What To Look For In A Schedule

The IZOD IndyCar Series schedule for 2011 will be announced on Friday at The Milwaukee Mile, so that should tell you something. I don’t know if it will have the same glitz and glamour of the past few announcements in the IZOD-Randy Bernard era, but it is still highly anticipated. By this time last year, the 2010 schedule had been out for almost six weeks – but NASCAR threw the IndyCar schedule makers a few last-minute curves, so some late tinkering had to take place.

I would expect at least some cheesy pageantry for this announcement, since the series is expected to return to Las Vegas to wrap up the 2011 season. The Indy Racing League actually ran the very first event held at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1996, with Richie Hearn taking the victory. Al Unser, Jr. won the final IRL sanctioned race at Las Vegas in 2000. Champ Car ran at Las Vegas in 2004-05 with Sébastien Bourdais winning both races.

Randy Bernard thinks he can make Las Vegas work this time. I’ve never been to the track, but I understand it is quite a hike from the strip in Las Vegas. The thinking is that it takes an event of great magnitude to get visitors to Las Vegas to come out of the hotels and casinos. Randy Bernard has a lot of key connections in the city. If he can make it work, it could be a marketing coup for the league. If the results are mediocre or worse, it could be a significant black mark against the legacy of Randy Bernard. I think it’s safe to say that this will be Mr. Bernard’s signature event – no matter which way it goes.

I fully trust Randy Bernard. At the risk of sounding like a suck-up, I think what he has done in a little over seven months has been phenomenal. It takes a lot to offend me, but I actually take offense to the “Ropin’ Randy” moniker that some have placed on him in reference to his days as head of Professional Bull Riding. In his time there, he took a sport that was much more obscure than open-wheel racing and transformed it into a successful enterprise. His track record there is what initially caught the eye of Josie George and Jeff Belskus. I was as skeptical as anyone when the hiring was announced, but I have quickly become a believer. I hate to think where we would be right now without him.

Another reason I respect Randy Bernard is how quickly he has brought himself up to speed with the traditions of our sport. He understands the role that oval tracks have played in the history of open-wheel racing, while acknowledging the current role that road course racing plays. Not only has Mr. Bernard proclaimed his desire to have at least 50% of the schedule be comprised of ovals; he has made it a priority to get a very important venue – the Milwaukee Mile – back on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. It looks as if those efforts will pay off. With Friday’s announcement being held at the famous track at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, I would say it’s safe to assume that it has found its way back onto the schedule for 2011.

So there will be four new venues for 2011 that were not on the schedule for 2010 – the new street race at Baltimore; along with ovals at New Hampshire, Las Vegas and Milwaukee. But that is only treading water when you figure that four from 2010 will likely not return next year – Watkins Glen, and ovals at Kansas, Chicago and Homestead. So we’re still looking at eight ovals and nine non-ovals for next year – unless there is another surprise coming.

I wasn’t crazy about this season being divided into “quarters” with four road courses, followed by four ovals, five more road courses and capped off with four ovals. I understand that it was easier on the teams to not be jumping back and forth between various configurations, but if you prefer one discipline over the other – it gets a little tiresome when your preference isn’t running for a couple of months. Next year, it looks as if the first oval of the season will be the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

I am also an advocate for a very unpopular stance. I am all in favor of wrapping up the IndyCar season on or before Labor Day each year. We’re having trouble attracting viewers in the spring and summer months, when the main competition in the US is baseball and NASCAR. Those two sports have now become relatively insignificant as of this week with College Football starting last weekend and the NFL kicking off tomorrow night. No one but the true die-hards will be watching races after football starts.

I consider myself a true die-hard, but if the Kentucky race were running this Saturday against my (depleted) Tennessee Vols taking on Oregon – it would be the Kentucky race that would be relegated to the DVR. For the second year in a row, the finale at Homestead will be run on a Saturday. If the Tennessee-LSU game is moved to a night game, I’m going to have a tough decision to make, but the race will likely lose out.

Any Sunday races in the fall will face even stiffer competition for that coveted casual fan, once the NFL is in the picture. Next year may be a different story with the labor unrest in pro-football, but in most years – it’s suicide to go up against the NFL behemoth. A couple of weeks ago – a meaningless pre-season game featuring Brett Favre for four plays drew a 7.2 rating. When was the last time the Indy 500 drew a 7.2? Versus would kill to have a 1.0. Last year’s dramatic finale at Homestead drew a whopping .15. Yes, that reads “point one-five”. That’s what going against college football does to your ratings. Fortunately for me, the Georgia-Tennessee game was played earlier in the day so that I could be counted in that measly total.

Another ratings killer is having Motegi in the fall. When Danica Patrick won her first (and only) race, no one besides us die-hards knew until the next day, because it happened half a world away, after midnight in the US. Until last week, it looked like there was a strong chance that the IZOD IndyCar Series champion could be crowned in the same fashion. At this time of year, you’re going to lose some die-hards who have lost interest in watching yet another Penske-Ganassi duel after midnight. It’s late in the season and very few people care at this point. It would be my hope that if Motegi is to remain on the schedule, it be moved back to the spring. This would guarantee at least one oval before Indianapolis. Plus, being early in the season – it is still a novelty to watch a race, no matter how late you have to stay up.

Contrary to popular belief, I wouldn’t get rid of all of the road/street courses. In fact, I would choose to keep many of them.  Of course, I would dump a few of the snoozers like Sonoma and Edmonton, in favor of places like Cleveland, Portland and my favorite – Road America. But I guess I’m getting way ahead of myself now.

I’ll be curious to see if Randy Bernard has any more surprises that have been kept from the media. Getting Milwaukee back should be enough of a surprise, but having one more oval would sure be nice.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “What To Look For In A Schedule”

  1. I don’t know about ending on labor day. Remeber 08? We ended really early that year, and started late the next year (april) and that off season lasted 6+ months. I’m pleased they at least maintained the current balance of ovals, without going to Nashville or Gateway. Losing Watkins Glen and Chicagoland hurts worst, Chicagoland because it’s a great race, Watkins because it’s a road course that’s wide enough to pass.

  2. Great news about Milwaukee and Vegas is cool too–it has to be an improvement on Homestead no matter what happens. I second your thoughts on Bernard–it’s mind-boggling how much he’s had to deal with in a short period of time.

    Ideally, the IIRS avoids conflict with football season, but not sure that’ll be possible this year. Motegi in the spring would be great, but not sure what the problems (weather?) with that would be.

    I don’t think Milwaukee will fall the week after the 500 this year, due to the deal with Bruton Smith at Texas. So why not kick off the month of May in Milwaukee? I also wonder who Bernard got to run the Milwaukee race–did he find a sponsor or is IMS putting up some cash?

    Whatever the schedule, I’m ready for Bernard and his “partners” to get on with promoting next years races and get some fans in the seats. I think he will–and if not–it won’t be to a lack of effort.

  3. Last year’s dramatic finale at Homestead drew a whopping .15. Yes, that reads “point one-five”.

    Is this true? Really? Or is this some of that classic Phillips-ian hyperbole that we’ve all come to expect & put up with?

    If true, this makes brain cry hot tears of insignificance.

  4. Indy Cars should start in late February and end on Labor Day weekend.

    Going into football season, is complete lunacy. Once you get to Labor Day, football is the only thing that matters to most folks.

    Start the season earlier and end it earlier.

    And somehow, someway get out of Japan. That race does nothing for most sponsors, nobody watches it on TV and it eats up valuable space on the calandar. Honda already gets their race at Mid Ohio.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      I agree; start earlier then finish earlier. And broadcast (yes, over-the-air!) on NBC Sports if it’s owned by Comcast.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      I am not really sure that I understand the scheduling conflict with football. Do the few people who currently watch the IRL, completely abandon the few remaining races at the end of the season simply because football season has begun. I’m thinking no… Besides, as George pointed out, he would have the recorder set up for the IRL whilst watching the Vols. I mean this isn’t rocket science is it….? Truthfully, in most cases I am already recording the races and begin watching them after around an hour has passed. Lets face it, most are so stultifyingly boring and broadcast in such a bushleague fashion, that they are nearly impossible to watch in real time. The fast forward button is your friend, much like it is for most N-Word races these days, save for the ones where the drivers turn left and right. Without that fast forward, the yeller flags and the green white checkers would result in many more racing related viewer suicides. One other thing and I realize that not everyone can make to a race, but this is a sport much better enjoyed while actually at the race track. Whenever possible, lets all try to go see one or two each year.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I would not care for the extra long offseason that ending before football would bring even though my attending a college football game over watching the Kentucky race should make me argue otherwise.
    Starting the season off early would be a nice way to make up much of that offseason gap, but starting in January or February means Phoenix, Fontana, Homestead, tracks in mexico and Brazil, or temporary circuits way down south (throw the Disneyworld track in there as well) would need to make up the first 2-3 events. I’d be fine with that, but it seems incredibly unlikely.

    And I think we all agree that if Motegi must remain on the schedule, it ought to be in the spring.
    We should all agree that returning to Milwaukee is a wonderful thing. If it can’t return to its traditional date (which has been cleared as Texas moved back to two weeks after Indy) I like redd’s idea about making it the May lead-in to Indy. I would think it would generate at least a little more buzz than Kansas and would make it a better platform for ABC to launch their Indy 500 promos.

  6. Nashville!

  7. The higest rated event outside of Indy was Walt Disney World. It had a 2+ rating on ABC in 2000. The reason IndyCar no longer races there is because Disney wants the race to be held in January. I think the IICS should do it and be the first series to kick off the racing season. Do it the week before the Super Bowl.

    If this produces a gap in the schedule, hold it as an exibition race. But being the first race of the new year has a huge advantages. They should try this event again. Don’t question the formula. WDW simply worked attendance and rating wise.

    • billytheskink Says:

      The bad thing about the Disney race (other than the traffic) was the 6 to 8 week gap between it and the next race, and that was back when Phoenix was still on the schedule.

  8. Savage Henry Says:

    Last year the 24 Hours of Daytona was held the weekend between the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. I watched a ton of that race. Was it interesting? No, not really. But there was nothing else on and I was totally jonesing for some racing. How about a warm-weather race on that weekend? It will draw viewers becaue it is something to watch.

    The sports year has a two very dead spots in it. 1) Between the Super Bowl and March Madness and 2) July – August. The IISC should consider this in the scheduling. They could have first race on an oval the week before the Super Bowl, then schedule races in warm-weather locations though sports draught #1, sprinkle more races through the spring (leading up to a cllimax at Indy), hit it hard again during sports drought #2 culminating with crowning a champion the last week before the NFL starts. That way they still have an 8-month schedule capable of supporting 20(ish) races but don’t have to go head-to-head with the big boys.

    It could work. If the series gets back on its feet ratings wise, then they can venture back into the fall if there’s value in it. However, I don’t see any value in it. As far as I know, NASCAR ratings crater when football starts too, even with the BS Chase format.

  9. […] the biggest story this week in the IZOD IndyCar Series is what tracks will and won’t appear on the 2011 schedule,  there’s still a crazy 2010 championship chase going on. Will Power […]

  10. I love the street races, but not so much in the Dallara. I’d like to see a couple of doubleheader weekends where teams switch disciplines – one of the suggestions had been Cleveland, with a new oval devised on the road course for a Friday night and the old course on Saturday.

    They’re thinking about it for Vegas too. That would be excellent.

  11. I don’t understand the infatuation with Milwaukee. I’ve seen more bad races than good there. I love how they are willing to take a risk and self-promote or rent-a-promoter for that track but refuse to accept anything other than a ISC-costing sweetheart deal to race at Michigan… the track where they actually SHOULD be racing.

    If you’re going to take a risk and run somewhere that can’t pay you to do so, do it at the right place.

    Honestly it’s like everybody discovered the DVD of Winning last year and suddenly Milwaukee is an unbreakable tradition despite what the absence of fans might otherwise indicate.

  12. I understand the tradition of Milwaukee and think the series should be there.

    But the racing there is usually painfully dull. And the facility to put it nicely, isn’t exactly “up to snuff”. No suites. Only 40,000 seats (which should be perfect for Indy Car). Very antiquated in several ways.

    But it at least isn’t another lame-ass street race. We already have more then we need of those babies.

  13. I have been to mid Ohio and long beach this year. I watched every other race except brazil as I have directv. I consider myself rather hardcore. But football is king. If LSU hadn’t stomped on UNC early, kentucky would have been dvrd. At least I can watch F1 in the morning. Odds are I find out the indycar champion the day after the race.

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