Transitional, work-in-progress INDYCAR schedule holds no surprises for now

IndyCar commentary — By on December 22, 2011 12:08 pm

The 2012 INDYCAR schedule was released this morning — at least in part — and held no surprises for those who have been tracking its development over the past few months.

An announcement that the press release did reveal, however, is that a 16th event is in the process of being confirmed and that a 17th is being considered.

This is speculating, but it’s fair to assume that the latter is insurance against the possibility that the Baltimore race could drop off the schedule due to financial concerns.  INDYCAR’s contract with IZOD reportedly requires the IZOD IndyCar Series to hold 16 events each season, and even with the addition of the yet-to-be-confirmed weekend, the Series will still just be scraping by in meeting its contractual obligations.

Although no TBAs were positioned in the schedule released today, the 16th event is reportedly a new finale.  This raises some interesting points:

– The widely held opinion is that the Series should end its season on an oval. Oval races, as demonstrated by the schedule released today, are hard to come by these days. If the season won’t end at Fontana, what might Randy Bernard have up his sleeve this time? A Vegas street race might do well, but it might also leave a sour taste in the mouths of the oval-dedicated. Or maybe he has something else in the works…

– The date chosen for that event will be of great interest.  Right now, the lead-up to the finale looks better than it has in years with three races on American soil packed tightly together in late August and into September.  The weekend two weeks after Fontana looks ideal for making an impact with a season-ending event — it’s a quiet weekend in motorsport with the only major event being a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover on Sunday afternoon.  However, that weekend falls entirely in September, and some might argue that the optics of pushing the INDYCAR season into October are much better since it gives INDYCAR seven months of racing to boast about instead of six (not to mention that it somewhat shortens the already expansive off-season).  Of course, if that theoretical 17th event gets slotted in on the last weekend of September and the finale gets pushed into October, this point becomes largely moot.  (The season finale would have more television viewing competition to go up against in early to mid-October. A night race on Saturday, October 6th might be ideal, though — Cup races at Talladega on Sunday that weekend, and INDYCAR would avoid having to compete with the NFL as well.)

The racetrack at Belle Isle in Detroit has returned to the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.  One glance at the small-version track map posted on the schedule page is an excellent substitute for NyQuil. This weekend has a few other things potentially working against it as well, the most notable being a highly saturated motorsport event market in that area around that time — the Indianapolis 500 is only one week before, and the Cup race at Michigan is two weeks after.  Of course, it’s well-known that this event is being put on largely for Chevrolet’s benefit, and the corporate sales side shouldn’t be affected by such factors.  Still, it will be interesting to see how good this events looks on television as opposed to on paper.

The knee-jerk reaction to analyzing China’s position on the schedule is to complain that it takes up too much time in a potentially lucrative summer month — but in reality, the impact on the schedule doesn’t look too bad.  As previously noted, running the event in August pushes it back from the run-up to the finale, which is a positive development considering how the trip to Motegi, Japan has sucked all of the life out of the championship race for the last few years.  The month of August will see INDYCAR hold three events, the same number as in the past two years.  The teams, however, will have a logistical nightmare on their hands as they race at Infineon on their way back from China just one week later and then need to rush back to their shops before heading to Baltimore a week after that.  No one ever claimed working in racing is easy.

And, of course, there’s the matter of the extremely low number of oval races.  As previously discussed on More Front Wing, this is clearly disappointing but is completely understandable and should be temporary once INDYCAR can do some testing with the DW12 and determine a financial and marketing formula for oval track events.  In fact, on this last point, the low number of ovals this year may be a blessing — it could allow INDYCAR to give each oval event more focus and to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t so that future events can be promoted more effectively.  At any rate, there should be no doubt in the ovalista’s mind that Randy Bernard and his team are well-aware of the need to expand the oval repertoire.  If all (eventually) goes well with the DW12 on ovals, 2013 should see the oval portion of the schedule begin to swell back in the more positive direction, provided INDYCAR can learn how to make them work fiscally.  In the meantime, though, it appears that the AJ Foyt Trophy will be awarded to the driver who performs best in four, or possibly five, races out of a 16 to 17-race schedule — insulting, almost, but unavoidable.

A couple of other minor points of interest from today’s announcement:

– INDYCAR’s spring open test will be held at Sebring this year from March 5-8.  It had been held at Barber Motorsports Park for the last two seasons.

– A Manufacturers Trophy has been announced to be awarded to the best-performing engine manufacturer as competition returns to the Series for the first time since 2005.

Overall, today’s announcement held no real surprises.  But the fact that the schedule is a work in progress, while not ideal, should be viewed as a positive. It appears that today’s INDYCAR administrative team is not content to settle and will keep working at areas that require improvement for as long as is necessary.  That point, more than any other, demonstrates why INDYCAR should continue to see its momentum grow through the upcoming season and beyond.