Thoughts on the condensed May 2010 schedule

IndyCar commentary — By on December 16, 2009 1:35 pm
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

Much has been made over the past 24 hours regarding the condensing of the schedule for next year’s Indianapolis 500.  The gist of the changes are that opening day gets pushed back one full week and the handful of dark days at the Speedway are now eliminated.

Most people are hearing that the first week has been cut but aren’t focusing on the fact that only one day of actual track time has been removed.  To my mind, this is a good thing.  The days of developing new cars and engines for the 5oo are long gone, and they’re not coming back.  There is not now, nor has there been for many years, the need for the Speedway to be open on May 1st for a May 30th race.

I have hated the early weekdays over the past couple of years when the track has gone dark following the rookie orientation program or the first weekend of qualifying.  This year was even worse with the balloon races on “opening weekend” and then slowly making our way into practice with the ROP all day Tuesday and Wednesday morning.  The veterans were supposed to take to the track on Wednesday afternoon, but rain postponed the start of real practice until just before noon on Thursday.  The lead-up to Pole Day was reduced from one week to a day and a half.  I don’t understand how even the most ardent traditionalist can prefer this schedule to the recently announced schedule for next year.

Also in recent years, the actual on-track time has been significantly more constrained by the mileage limits of the Honda engine-lease program than by the number of calendar days available to a team.  Given that there is one less day of on-track activity, this might go by the wayside and see more teams scramble to get their work done a bit more quickly.

I’m not quire as sure about the argument that this was done as a cost-saving measure for the teams, though.  Sure, there will be a bit of savings with regards to hotels and other ancillary costs, but in reality only four or five teams are based in locations outside of the Indianapolis area (those being Penske, Foyt, Newman-Haas-Lanigan, Coyne, and Rahal-Letterman).  These changes may save a team a few thousand dollars, but when you’re talking about season-long budgets that are well into the millions, that difference is basically statistical noise.

What I am very excited about is the fact that there will now be a much greater sense of urgency in the week leading up to qualification weekend.  Teams will now have to strategically allocate their time between qualifying setups and race setups.  Unlike most of the other ovals in the IZOD IndyCar Series, your starting position does mattter at Indianapolis, never mind the prestige and money that come with being on the front row.  Ask Mario Moraes and Marco Andretti if they would like to be on the front row next year.  It may not be quite the advantage it what many years ago when we saw tight, three-abreast starts, but every driver and team still wants to be as close to the front as possible for the start of the race.

Of course, starting at the front of the field and staying at the front of the field are two different things, so teams will need to be sure to find time for running full-tank race setups.  Will first-day qualifiers spend all day Sunday running with full tanks?  How is this going to affect those struggling to find the speed just to make the field?  We can hope that some of these questions will be answered when the League and the Speedway release information pertaining to the qualification procedures in the coming weeks or months.  But it is all much more interesting from a strategic standpoint with this condensed schedule.  You can bet that Carb Day will be very interesting as well, especially for those second-day qualifiers that haven’t yet been able to adequately work on race setups.  This year, Carb Day saw cars running longer than most people can ever remember, and I expect no different next year.

The other important point to remember is that the 2011 schedule may be able to accommodate one more race during May.  I can’t imagine the IRL scheduling a road course during May (well, yes I can imagine it, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!).  So, maybe — just maybe — there’s a chance that one of the missing ovals might make a return next May.  I’ve seen Richmond suggested, but with the traditional Mother’s Day NASCAR race there, that thought can be thrown right out the window.  Phoenix would be nice as well, but it’s still only a month or less removed from the NASCAR race there (noticing a trend here?).  New Hampshire is probably a bit iffy from a weather standpoint, so while it’s a possibility, it’s probably not likely.  My best guess would be Milwaukee.  Sure, Milwaukee would love to have the week after Indy, but Texas is there now — and it’s a nice little status perk for Eddie Gossage, a long-time ally of the IZOD IndyCar Series.  I’m not sure that the Milwaukee crowd would necessarily embrace a race that doesn’t feature last week’s Indianapolis champion, but given their current life-support status, I would hope they would support any racing they are able to land at the historic Mile.

As a public service announcement:  to those who were procrastinating on getting hotels booked for qualification weekend only to find that anything close to the track was already full, plenty of rooms are now available near the Speedway on what is now qualifications weekend.  Get them now before those that had already booked get their reservations changed.  (And, in honor of fellow site contributor Steph and our friend Pat Caporali, “you’re welcome!”)

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