Tweaking the Summer IndyCar Schedule

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The NTT IndyCar Series is down to only seven races remaining. How is that even possible? Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that the series was contesting its first race at COTA for only the second race of the season? Where has the time gone?

I know that the series nor the teams are not anxious to add many more races, but to have only seven races remaining and it still be June just seems like some things are a little askew with the scheduling.

There is nothing wrong with the front end of the schedule. There are two races in March, two in April and two in May. But June gets a little too busy, with four races at three venues – that doesn’t leave much for the last three months of the season.

I know it would never happen so long as Roger Penske has a voice in things, but it would really help balance out the schedule if the double-header at Belle Isle was moved to the first weekend in August. I know there are logistical issues getting the course set up around the locals wanting to visit the island, so that may prevent that from happening.

But a quick look at this part of the schedule we are now in shows a lot of empty weekends, after a five-week grind in May and early June when teams were run ragged. After Texas, there is a gap where there is no racing for three of the next four weekends. The only race in that four-weekend gap was Road America. There is no racing this weekend or next before the series heads north of the border for the Honda Indy Toronto on July 12-14.

I understand one reason for this gap; Iowa needed to be moved so that it could be run on Saturday night instead of Sunday afternoon. Iowa should be a night race. There is nothing better than short-track racing on a Saturday night in the Midwest. The attendance at Iowa dropped off considerably when it was moved from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon. But running Iowa on the same Saturday night as last year’s date would have meant going up against NASCAR’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona on Big NBC, while Iowa would be an afterthought shoved over to NBCSN.

NBC has done a great job of promoting IndyCar races this year, but they are not going to do it at the expense of one of their NASCAR showcase events. No offense to the good folks at Iowa Speedway, but going up against Daytona would be a ratings disaster. Plus, history has shown that IndyCar fans don’t travel well on Fourth of July weekend, so I have no problem with moving Iowa off of that weekend of the schedule.

But a two-weekend gap right after a great race at Road America is a momentum-killer, especially as the points race between Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi has really tightened up. But I also consider Belle Isle to be a momentum-killer coming immediately after the Indianapolis 500, so what do I know?

The problem is that this two-weekend gap is not an isolated case. Toronto starts a three-weekend spree of continuous IndyCar racing in July before another dead period starts. Mid-Ohio runs on Jul 28, then there is not another race until Pocono three weeks later. Pocono starts another three-race streak of continuous racing weekends that also includes Gateway and Portland, before another three-week break before the season finale at Laguna Seca. It seems like the remainder of this year’s IndyCar schedule is a case of race-race-race and then stop for two or three weeks.

I can’t speak for the drivers, teams or IndyCar employees that travel with the series; but from a fan’s perspective – the streakiness of the summer schedule is a little exhausting.

I know there are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to setting up a schedule. Tracks have other conflicts, and TV plays a big part in determining when IndyCar can and cannot race. Plus date equity is something you don’t really want to mess with. That’s why I think Milwaukee was doomed in its last reboot. In the last three races run at The Milwaukee Mile, the race was run in June of 2013, then August of 2014 and finally in July 2015. When your date jumps around from month-to-month from year-to-year – it’s recipe for disaster as far as attendance goes.

Fans like to know when they will be travelling next year. Even though I don’t think the date has been announced, I know for a fact that Susan and I will be attending Road America in late June next year. It may be a week off of this year’s date because of Father’s Day, but we know within a week or so of when we will be going. But when Milwaukee jumped from June to August in one year – I’m sure fans near there just threw their hands up.

Ideally the summer IndyCar schedule would be similar to the spring. Two weeks after the season started in St. Petersburg, they raced again at COTA. Two more weeks after COTA, the series was racing at Barber. One week later, they were at Long Beach.

Spring presents an issue having to work around Easter, which fluctuates from late March to mid-to-late April. This past year, Easter was April 21, while it will be on April 12 next year. I’m sure had it not been for Easter, Long Beach would have been run two weeks after Barber. But because of Easter, there was almost a month between Long Beach and the IndyCar Grand Prix (although there was an open-test at IMS on Wednesday April 24).

For whatever reason, the schedule-maker at the NTT IndyCar Series has never asked my opinion about how to set up a schedule. If he or she ever did, assuming they are keeping the same events from this year to next – I would strongly suggest to set the 2020 schedule up this way:

Start the season a week later at St. Petersburg on March 22. Then two weeks later, race at COTA on April 5. Easter would be the following weekend and then race at Long Beach on April 19, just one week after they raced this year. The big change would be moving Barber after Long Beach, which it usually was before this year. It would only be one week after Long Beach, but it would take place on Sunday April 26. This year, Barber ran on April 7 and it was too early. The grass was still brown, few azaleas had bloomed and the dogwoods had not even thought about blooming – and it wasn’t exactly warm either. Running three weeks later can make a huge difference.

You then head into the Month of May. After May, I would take the next weekend off. The Indianapolis 500 runs on May 24, meaning that the entire next weekend will still be May. The traditionalist in me says no other venue should run in May, although it’s been done several times before. I say move Belle Isle, leave that May 31 weekend open and run Texas two weeks after the Indianapolis 500 on Saturday night June 6.

Knowing that it is usually not wise to run on Father’s Day, I would move Road America up a week to June 14. Skip the Father’s day weekend and run Iowa on Saturday Night June 27. That would be sandwiched in on the night between the NASCAR Pocono double-header to take place on June 27-28, giving a nice promotional bonanza for NBC.

After a natural break for the Fourth of July weekend, Toronto could run its usual date of Sunday July 12. Two weeks later, Mid-Ohio can have the weekend where they fall this year – on Sunday July 26. Two weeks later, on August 8-9, is where I would slide in Belle Isle (assuming track assembly logistics can be worked out). Two weeks after that, would be Pocono (assuming it returns in 2020) to be run on Sunday August 23. The next Saturday night would be Gateway, in its usual spot on the weekend prior to Labor Day weekend.

Labor Day weekend usually serves as the official kickoff for college football. But there are few, if any, games on Sunday afternoon – so that’s a good time for Portland, on Sunday September 6.

That is the only three-weekend stretch that is not in May for IndyCar racing. But the momentum is building toward the championship. With Labor Day a week later in 2020, keep Laguna Seca where is and run it two weeks after Portland on Sunday September 20. After a three-weekend stretch, that gives teams a week off to catch their collective breath before heading into the championship weekend. That also gives just the right amount of time to hype the championship (assuming it wasn’t decided the week before).

As it stands this season, there is a three week gap between Portland and Laguna Seca. That’s what’s known as limping to the close of the season. In that time period, the NFL will be entering its third week of the regular season and only hard-core fans will remember what happened at Portland, when the championship weekend rolls around. That gives us nine races after July 1. More importantly, there are fewer gaps with no racing and also less streaks of continuous race weekends. It didn’t always happen in this hypothetical schedule of mine, but my goal was to have a race every other weekend. I also wanted to shift a couple of more races to the back part of the schedule so that we weren’t looking at only seven races remaining while still in June.

Before I get a ton of comments about how it’s not that easy – I already know that. I understand that there are many variables that come into play that dictate where a race ends up on the schedule. This is hypothetical dream-world stuff. This is the kind of post you come up with when there’s two more weeks before the next race.

But if I was really dreaming, I would have Richmond, Nashville, Michigan and Milwaukee back on the schedule and the two races at Belle Isle off. That would give us a nice eighteen-race schedule with half ovals and half non-ovals. So with that in mind, do the 2020 schedule tweaks I’m asking for seem so outrageous?

George Phillips

16 Responses to “Tweaking the Summer IndyCar Schedule”

  1. Nobody likes Belle Isle, at least where it’s scheduled, except Roger Penske. Nobody wants guaranteed starts at Indy, except Roger Penske. So Belle Isle will stay where it is and next year series regulars will have guaranteed starts at Indianapolis. Thanks Roger Penske.

  2. I could stand to get a double header back at Toronto and maybe Portland also, I know it falsely elevates the numbers a bit but I love watching the drivers have to work through those double weekends. They are really tired at the end.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    One of the more reasonable proposed schedule changes I have read, the only particularly large move is Belle Isle.

  4. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I think it’s unfair to call Belle Isle a momentum killer. I believe the ovals with sparse attendance are the real momentum killlers. Let’s be happy that these road and street courses have good attendance and hope that the ovals we have will pick up bigger crowds.

    • colum1357 Says:

      Not having attended a street course, are the crowds really that much bigger? 25,000 at the Texas oval tends to look like empty. So I wonder what the daily head count would be at a place like Belle Isle?

      • billytheskink Says:

        I’ve been curious about this myself, as I’ve been to Texas many times and its main grandstand is truly enormous. So I mapped its footprint and the footprints of the grandstands at other IndyCar tracks a while back. I don’t know if I can post an image here, but I am going to try. Maybe it will appear as a link. Apologies in advance if this doesn’t work, or breaks Oilpressure protocol.

        The red object is the footprint of Texas’ main grandstand. The light blue boxes are the grandstands that Belle Isle has used in recent years. I do not believe all of these grandstands have been used at one time at Bell Isle but most of them are in use from year to year.

        The Texas grandstand dwarfs the permanent seating at Belle Isle. In fact, it is the largest single grandstand on the circuit and seats more than any combination of 3 grandstands at Indianapolis. This does not mean the crowds at Texas are worth bragging about, but I do buy the argument that they would look good at most of the series’ tracks with smaller grandstands.

  5. “do the 2020 schedule tweaks I’m asking for seem so outrageous?”

    yes.

    to Mr. Penske.

  6. “do the 2020 schedule tweaks I’m asking for seem so outrageous?”

    yes.

    to Mr. Penske.

  7. It’s Roger Penske’s world, we just live in it.

  8. Yannick Says:

    The 2019 schedule is the best the series has come up with since 1995 as far as the venues are concerned, with the one lamentable omission of the Milwaukee Mile.

    Of course, next year’s schedule could still be improved, especially with those 3 week gaps in mind.

    I agree that adding Richmond would be nice because this series needs more short tracks that are relatively flat. Also, the location of Richmond seems like it could be an untapped market and thus a big draw when race day rolls around.

    Michigan Speedway, on the other hand, has been modified with the goal of higher speeds for stock cars by ISC since it last appeared on an IndyCar schedule. I’m afraid it would race a lot like ISM Raceway in Avondale, AZ, in the past 3 years.

    Bringing back Nashville would only make sense if the track is not prone to weepers after rainy days now as it has aged. I remember Kansas Speedway had a lot of sessions being cancelled due to weepers when it was on the schedule some 10 years ago and that’s why I was happy when IndyCar stopped visiting the place.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I do not believe Michigan International Speedway has been reconfigured since Indycar was last there. It was repaved in 2012, but as far as I can tell the banking, width, turn radius, etc. remained the same.

      Regardless, Michigan would likely race a lot more like Texas than Phoenix with the current car as the series would likely require a similar aerodynamic setup for the cars as they do at Texas.

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    Certainly moving the race dates around each year contributed to the demise of the Milwaukee Mile. Also, the starting times were moved later in the day for each race. That made it harder for fans from adjacent states to attend the race and get back home at a decent house. In addition, the Wisconsin State Fair Park board rebuilt the grandstands on the cheap and eliminated the roof. Despite all of that, attendance at the Mile during its last years was about 25,000. I know because I was there. Not great, but still as good as Texas which still has a race.

  10. Shyam Cherupalla Says:

    I certainly agree at the end of June to only have 7 races to go is pathetic, while F1 will have at least 6 races after the IndyCar’s last race, shows how short the schedule is, and how many less races IndyCar has. Hope this schedule gets better

  11. i apologize for double-posting above.
    i’m guessing it was operator error.

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