For INDYCAR’s schedule, caution must prevail

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on July 31, 2012 9:21 am

I’ve wanted to come back to the topic of INDYCAR’s future scheduling for some time now. It’s one of those topics that seems to be written about frequently but usually in a sort of “silly season,” “let’s add four US ovals, Spa, and Rockingham while we’re at it” manner.

An upcoming roundtable on INDYCAR Nation, though, really grabbed my attention and carried it back to this topic. It’s enjoyable to speculate on the types of courses we’ll see on next year’s schedule, but it would be even nicer to get to a point where that speculation was a minor item for one or two races, not a third of the schedule. To be in that position, however, INDYCAR needs to be as sure as possible that each event is properly vetted and considered before being added to the roster.

Although by all accounts it sounds as if the financial woes of INDYCAR have abated — or at least climbed back to tolerable levels — this is still not the climate for middling events to receive three to four years of grace to build upon themselves. Growth takes time, true, but there must be at least a spark of success to start things off.

When discussing the return to the Milwaukee Mile last year, Randy Bernard stated that if they let the Mile drop off the schedule once more then it was likely finished as an INDYCAR event. Fortunately, the Andrettis and INDYCAR’s fans did enough to give the Mile at least another year or so of INDYCAR, but it’s still the sort of event that will require a good rebuilding of the fan base to reclaim its spot as one of truly concrete events on the schedule.

It was difficult last year to see Kentucky kicked off the 2012 schedule. I’ve long considered that race my “home away from home” race, and it’s one where my wife and I have made some great memories. If it does return for 2013, however, its success will be anything but certain. Crowds, sponsor, promoter, schedule — it all has to make sense.

It’s one of the reasons I don’t have much patience for the usual 35-race fantasy/dream schedule that some fans like to throw out there. Right now, the only thing that’s going to give INDYCAR the scheduling stability it needs is going where it’s wanted, ensuring proper diligence from promoters and organizers, and not spreading itself too thick in a region or too thin in terms of resources.

Of course, we all realize stuff happens. Promoters fail, crowds dwindle. Additionally, natural turnover and replacement of events is part of racing’s business side (painful as it may be). That’s as true today as it was in 1982 or 2002. Yet to minimize this risk, slow, considerate growth is what’s called for, not any sort of blind, unchecked explosion of races. Let’s get to 18-19 solid, sustainable events before jumping to 21 or 22. Add Pocono, bring back Kentucky — but work on making those races as solid as possible before calling for anything else.

What needs to be avoided — be it oval, street course, or road course — is a succession of “one and done” events, cut loose after only a single year (New Hampshire, anyone?), or cancelled pipe dream races such as Qingdao, China. I’m okay with a year or so of fewer races than I like if it means less flux and fewer missteps.

On that same token, as much as I want Road America and Phoenix on the schedule, I’m willing to be patient. If the time isn’t right, then I’d rather wait a few years than have a race that’s enjoyed for a year, then removed from the schedule because it was shoehorned in somewhere where success was questionable. Simply put, I’d rather have Milwaukee and Road America in 2015 as strong events than both of them next year as a one-and-done.

Ideally, the INDYCAR schedule for 2013 will be released relatively early this fall. If there needs to be a TBA or two I understand for now, but it is vitally important that INDYCAR give us a schedule that is both realistic and sustainable. When I say “sustainable,” I mean seeing a majority of the same events back year after year in some form of continuity. The on-track product is excellent, and many (not all) venues can boast fairly strong attendance. Yet both need a regularized schedule so that race fans can both plan their travel to events and have a reasonable expectation of when INDYCAR will be on TV.

With any luck, the push for more races will not be a wild, haphazard process but one that carefully incorporates new events while taking care of those already on the schedule. As INDYCAR fans, we don’t necessarily love caution — it brings to mind a yellow flag and interruption to going flat-out. Yet caution is a part of racing, especially the business and scheduling side. Sometimes, slowing down and evaluating the situation is what’s called for. Let’s hope that for 2013 and beyond we get events such as Pocono but that it’s done with an eye towards making it an event sustained for years to come, not just a quick fix to have another race.