Tuesday, September 26, 2023

2024 IndyCar Schedule Response

Yesterday, IndyCar's 2024 calendar was released to the world, and it was met with... well... it was not welcomed with open arms. There were changes, some people have long professed to want, but it comes with a loss and a few shifting pieces. 

It has been nearly a day since the 2024 schedule was released, and after having some time to think about it, the time has come to look over every bit of the schedule. 

We will go round-by-round.

Round One - St. Petersburg - March 10
Usual stomping grounds for the season opener, St. Petersburg host the first race of 2024 as Northern Hemisphere is on the verge of spring. We will get our familiar sights of warmth while most the Northern Hemisphere begins to thaw out. We have been doing it for 20 years. St. Petersburg will be embraced after such a lengthy break.

Exhibition - The Thermal Club - March 24
Not a championship race, but something to fill the early spring gap that has plagued the IndyCar schedule for years, the $1 million exhibition race from The Thermal Club in Palm Springs, California will be something different but keeps IndyCar on the scene. 

The question is will a $1 million race draw viewers who do are already not watching the same drivers competing in IndyCar when the prize money is a fraction but the results count toward the championship and record book? 

If people are not watching these races and these drivers now, why will a $1 million prize be the difference? 

Round Two - Long Beach - April 21
There might be an event in late March, but there will be 42 days between championship races for IndyCar. Even with the Thermal Club exhibition race, there will still be 28 days between IndyCar events at two venues that are only about two and a half hours apart. It is difficult to call that progress.

Round Three - Barber Motorsports Park - April 28
Things start to get moving in late April as Barber Motorsports Park follows Long Beach immediately, the first of four occasions where races are run on consecutive races weekends.

Round Four - Grand Prix of Indianapolis - May 11
The Grand Prix of Indianapolis remains in its traditional spot 15 days before the Indianapolis 500. It should be noted here that this will be the lone IndyCar race around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. This feels like the better date for an IMS road course race. It is a great way to kick off the month of May, and it has turned into an event with a healthy turnout as well.

Round Five - Indianapolis 500 - May 26
Memorial Day weekend Sunday. No changes. Makes sense.

Round Six - Detroit - June 2
Detroit remains the weekend after the Indianapolis 500, a familiar thing for the last decade-plus now. This will be the second year on this iteration of the downtown road course.

Round Seven - Road America - June 9
Moving up a few weeks is Road America, and this is likely done to accommodate other shifts in the schedule, one of them likely being the Olympic break that will occur in late July and into August. It is not that big of a shift, but it does create a three-consecutive week stretch of races and five consecutive weekends at the racetrack when Indianapolis 500 practice and qualifying is taken into considering. This date does allow IndyCar to be off on 24 Hours of Le Mans weekend, which will be the week after.

Round Eight - Laguna Seca - June 23
After four seasons in September, Laguna Seca moves to the start of June as Nashville becomes the season finale. It is a leap for Laguna Seca, and after the lack of a crowd when the race was the season finale, what kind of audience will it draw smack-dab in the middle of the IndyCar season? 

For those nervous about the weather considering this race will be held in California in the early days of summer, have no concerns. Laguna Seca's location in relation to the Pacific coast will keep the conditions rather marvelous for a day at the track. We will still likely see the marine layer delay prevent the medical helicopter from arriving at the circuit for the morning warm-up. 

Round Nine - Mid-Ohio - July 7
Mid-Ohio keeps its Independence Day weekend date, those Independence Day is a Wednesday next year. Either way, it is a trip to central Ohio for IndyCar at the start of July.

Round Ten & Eleven - Iowa Speedway - July 13-14
Iowa flips forward a few weeks to avoid the Olympics, but this weekend will look different as the Saturday Iowa race is said to be a night race while the Sunday race will remain in the afternoon. 

There are a few questions that will be answered in due time. 

For starters, what time is this Saturday night race? Is it truly night or is it actually a dusk race due to the time zone? The Saturday Iowa race is said to be broadcasted on NBC. I doubt NBC is giving IndyCar a 9:00 p.m. Eastern start time. The 11:00 p.m. local news will not want to be delayed. Perhaps it is 8:00 p.m. Eastern. Either way, those start times would mean the actually race would hardly take place after dark. Sunset on July 13 this year was 8:46 p.m. local. 

Even if it is a night race, it will likely mean a tight turnaround for the teams. Let's say the race is finished at 9:30 p.m. local time. A Sunday race will likely start between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. local the next day. That is 16-17 hours later, but that isn't taking into consideration all the work the teams have to do post-race, from inspection to repairs to tearing a sponsor wrap off a car to packing the thing up for the night and then driving back to the hotels. It will likely be closer to 12:30 a.m. by the times the crews get back to their rooms, and they aren't going to immediately fall asleep. 

Everyone wanted Iowa to have a night race. Be careful of what you wish for.

Round 12 - Toronto - July 21
The final race before the Olympic break is Toronto, the fourth race in a 14-day period. It will be an exhausting summer stretch for the teams, but they will at least have 27 days until they have to race against.

Round 13 - Gateway - August 17
After the Olympic break, IndyCar returns for its second of two night races of the season, with Gateway returning to a Saturday night window.

Round 14 - Portland - August 25
The season finale shakeup doesn't disrupt Portland too much. It does get moved up a week to the final weekend of August instead of Labor Day weekend. I don't know how much moving from the holiday weekend could help or hurt the event. 

The season finale change does have Portland sticking out like a sore thumb as the second of three consecutive race weekends, between two oval tracks that are in Illinois and Wisconsin. Portland, Oregon is certainly a detour to get from the outskirts of St. Louis to the outskirts of Milwaukee.

Round 15 & 16 - Milwaukee Mile - August 31-September 1
And here is the unkept secret! Milwaukee will return to the IndyCar schedule for the first time in nine seasons, and it will be a doubleheader race weekend. It will be the penultimate weekend of the season. It will round out a four-race in 15-day stretch for IndyCar.

Round 17 - Nashville - September 15
Finally, the season finale, which we have known about for a few weeks. Nashville caps off the season on a new street course as the finish line shifts to the other side of the Cumberland River while the track will run on a section of the famed Broadway that cuts through the heart of the city. 

The Elephant Not in the Room
There was some belief IndyCar and Texas Motor Speedway would find a date on the 2024 calendar. At 9:00 a.m. Eastern on Monday, though there were days of preparing for this outcome, it was still rather stunning to see the 1.5-mile oval omitted from the IndyCar calendar after being a fixture since 1997. 

It is a significant change for IndyCar, even if attendance had cratered for the event in the last few years. Once considered a dependable race on the IndyCar schedule, Texas' absence is a shock and will require an adjustment to a series that has become familiar with visiting the Dallas-area at least once a year. 

It is a very odd spot for IndyCar to be in. It is no longer racing in the state that has four of top ten largest cities in the United States. Texas is the second most populous state. Texas was the go-to test track for teams during the offseason, especially when a driver needed to be approved to run ovals. With Texas gone, it doesn't have a fallback that isn't Indianapolis, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn't an ideal testing grounds in February or March. 

This will be the first time since 1964 the only oval on the schedule at least 1.5 miles in length will be Indianapolis. 

However, would it really have been better to run Texas in the weekend between Milwaukee and Nashville? It would have been the opening weekend of the NFL season. NASCAR raced at Texas this past weekend and it was pushing 100º F. IndyCar running September 8, even if the temperatures were 15º F cooler would not change much in terms of the attendance we saw the last few years when the race was held in the comfortable conditions of spring. 

It is difficult to imagine this is just a one-year thing. This feels like the Band-Aid has been torn away and cannot be reapplied. If there wasn't enough of an appetite to figure out how IndyCar and Texas could remain together in 2024, will there really be any juice to get back together in 2025? 

The Crazy Thing
Two months ago, if you had told the IndyCar fanbase there would be six oval races on the 2024 calendar, a  great percentage would be thrilled. 

There will be six oval races on the 2024 IndyCar schedule, and yet most are angry at the race that isn't there. It is understandable and frustrating that IndyCar cannot have notable growth. It is always an exchange. Phoenix for Fontana. Gateway for Milwaukee. Milwaukee for Texas. 

There hasn't really been any growth in IndyCar in nearly 30 years. The Split gave the false impression of growth. The Indy Racing League needed tracks and so Richmond, Kentucky, Pikes Peak, Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta and even Texas hosted events, but truth be told none were ever really going to host IndyCar without the fracturing of the series. We had two series and over 30 races, but nearly half of those events were deadweight. 

As we get closer to the middle of the 2020s, IndyCar is in the same spot it was in the middle of the 1990s. It isn't all old. There are a few new pieces around, but for the most part, the landscape looks exactly the same. The only difference is there is no sight of any new location on the horizon. 

The Harsh Reality About IndyCar's Oval Problem
Even if Texas had found a spot on the calendar at the beginning of September, it likely would not have been a successful event beyond the heat and football conflict. If IndyCar went to Texas in September, it likely would have been just IndyCar competing. The NASCAR Truck Series race likely would not have continued on that weekend. Not that the NASCAR Truck/IndyCar combination was bringing out the masses, but IndyCar running on its own would have been a disaster of a weekend. 

I remember when at Pocono over a seven-and-a-half-hour period on Saturday was two hours of practice and single-car qualifying with some historic cars turning hot laps were the only thing on the schedule followed by a race day schedule that included those same historic cars doing more hot laps before just the IndyCar race. 

An IndyCar oval weekend lacks a lot to draw people out. Texas would have been the same as Pocono and drawn about 300 fans on Saturday. It is not worth it, and it is one of the many reasons why IndyCar oval weekends do not make it. 

Iowa and Milwaukee are doubleheaders to make the weekend worth it. Throw in some concerts in Iowa, and I bet we will see something similar at Milwaukee as well, and then the weekend becomes worth it to race fans and non-race fans. Throw in some Indy Lights and you get a little more racing variety into your weekend.

That is what it takes in the 2020s to have a respectable oval weekend worthy of a spectator's time and money. IndyCar cannot just show on its own and think three hours of track activity mixed in with five hours of nothing will be good enough on a Saturday. Road and street courses do not have this problem because they are constantly filled with action. IndyCar has been struggling to come up with an answer for this void on oval weekends for quite some time. The series needs its own traveling circus to fill the bill.

Concerts are one solution but a weekend like Iowa is hard, and expensive to replicate, but when it comes to motorsports there is Indy Lights that can help. I thought for years IndyCar should make a deal with Stadium Super Trucks to its support series at every oval weekend. Maybe IndyCar should call Tony Stewart and work to get SRX to run a pair of races during some of its IndyCar weekends. 

There is a lack of great oval options though. ARCA is poor quality. USAC doesn't quite have the following to draw people out. Stadium Super Trucks competes far less than it did five years ago. It has only run two events this year, Long Beach and Nashville. However, an IndyCar oval weekend needs at least three support series to keep the track busy. Either that or an oval weekend must be a doubleheader like we have with Iowa and will get with Milwaukee. 

The Lack of Larger Ovals
The hard thing to get my head around is IndyCar has the Indianapolis 500, and in the DW12-era we have seen spectacular races at Indianapolis with an unseen number of passes and close finishes in the first 100 years of the Indianapolis 500. It is hard for IndyCar to put on a race like that as its big showcase event every year and then never do it again all season. 

If you got hooked on the speed and precision driving at 220 miles per hour well, you will have to wait until next year to see it. 

That is a problem for IndyCar. 

IndyCar loves to sell speed. You have likely seen the souvenir "Speed Limit 241 MPH" t-shirt sold and worn at IndyCar events for the last 20-25 years. That type of race only happens once a season now. It is hard for IndyCar to use those breathtaking speed as the spine to its identity when you only see it for one race a year. 

There aren't going to be 12 races like Indianapolis each year, nor should there be that many, but the number must be greater than one. 

It is not as easy as going to a big track and just having people show up or tune in. If it was that simple, we wouldn't have lost Texas after years of a steady decline in attendance. I went to Pocono every year during its recent stint on the calendar. Attendance was never awe-inspiring, but I saw it go from great year one, fluctuating years two and three, but rising once it settled in late August put on some staggering races. 

There is also the uncomfortable part about Pocono where Justin Wilson lost his life and in consecutive years there was a lengthy red flag for an accident in the opening laps after a car got in the catchfence, and one of those accidents left Robert Wickens paralyzed and significantly altered his racing career, effectively ending his full-time stint as an IndyCar driver after only 14 races. 

Speed is intoxicating and exciting and pulls an emotion out of a person that only a rush of adrenaline can produce. And yet, speed also kills, making us reconsider everything we love and enjoy in our lives. 

IndyCar cannot afford to be killing or seriously injuring drivers. The 21st century does not have a taste for watching people they love, even if it is only as a bystander and not someone with a shared tangible relationship, die. 

The series is always making adjustments to prevent fatalities and injuries. Neither will ever be completely eliminated from motorsports, but even one fatality every five years is too many in this day and age. 

How can IndyCar increase its large ovals beyond its biggest race of the year and providing the audience with enough of a hit so they are full without overdoing it and increasing the odds someone will have to watch their favorite driver have their career cut short? 

There is a right number out there. I thought the Indianapolis-Fontana-Pocono combination with the inclusion of Texas was right on the money but with room for one more. But just showing up does not guarantee success for IndyCar and the series must put in the work to make any new event, especially larger ovals, a success. 

Along with the announcement of 17-race calendar, the television networks were released for each race. Start times will come at a later date.

Everyone picked up on a decrease of network NBC races for the 2024 season, dropping to nine from 13 in 2023. USA will show six races, up from three, and Peacock will have two exclusive races, the Toronto race for a third consecutive year and the first Milwaukee race.

However, I think people are missing the strategy behind some of these decisions. IndyCar did have 13 network NBC races, but think about the number of races that went head-to-head with NASCAR Cup races on USA. 

What we are likely going to see if IndyCar races packaged with NASCAR events on USA. Gateway will likely run after a NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday August 17. The second Milwaukee race will be the same day as the Southern 500. It will create a window of racing on USA from about 2:00 p.m. Eastern through almost 11:00 p.m. ET. Heck, the Laguna Seca race on June 23 will likely even be a lead-in to whatever the first race of the NBC portion of the NASCAR season is next year, likely Nashville. 

It is easy to see less NBC races and think the sky is falling, but I think people are missing the strategy being used and are neglecting that these changes could help IndyCar. 

In Conclusion
It is understandable to feel a little disappointed over this calendar. Any time a race is lost and it is not to make way for a clearly more successful race will be a bummer. Even with all the changes to the IndyCar calendar and the new events that will come in 2024, there are still a lot of flaws in the schedule that it feels like the series is not addressing. It isn't even papering over the cracks. In a way, it feels like the series plan to address the holes in the schedule is by creating new ones to distract you from the ones that already exist. 

That is a terrible strategy. 

The series is not blind to the problems in its schedule, but this feels like a missed opportunity to make improvements even if it was only making improvements with the races that already existed on the schedule. 

This is another case of kicking the can a little further down the road and hoping 2025 will be better, and it really should be better. There will not be a forced month off due to the Olympics. There will be another year to figure out what the hell the series is doing in early spring. It will be a chance to iron out the calendar, and yet, IndyCar's recent history tells us we will just end up hoping for better come 2026.

For all the gloom around this calendar, I still think it is a fine collection of races. Once the series gets to Long Beach, it will be a whirlwind of races. There will be IndyCar competing on track for seven of eight weekends starting April 21. IndyCar will have a weekend even in 11 of 14 weekends prior to the Olympic break. Then after the Olympic break, IndyCar is competing on four of five weekends to close the season. 

There will not be a Texas race but there will still be six oval races, more than 2023, and Milwaukee is back, which as much as people resent it now they were clamoring for constantly for the last year since Roger Penske started publicly flirting with the Wisconsin State Fair board of directors. 

The schedule still has Road America. It still has Laguna Seca, which has produced some fantastic races since it returned to the calendar. There will be two night races where people were demanding, and the season finale finally feels like it is a big event with Nashville capping off the season. 

It is ok to be disappointed and wanting more, but anger should not blind you for the positives that exist.