A Good News/Bad News Scenario

Over this past weekend, Robin Miller wrote an article on Racer.com about the possibility that one of the longtime favorite tracks from the CART era may be returning to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule next season, but at the expense of another.

It appears that there is a good chance that Watkins Glen may fall off of the IndyCar schedule for the second time this decade. IndyCar first started racing at The Glen in 2005. Except for the first two races, the remaining six races have all been run on holiday weekends – Fourth of July and Labor Day.

The Indianapolis 500 being run over Memorial Day weekend notwithstanding – holiday weekends are not an ideal time to run races. That’s why racing series will do their best to avoid Easter, Mother’s Day and even Father’s Day weekends. People like to relax and do things with their families over holiday weekends. We went to Gateway this past August because it was only about four hours away. Had it been a weekend later, over Labor Day weekend, I’m not sure we would have gone – and I consider myself a pretty hardcore fan.

Some will point to football and argue that they have no problem drawing crowds over Labor Day, Thanksgiving and even Christmas. It sounds like a good argument, but it’s just different. You have different demographics and a different set of circumstances. The NFL doesn’t play over Labor Day, but colleges tend to make Labor Day their official kickoff. Going to a college campus for a football weekend involves a slew of activities all weekend long. A race weekend is normally situated at the track – all weekend long.

When Susan and I go to races, we get to the track on Friday morning and stay until just before sundown, after all track activity has ceased for the day (assuming it is an unlighted track). We’ll go grab a bite somewhere and relax and then go back to the hotel to rest so we can get up early and get back to the track for another full day. We rarely ever venture out into the nearby city to see other attractions, other than a fun restaurant. Maybe we are narrow-minded boring people, but that’s what our racing weekends involve – racing.

But as much as I love racing, I’m not sure I’m willing to give up a traditional holiday weekend for it. On Memorial Day, our tradition is to spend it in Indianapolis each year. But my Easter, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends have different traditions that don’t involve racing. That’s why I think attendance at ISC-owned Watkins Glen has suffered over the past several years. People don’t want to give up their holiday weekends.

When the series first ran at The Glen in 2005, the race was in late September. The following year it switched to early June – just one week after the Indianapolis 500. The next year , it was moved again to July 4th weekend. That was three different months in three years, which avoided any chance at establishing date equity. But it stayed on the Independence Day weekend for four straight seasons, with poor attendance for each of those years until ISC finally pulled the plug on the race.

The debacle for the Boston Grand Prix caused that Labor Day scheduled race to fall off of the IndyCar schedule. IndyCar President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye called in a favor and convinced Watkins Glen to give the series another chance. This was considered quite the coup by Frye and he was able to work miracles with The Glen to put the event together in about four months. It wasn’t well attended, but considering the short turnaround – it was considered remarkable they were able to sell as many tickets as they did. The fact that they had a decent crowd gave hope that 2017 would be better. It wasn’t.

From what I’m hearing, Watkins Glen wants a different date on a non-holiday weekend and IndyCar wants the Labor Day date to continue. Date equity is important, but not if the date isn’t working. Pocono started out on the Fourth of July weekend with disastrous results. They moved to mid-August about three years ago and it is just now starting to gain a little traction. Watkins Glen should be given the same consideration.

So what’s the good news in all of this? If The Glen does indeed fall off of the schedule, the possibility being most mentioned is Portland International Raceway – another natural terrain road course. I suppose Portland is willing to give Labor Day weekend a try, although when CART/Champ Car raced there from 1984 until 2007, it was always run in conjunction with the Portland Rose Festival and was usually run on or close to Father’s Day weekend (mid-June). When unification occurred between Champ Car and IndyCar in the winter of 2008, Portland was a casualty along with Cleveland, Road America and Toronto – all of which were staples on the CART schedule.

Toronto came back after a one-year hiatus. Road America was finally brought back last year. Portland and Cleveland are frequently mentioned as tracks that fans would like to see, but they have yet to materialize. Only in the past few months have I heard any buzz about Portland and I still hear nothing about Cleveland.

Portland makes sense for a lot of reasons. The Pacific Northwest is always considered a racing hotbed, yet they are dramatically underserved. Both CART and IMSA once raced at Portland, but neither have in over a decade. This is an area that is starving for a major racing event and IndyCar should draw well there, as CART did in the past. But being the traditionalist that I am, I would prefer to see them get their old date back and not be shoehorned into the Labor Day weekend.

Father’s Day is not a bad weekend for a race. As a father myself, I can’t think of a better way to spend my special day than attending or at least watching an IndyCar race. Allowing Dad to watch a race with his family gathered around the television sounds like a pretty good way to spend Father’s Day, if you ask me.

On one hand, I credit IndyCar for having a backup plan – even if they may be possibly using it as a bargaining chip with Watkins Glen. But on the other hand, I fault IndyCar for being so stubborn in trying to force a Labor Day date to work when it hasn’t in the past. When they raced at Baltimore over Labor Day, they had better crowds – but a street race in a major metropolitan area may be the only way a Labor Day date works. Perhaps that’s why Portland is being encouraged to take the Labor Day date. Maybe they are considered big enough to sustain the race over Labor Day. For 2018, I can see it. But I firmly believe the date that works best for Portland in the long run is in June.

With all that I’ve said about date equity, I still believe that the IndyCar schedule needs some tweaking. I am opposed to the season ending at Sonoma. I would prefer that it be on an oval or at least a track that offers better passing opportunities. It makes sense to either have the race on the west coast so that the early NFL football games can be avoided, or run the race on an oval on a Saturday night (Chicagoland, perhaps?). I think Watkins Glen in late September/early October would be nice to have the fall foliage in the Finger Lakes region as another built-in attraction.

But all indications are that we’ve seen the last IndyCar race at Watkins Glen in quite a while. While there is apparently plenty of blame to go around on both sides, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that if concessions cannot be made on both sides, it will be the fans that suffer the most. Isn’t that the way it always is?

George Phillips

6 Responses to “A Good News/Bad News Scenario”

  1. Once again, the definition of insanity quote applies in this matter. If a Labor Day race does not work at Watkins Glen, why will it work at Portland? IMO the promoter of a race should always have final say on his or her race date and IndyCar should be flexible in that regard. Father’s Day races do not work well either in my experience. When the Milwaukee Mile race had Father’s Day as one of their many scheduled race days, I was unable to get friends to go with me as they had previously scheduled plans.

    I think that IndyCar should give both Watkins Glen and Portland fall dates even if such dates conflict with (gasp) football. Of course they don’t have the courage to do so and both Watkins Glen and soon Portland will fall from the IndyCar calender. You can take that to the bank.

  2. Portland for Watkins Glen is not a good trade. Shocking that Indycar won’t work with them to make this work. On the other hand, not that shocking.

    Why can’t Indycar run on Saturdays in the fall if they fear the dying NFL so much? I’m sure there are current tracks or potential new ones that could make that work.

    • I agree. IndyCar needs to cater to tracks like WG. “What can we do for you?” – should be the attitude. I think Saturdays are a great idea. That way IndyCar can go deeper into the fall and not worry about a rival that is blowing its head off right in front of our eyes. How does IndyCar even know if there is even a fan base in Portland anymore? The world has changed a whole hell of a lot since they ran there in the 90’s. Losing WG is a huge loss because it is 10 times better of a track than Portland.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I’m generally pretty positive on the series’ leadership these days, but the fact that scheduling issues like this have come up again is very disappointing. Was there not a lesson learned from the recent loss of two title-sponsored, sanctioning fee-paying events at Houston and Fontana due to the series insistence on moving those races to unfavorable dates? Indycar has its reasons for not wanting to race into football season of course, but that hard(ish) cut-off date does race promoters no favors. These are folks who, from all appearances, want to host Indycars. There should be an effort to work WITH them here.

    I understand (on some level) that building a racing schedule that works for all of the tracks, teams, and the series is not easy… but in this case the series is making it harder than it needs to be.

  4. Personally, I was devastated to learn today that Portland will replace the Glen next year. I went last year and I thought it was a great track. I was planning to get back to it in 2018. I think Portland should have been an additional race and not a replacement for the Glen. Another incident of one step forward and two steps backwards. How typical IndyCar!!

  5. Lack of promotion killed this race. We were a little over an hour away in Oswego for the International Classic 200, (our 32nd year of racing over Labor Day Weekend), and there was little to no print, radio, or TV, pre-race coverage. Neither were there any billboards anywhere along the NYS Thruway. Labor Day could work IF it was promoted even half as well as Gateway. There was a TON of racing and race fans over Labor Day in and around the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario,so it’s not the holiday that is causing the issue. This isn’t IndyCar’s fault IMO. Being close to the Cup date doesn’t help either. Like it not there are still more people in Central NY that follow the doorslammers than IC.

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