Edmonton is back — now what?

IndyCar commentary — By on January 17, 2011 9:50 am

Back in early November when it was announced that Edmonton had been removed from the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, I suggested that the debacle was a sad situation.

Well, Edmonton is now back on the schedule. Unfortunately, it’s still a pretty sad situation.

Several of the worst points have already been discussed at length and haven’t changed. For one, Edmonton City Council still looks like a bunch of buffoons in spite of the event’s return, and it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to work with them after the way they’ve conducted themselves throughout this entire affair.

For another, Edmonton is still one of the most expensive locales for the Series to visit.

But one point that hasn’t been outwardly addressed in detail — though it’s been alluded to a fair amount — is that, for today’s IICS, Edmonton simply doesn’t appear to hold a great deal of potential for growth.

When Edmonton left the schedule, chatter within the fan base immediately turned toward other Canadian cities that might be effective hosts of a race weekend. A number of people speculated that Calgary could hold a lot of promise, and there were even rumors from credible sources that Tony Cotman had already contacted Vancouver and was finding interest there. Both of these cities are quite a bit larger than Edmonton, and both are much more the type of market that key partners of the IICS are looking to work with.

Now, I’m Canadian, so naturally I’d like to see as many successful open-wheel events as possible taking place in this country. But I’ll be the first to admit that even within a dream-come-true 24-race schedule — let alone the current 17 — the IICS tops out at three Canadian events before it reaches its saturation point. Canada also happens to have three distinct high-profile markets: Southern Ontario (currently served by the Toronto race), Quebec (reportedly in the works), and Western Canada. Tying up Western Canada’s event in Edmonton blocks the IICS from expanding into Calgary or Vancouver, both of which would theoretically be a better fit for both the Series and its sponsors.

On examining these points, one is forced to conclude that Edmonton’s return was driven by the fact that its sudden disappearance left the Series in a serious lurch. When the event fell apart so quickly, INDYCAR found itself with a month-long gap in the middle of the summer and precious little time to do anything about it. Agreeing to go back to Edmonton, while possibly not INDYCAR’s preference, was clearly an easier solution than either settling for the gap or cobbling together a brand new event on such short notice. And given the investment that will be required by all parties to get this race going again, a single-year deal would have been out of the question, which leaves us with the three-year arrangement that we now see before us.

That all being said, though, Edmonton’s return is most certainly not entirely negative. One of the biggest advantages to the new situation is the opportunity to redesign the circuit layout. As an anomaly in the realm of road and street courses, an airport circuit really has no business producing dull racing; it’s the only twisty layout that allows an attending race fan to see the entire course from one vantage point, and wide runways and taxiways with the flexibility to add connecting segments in any configuration allow for unlimited layout possibilities. And yet, despite all of this, Edmonton’s event simply hasn’t been very exciting from a viewer’s standpoint for the past several years. The opportunity to wipe the slate clean and design a new track with both the current equipment and the 2012 car in mind may be just what this event needs to get back off the ground.

The move also puts a little bit more sponsor negotiating leverage back into the hands of the Canadian racers. With three Canucks appearing to have a serious shot at landing rides in 2011 (be still, my beating heart), ensuring sufficient exposure for them north of the border is critical to sealing deals. Back in November, Paul Tracy was particularly vocal about how the loss of Edmonton had put a serious kink into his sponsorship talks with a major Canadian corporation. (Of course, most marketing budgets are finalized in December, so whether the event’s return might be too little, too late on this point remains to be seen.)

And finally, everyone loves a feel-good story about a grassroots fan-based movement making a difference. It was only through the rallying of Edmonton’s extremely passionate existing fan base in partnership with local businesses that Edmonton City Council was finally convinced to return to the bargaining table. (At the heart of this movement, by the way, was a gentleman named Mike Cockrall, who goes by the name Team Canada online. Mike deserves a massive amount of credit for leading this initiative and getting his home race back. If you ever make the trip to the Edmonton, be sure to stop by Mike’s motor home. He’s one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, and he gives away free beer.)

And so, regardless of how the positives or negatives balance out in anyone’s view, the Edmonton event now has three years to re-establish itself and cement its place on the IZOD IndyCar Series calendar. Looking ahead from where things stand today, whether the contract will be extended beyond this timeframe is anyone’s guess. It all hinges on whether the new promoter is able to increase both fan interest and revenue to keep Series and sponsor eyes from wandering, whether the new circuit makes for more exciting racing, and whether the parties involved are able to continue getting along and working together effectively.

There are interesting times ahead in Edmonton indeed.

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