Speculation on the 2011 schedule

IndyCar commentary — By on June 21, 2010 4:27 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

I’ve enjoyed logic problems since I was a kid — you know, those puzzles where you’re given a series of loosely connected facts and you need to use that information to puzzle out which woman ordered which flavor of ice cream on what type of cone, for example.

Well, as the facts begin to trickle out each year about which race weekends are confirmed, which ones are waiting in the wings, and which ones are underperforming, speculation on the upcoming schedule announcements begins to take shape much like a logic problem.  I can’t help but take a stab at it.  Remember, I have no better a source of information on the subject than anyone else, and this is purely speculation.  It will almost certainly turn out to be wrong, but it’s a lot of fun to theorize about it.

Here’s what we know for certain:

Randy Bernard has explicitly stated that he wants to keep a 50/50 ratio of ovals to road and street courses.  (This is a very good plan.  The twisty fans seem to be accepting of it, and the oval fans complain loudly but don’t appear to be upset enough to do anything more than that.  The status quo is pacifying the vast majority of the fan base for now.)

RB has also told several media outlets that he’s planning a 17-race season.  (Yes, we all want more than that, and RB likely does also once the economics can support it.  But every event that’s added raises the cost to the teams, and they are the one entity in the sport that needs to be shored up the most at the moment.  A longer schedule just isn’t viable.)  Therefore, for every race that’s added, it’s safe to assume that an equivalent race type will be dropped (to a point; there’s some leeway to drop a road course and add an oval but not vice versa).  If we assume the ratio is to stay the same as it is now, that means we’re already on tap to officially lose one road course to Baltimore and one oval to Loudon.  RB has named at least four other ovals that he’s talking to (Phoenix, Vegas, Milwaukee, and Fontana, according to today’s article in the Indy Star), but given that there aren’t four oval races on the skids, it’s safe to assume he isn’t expecting to snag all of them.

It’s also safe to assume that we won’t see the schedule so tidily split into oval and road/street segments next year, given that the only two announced dates beside Indy thus far are New Hampshire (July 31) and Baltimore (August 7), the placement of which isn’t compatible with the traditional dates of the events that are likely to run around them.

Now, let’s take a look at the current schedule and possible additions/subtractions.

Road and street courses first (because I’m like that):

- Brazil.  Despite the initial concerns with the track surface, this one came out as a big positive for the Series.  Plus, since there’s a contract through 2014, there’s little chance it’s going anywhere.  The one persistent rumor is that this one won’t start the season and will take place in early May instead.  (This also suggests that the Month of May will remain the Two Weeks of May.  Sure, it offends the purists, but it’s otherwise difficult to see this as a bad thing — again, mainly due to the economics.)

- St. Pete.  This event should be bigger than it is, but it isn’t doing poorly.  Plus, it’s confirmed through 2013.  This one’s not going anywhere, either.

- Barber.  It’s a beautiful facility.  And while it didn’t exactly produce a thrilling race, it’s got huge support from George Barber and from the local community.  Plus, it’s a beautiful facility.  It’s confirmed through 2012, but once some tweaks are made to the layout to make it a bit racier for four-wheeled vehicles, this one should be around for a lot longer than that.  (Besides, have you heard?  It’s a beautiful facility.)

- Long Beach.  So stable that it’s not even worth discussing.  Next!

- Watkins Glen.  I couldn’t find any info on how long the contract is for this event, and Camping World is apparently only signed as title sponsor through 2010.  But the IZOD IndyCar Series has been here for a few years, the event is well-attended, and it’s one of the few road courses on the schedule that can rightfully call itself historic.  This one’s likely quite safe as well.

- Toronto.  (Pardon me as I take a deep breath.  I need to force myself to be impartial, here.)  Someone told me once how long the Series signed with Toronto for the current run, but it’s left my memory.  I don’t feel as though I’m pulling 2011 out of thin air, but I couldn’t back that up if asked.  Anyway, three years to give a new(ish) event a full shake-out seems fair — though it’s difficult to find many people who would sincerely call last year’s event a success, and to be honest, optimism for this year isn’t exactly running high here in the city either, despite some decent promotions like making admission free all day on Friday.  To address the point of next year’s schedule, though, it’s very likely this event will be allowed another shot for the 2011 season regardless of how things go this year.  Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess until we see how this year goes.

- Edmonton.  This is the first twisty event that I’m willing to admit could be on the rocks, though I say that very tentatively.  The current promoter, which has been the source of most of the fiscal issues this event has encountered over the past few years, is stepping down.  A number of other entities have shown interest in taking over, including Green Savoree Promotions and the group that currently promotes the Formula 1 race in Montreal.  Provided a deal is reached relatively quickly, and provided the group selected can convince the city of Edmonton that they’ll manage to break even at a minimum, this event should appear on the schedule next year.  But if it doesn’t, don’t expect this to be the race that’s replaced by Baltimore.  Given the IICS’s current market positioning, a schedule with less than two Canadian races on it is highly unlikely.  Should Edmonton fall to the wayside, it may give more weight to the rumor of a Quebec City street race (article in French) that’s currently being backed by the mayor of Quebec City and Alex Tagliani.  (More on that below.)  A gap in the schedule in Western Canada seems misguided — but then again, the Series hasn’t raced in the Pacific Northwest in… well, ever, so perhaps this isn’t likely to concern anyone.

- Mid-Ohio.  This one’s a toughie.  They don’t call it the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for nothing, and IndyCars (which don’t seem as well-suited to it) haven’t exactly produced thrillers on this track in recent memory.  But attendance has been excellent, partially due to the fact that it’s been a double-header with the ALMS for the past few years and (this is the kicker) partially because there’s a Honda plant close by where free tickets are handed out like candy.  As long as Honda is a major partner of the Series, it’s hard to imagine this particular perk being revoked unless they go along with it — and at this stage, we know that will be the case at least through 2011.  Plus, the Series isn’t quite healthy enough yet to go around dumping profitable race weekends simply because the racing isn’t very good.

- Sonoma.  If it hadn’t been confirmed that this contract has been extended into 2011, I’d already have tossed this one out.  Last year’s race wasn’t completely terrible, but it’s awfully hard to shake nicknames like Snore-noma and Infini-yawn.  Local support isn’t all that great, and it isn’t a very pretty track (despite being in the middle of California’s wine country).  Given these points and that room apparently has to be made for Baltimore since none of the above tracks are nearly as dispensable, I’ll even go so far as to point out that contracts are rarely written without escape clauses.  This one may be done.

Now, the only confirmed twisty addition thus far is Baltimore, which will run on August 5-7, 2011.  Yes, that’s Mid-Ohio’s weekend, but Mid-Ohio’s not in such high demand that they’ll have a hard time bumping that date by a week or two in either direction.  I’m going to assume it’ll bump later into August, based on the further assumption that Edmonton will stay and that keeping both Canadian events together is easier for the teams administratively.

I’ll toss the Quebec City idea out there again as a slightly realistic possibility, only because a second Canadian event may become necessary if something goes wrong with Edmonton, and the Quebec market deserves and would support an IndyCar race weekend.  My Spidey senses tell me that Edmonton will go forward, though, so this one’s probably a wash.

Aside from that, we’ve heard a ton of rumors, but based on the facts that we have (a 17-race schedule with a 50/50 balance), there just isn’t room for any more twisties in 2011.  We know that Mike Lanigan (who’s one of the driving forces behind Baltimore) has thrown his support behind reviving the street course in Houston and, to a lesser extent, the airport in Cleveland, but they both may have to wait until the schedule can be expanded.  Road America has been talked about as a possible substitute for Milwaukee in the Wisconsin market, but the track has never shown interest in working with the Indy Racing League.

There’s also the rumored race in China — but last anyone heard, this one was going to be a street event until the permanent facility is built, and there’s no good reason to run a one-off like that as opposed to waiting and establishing the event properly once construction is complete on the permanent track.  Plus, if this was going to happen, we probably would have heard a lot more about it by now, and things have gone awfully quiet on the China front lately.

Oval tracks, now, where there’s a lot more room for discussion:

- Kansas.  Pressdog reported on Twitter that he bought a t-shirt on his way out of the Kansas race this year because he expected it would be his last opportunity to do so, and few would disagree.  The track has produced great racing, but it just doesn’t seem to produce a crowd for the stands.  This has often been attributed to the fact that the track is owned by ISC, an organization deeply associated with NASCAR.  Given that both this and Homestead (see below) are tracks that are very clearly on the chopping block and that Richmond fell off the schedule last year, quick-draws may conclude that the Series is slowly whittling away its association with ISC.  However, Chicagoland and Watkins Glen are also ISC properties, and both of those IndyCar events do quite well.  And if the rumors about RB talking to Phoenix and Fontana are true, then they quell the fires on the ISC connection somewhat.  It does leave open the question, though, of whether Phoenix and Fontana will adequately promote their races and whether anyone will show up since attendance has been a known problem for open-wheel racing at those tracks in the past.  Anyway, back on topic — stick a fork in Kansas.  It’s done.

- Indy.  …Next!

- Texas.  Also hardly worth discussing.  Next!

- Iowa.  People like to throw Iowa under the bus, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  For one, it’s the only short track on the schedule in 2010, and this weekend’s race proved that short track racing is an excellent and unique showcase for these cars and absolutely needs to be represented.  (We already know that we’re getting at least one more short track for 2011 with the addition of Loudon.)  Attendance has been pointed at as a problem, but I’ve still heard estimates that routinely clear 30,000, which is better than some of the larger tracks in larger markets have been doing.  And, more importantly, the fans in Iowa unquestionably appreciate that the IZOD IndyCar Series visits their neighborhood.  There is a disproportionate number of fans from Iowa represented in IndyCar social media circles relative to other markets, and they are an extremely passionate and dedicated group indeed.  Outside of Indy, I’m not sure it’s possible to find as much love for the Series per capita as is found there.  So long as the event at least breaks even (and it looks as though it must be doing better than that), it would be an awful shame to lose this one.

- Chicago.  Like St. Pete, this one seems like it should be doing better, but it isn’t doing terribly, and the on-track product is bananas.  It should be safe for now.

- Kentucky.  Same as above, more or less.

- Motegi.  The vast majority of North American fans give this one a huge thumbs-down.  Like Mid-Ohio, it’s likely this one will stay on the schedule for as long as Honda is a major partner of the Series, which we know to be at least through next year.  If engine competition is indeed introduced in 2012, though, the continuance of this event is anyone’s guess.  The Japanese fans are extremely supportive, no question, but the IICS needs to take a good, hard look at whether that’s enough to justify continuing to race here.  The distance requires it to have a two-week gap on either side to accommodate it, the time difference causes the race to be run at ridiculous times in North America, and the race is often dull enough that many fans here don’t even bother to watch it on their DVRs.  At the very least, slotting this one into the run-up to the end of the season is a huge buzz kill.  Seasonal and weather issues make scheduling tricky, but mid-September is unquestionably not the right time to hold this race.  Anyhow, the point is moot since Honda will want to keep this one for 2011, and the Series likely isn’t quite ready to start letting Honda down just yet.

- Homestead.  Pthhhhhhhht.  This race is already done.  No one goes, no one cares, it’s a terrible track for IndyCars, and it’s the worst place to crown a Series champion ever. Plus, the South Florida market just isn’t strong enough to support two events.  Throwing extra energy behind propping up St. Pete would be a much better use of everyone’s time.  Find me one person who would argue this point and I’ll give you a cookie.

As for additions, we know for sure that the Series is returning to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on July 31, 2011.  Dates aside, let’s call this the replacement for Kansas.

RB has admitted that Milwaukee is more or less a pipe dream, given the financial problems that track is dealing with.  We can most likely write that one off for next year.

That leaves Phoenix, Vegas, and Fontana as tracks specifically mentioned by RB.  As a replacement for Homestead, Vegas is the clear favorite — it lets the season finish at an oval, which is important to many fans, and the city as a whole definitely lives up to the glitz-and-glamour market position that the Series is currently aiming for.  In fact, if Vegas is announced as the season finale for next year, I can name more than a handful of race fans who will have their hotels booked that same evening.  But the facility has reportedly been given a date for the NASCAR Chase in 2011, which means that IndyCar may need to compete for a late-season weekend.  And these sorts of deals can fall apart for any number of other unfortunate reasons, too.

If it can’t be Vegas, it may make sense to move the finale back to Chicago — where it’s virtually guaranteed to get a great race and a big city to hold swanky parties in — and have the 17th date at Phoenix.  Die-hard IndyCar fans have been screaming for a return there since the day it was dropped, and the chorus has never stopped growing.  Provided these fans back their desperate cries up by actually putting their butts into the seats, and provided the promoter is on board and willing to give the event appropriate attention, this one certainly deserves a shot.

Fontana is the least likely of these three to appear in 2011, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it reappear on the schedule once the Series can afford to expand beyond 17 races.

The crib notes version, then [that's CliffsNotes for our American followers.. -PD], based on the confirmed dates for 2011 (in italics), the rumors that have leaked, and the likeliest scenarios of the hypotheses above:

  • St. Pete (late March)
  • Barber (early April)
  • Long Beach (mid April)
  • Brazil (early May; likely May 1, 2011)
  • Indy (May 29, 2011)
  • Texas (early June; likely June 4, 2011)
  • Iowa (mid June)
  • Watkins Glen (early July; likely July 3, 2011)
  • Toronto (early July; maybe July 10, 2011?)
  • Edmonton (mid July; maybe July 17, 2011?)
  • New Hampshire (July 31, 2011)
  • Baltimore (August 7, 2011)
  • Mid-Ohio
  • Chicagoland
  • Kentucky
  • Motegi
  • Las Vegas

Remember, this is just for fun.  Have at it, folks.

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