This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on May 4th, 2011. To view More Front Wing’s exclusive INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, sign up for INDYCAR Nation today at indycarnation.indycar.com.
There is no doubt that the Brazilians love IndyCar racing, and their generous support, particularly through the Apex-Brasil partnership, has been largely unrivaled outside of the IZOD sponsorship. With many of the most popular drivers of the IZOD IndyCar Series hailing from Brazil — including Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Vitor Meira, and many more — it’s easy to see why INDYCAR must at least entertain the offer of a second race on Brazilian soil. But from the standpoint of growing the product domestically, such a race would do little to improve the standing of the Series with the American sports fan.
Several important factors are in play when considering any foreign race, let alone a second one in Brazil. One of the biggest questions is where a second race would fit into the schedule. Due to the costs associated with transporting the entire Series to an international destination, it makes sense that the two Brazilian races be competed on back-to-back weekends so as to share travel costs between the promoters. Additionally, because of logistics, the weekends before and after these races would have to be free to allow time for transport of all the equipment. Suddenly, an entire month is now required to accommodate these two races.
So at what point in the season is there an entire month that is free? The start of the season is probably the most logical choice, but starting the season with your first race abroad is a questionable idea at best — starting with two is just bad news waiting to happen. With the debut of a brand new engine and chassis specification in 2012, the IZOD IndyCar Series must start its season on home turf.
If, however, money is no object to the promoters and the events are separate as current rumors suggest (likely keeping Sao Paulo early in the season and the second race near the end), that brings up another annoyance of mine. With the elimination of Twin Ring Motegi already announced for the 2012 schedule, INDYCAR now has the perfect opportunity to remove the dead time that currently exists in the run-up to the championship. As stated, the logistics of an international event require at least one free weekend on both sides of the event. Going to Japan in September for the last two years has essentially taken INDYCAR off the US sports grid for six weeks and killed much of the momentum INDYCAR has built up in the chase for the championship due to both the time required and the lack of mainstream domestic media. Replacing Motegi with another international event, particularly on a street course (which would of course also require more time for teams to prepare cars for the oval finale), does nothing to help alleviate the current problem with the late-season schedule.
Beyond the scheduling logistics, the cost borne by the teams to participate in international events is difficult to recoup, even when the promoter pays a very hefty fee to include travel and retainers for the teams. For many teams, the primary domestic sponsors get little return on international races, and such races are often not included in sponsorship budgets. For example, how much return on investment do you really think Verizon is getting while sponsoring a car in Brazil? Because of TV schedules that align reasonably well with the US market, it likely isn’t as bad as sponsoring a car at Twin Ring Motegi (which, of course, runs during the overnight hours in the US), but it still can’t be near what they get at Long Beach or St. Pete, for instance.
Perhaps the biggest deterrent, however, is just the limited number of race dates that are available and the number of American facilities that have indicated an interest in hosting an IZOD IndyCar Series event. Randy Bernard has continued to emphasize his desire to maintain a balance between the road course and oval events, and while Bernard has also stated he would eventually like to see the schedule grow to about 24 races, current wisdom suggest the teams will only be able to afford about 18 events in 2012. 2011, like 2010, already has more road and street course events than it does ovals, and getting the balance any more lopsided will raise the heckles of those long-time IRL supporters who already fear that INDYCAR is going down the same path CART did 15 years ago. At most, INDYCAR can only really afford to add one more street or road course for 2012. So, where’s it going to be?
If given the option, most INDYCAR fans would like to see Road America or Cleveland return to the schedule. There are also many fans who want to see Laguna Seca return to the Series, and Mike Lanigan, promoter of the former race around Reliant Park in Houston, has expressed his desire to resurrect that event. And what about Watkins Glen? That’s another track that drivers particularly enjoy and which, to be perfectly honest, should be on any American open-wheel racing schedule. (Watkins Glen could also become a bargaining chip for ISC if INDYCAR hopes to return to Phoenix.) Though rumors for it are not currently strong, Portland is yet another great track that INDYCAR should be at, especially given its strategic value in returning open-wheel racing to the Pacific Northwest.
Will Brazil eventually get a second IZOD IndyCar Series race? Probably. Quite honestly, they deserve it for their unbridled support of INDYCAR and for the number of drivers that call Brazil home. If the old Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway in Rio de Janeiro was still operational and could provide an oval race for the Series, I would fully support pairing that race with the Sao Paulo event early in the season. But with a limited number of dates available, INDYCAR needs to focus on growing its product in North America and restrict its international ambitions for the time being.
To be perfectly honest, when I first heard about the possibility of a second race taking place in Brazil, I was opposed to the idea. I thought there was no way that American fans would tolerate the IZOD IndyCar Series disappearing across borders for yet another two-week stint part way through the season. Memories of the complaints that led to The Split echoed through my head. It was horrifying.
But those echoes were promptly silenced when I voiced my opinion on Twitter. Someone pointed out that the Series has two events in my country and that Brazilian drivers represent more of the field than Canadians.
Ahem. Yeah, okay. Fair point.
From there, the more I thought about it, the more the idea made sense. Brazil is a growing economy with a massive INDYCAR fan base. The Series got a whole lot of attention while it was down there this past weekend, including television coverage of every second that INDYCARs were on the track — yes, even the practice sessions; yes, that’s more TV exposure than INDYCAR gets in North America. INDYCAR needs to pay the bills, and Brazil is proving itself to be a great place to do that.
I’ll confess to being taken aback at the rumor that the two events will be separated by a few months — it’s a long and expensive trip to get down there, and it would seem on the surface to make sense to combine the expense in some way. But the added time and cost aren’t appreciably different from going to Japan, which the Series will no longer be doing in 2012, and it might be nearly as expensive to do two races in one trip once you tack on the cost of shipping backup parts and tires. I’ll confess to knowing nothing about domestic logistics in Brazil, which also may or may not complicate things. And if a team were to burn through all of its equipment in the first race and not be able to get replacements in time for the second, the fallout would be disastrous. As long as the economics make sense (i.e., someone else is paying for it, which must be the case or the deal wouldn’t be in the works), the optics of adding a second Brazil race later in the season shouldn’t be any different to stateside fans if this more or less replaces the Motegi event.
Besides, Randy Bernard has mentioned many times that he hopes to expand the schedule over the next few years. It’s never a bad thing to see a new race, is it?
Oh. The thunderous roars of protests from thousands of oval racing fans would seem to indicate otherwise. If Motegi is dropped and a street race is added, it upsets the balance of ovals and twisties! We’re all doomed!
Okay, but hang on a minute — RB has been perfectly clear that he intends to keep the track type ratio as close to 50/50 as possible. So, American oval racing fans, adding a street race in Brazil can only mean one thing: you’ll get at least one more oval, and it’ll most likely be at home! There’s a rumor going around (though it’s not yet substantiated) that RB is talking to ISC again and is trying to negotiate a deal to get races at Phoenix and Chicagoland. Even the most ardent opponents of street races would trade an event in Brazil for getting those two ovals back on the schedule in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you? Yeah, I thought so.
Even the time zone complaints that many people have about the trip to Japan don’t come into play here. Although the early morning sessions at Sao Paulo are a bit ambitious for West Coasters, the qualifying and race start times are very US friendly. It makes a great deal of sense to focus on the Americas when developing the IICS brand. Expanding outside US borders into Canada and Brazil might mean driving on street circuits, but it also means adding a unique international flavor to the Series while still being able to effectively serve the entire fan base. Keeping the product centered in the western hemisphere maintains the perfect balance of diversity and efficiency. Fans really can’t ask for better.
But perhaps the most important point is this: the IZOD IndyCar Series is receiving interest from promoters. People want to pay the Series to host races, not the other way around. This means the sport is growing. In that, there really isn’t a negative side to be found.