Laguna Seca. 
NASCAR rolls into Richmond. 
MotoGP begins its final third of 2021 at Aragón. 
Super GT is back at Sportsland SUGO.
The Acropolis Rally counts toward the World Rally Championship for the first time since 2013.