Some Thoughts on the IndyCar Schedule

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Amidst great fanfare on NBC, the NTT IndyCar Series unveiled the 2020 schedule. Before I express any opinions, let me say that (I think) I understand how difficult it is to construct a schedule like this. There are so many moving pieces and variables to take into consideration each year. Throw in the fact that NBC and all of their secondary channels will be covering the 2020 Summer Olympics from late July to early August and it becomes even harder.

The series has to be aware of being too close to another track’s events, while trying to keep some balance in the schedule – that is, not too many back-to-back weekends followed by long stretches with no racing. It’s a very complex job and it is impossible to please all fans.

Having said that (that convenient phrase that negates everything I just said), I have a few issues with the 2020 schedule.

First of all, COTA moves back a month. I understand it was to avoid conflict with Sebring, where so many IndyCar drivers like to race. Last year, COTA was the second race of the season in the last weekend in March. That slot is now open, so there is a three-week gap just after the season-opener. That’s a momentum killer. I’ve already expressed how April 5th is too early for Birmingham. At best, the grass will most certainly still be brown and the dogwoods and azaleas will be ten days to two weeks from blooming, making the beautiful facility just an average facility. At worst, you can still be dealing with very chilly temperatures in early April. The term “sunny south” can be deceptive to Midwesterners still trying to thaw out.

Easter will be on April 12th next year, so that weekend is out – but if possible, I would have preferred Long Beach to run on April 5th and Barber two weeks later. I’ll always have a problem with the Belle Isle double-header coming on the heels of the Indianapolis 500, but I’ve beaten that drum to death.

Selfishly, I’m not wild about the placement of Richmond – immediately following Road America. Mainly because we always go to Road America and I’d also like to go to Richmond. Even as a spectator, attending two races in a row is hard on our aging bodies. Contrary to what you might perceive after reading this, I am excited to have Richmond back.

Then there is the four-week break during the aforementioned Olympics. I guess the only choices were to either not race during the Olympics or have the races shown at 3:00 am on CNBC. Given those two choices, I think taking the break was the wiser choice.

Of course, the worst part of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule is the omission of Pocono.

Although it was certainly no shock that Pocono was dropped, I kept hoping against hope that it would return. As it turns out, according to an article by Bruce Martin of NBCSports.com, Pocono was on the schedule as recently as last Thursday night. IndyCar CEO told Martin “We were talking to them about substantive points as late as Thursday of last week. It was only on Thursday night that it was clear that it was not going to get done.”

Why was this not addressed on the infomercial-like schedule unveiling on Sunday’s pre-race show?

I’m actually glad to hear Miles say that. It means that it was down to a business decision or scheduling conflict – and not a safety concern as so many of the anti-Pocono crowd was crowing about on social media Sunday night.

I bit my tongue as I resisted engaging with some of these self-righteous loons. If you think Pocono is unsafe and you’re glad IndyCar is not going back, that’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. I’m not casting a broad brush labeling you like these people were doing. They were taking it to the nth degree. I actually saw a dialogue between someone presenting facts about ovals-versus-road course safety and one of these zealots. When confronted with logic, the zealot responded with “If you still want Pocono to return, that means you enjoy watching drivers die.”

Well, that was a little extreme. As usual, when confronted with facts and logic that cannot be refuted – resort to emotional outrage to show that you care more. The thing is, I did want Pocono to return and contrary to the belief of this nut job – I don’t enjoy watching drivers die.

Yes, it’s a fact that Pocono was the site of Justin Wilson’s fatal injuries. But that accident was so flukish in nature, it could have happened at any other venue. It had nothing to do with Pocono. The Robert Wickens crash and last month’s opening-lap crash were due to drivers not being patient, and taking irresponsible chances – not due to a design flaw of the track.

Sadly Anthoine Hubert, a promising F2 driver and the 2018 GP3 champion, was fatally injured at Spa this past weekend. Not to trivialize that tragedy, but these things happen in motor racing. They always have and always will. Each fatality can be learned from, but you don’t give a knee-jerk reaction and abandon the track once a fatality occurs there. There have been over forty fatalities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Many led to safety improvements at the track, but they never shut the place down.

And let’s not wrap ourselves up in the security blanket of road and street courses. Dario Franchitti’s career came to an abrupt halt in 2013 due to a terrifying crash at Houston – a temporary street circuit. Jeff Krosnoff lost his life on the streets of Toronto in 1996. Hubert, Jim Clark, Peter Revson, Mark Donohue, Ayrton Senna, Ronnie Petersen, Roland Ratzenberger, Jules Bianchi – they all were fatally injured on road courses. So please don’t tell me how much safer they are. When you are racing wheel to wheel at speeds well over 100 mph, bad things can happen – regardless of the type of track you are on.

Oval critics point to Mike Conway and Max Chilton making career decisions to no longer drive on ovals as to how dangerous they are. But for every Conway and Chilton, there is an Ed Carpenter or Tony Kanaan that loves racing on ovals. Some of these self-righteous fans seem to think that those drivers need to be saved from themselves, because they know what’s better for them than the actual drivers do.

I don’t want an all-oval series. I want a balanced schedule. But I feel like many are pushing for a no-oval series or just one – the Indianapolis 500. But I don’t think that five ovals on a seventeen race schedule is exactly balanced. I hate to say this, but I will anyway – this is still a rough sport. People still die and become permanently injured will trying to succeed in this sport. Drivers have come to grips with that idea. If you can’t handle that as a fan, you may want to follow something else.

I don’t enjoy watching drivers die, as the internet troll claimed. Instead, I marvel at those who assume the risks every week and still perform at an incredible level, taking their car just beyond the boundaries of safety. That’s what separates this sport from all other sports and that’s why I love it. To insinuate that any racing fan enjoys watching drivers die is reprehensible.

Although Pocono wasn’t mentioned by Miles on Sunday’s broadcast at all, I am glad that he didn’t spin it as if the series wasn’t leaving Pocono for safety reasons. That would have been hypocritical and false. Worst of all, it would have given more ammunition for the anti-oval crowd to go after whichever one was next on the list. No, it was what all things boil down to – money.

Mark Miles did bring up some interesting points in the Bruce Martin article, when it comes to more races and the added expense to teams. It’s not just another travel bill for team personnel. It also means more tires and potentially an increased engine lease. Those are things that we fans don’t think of. But it really would have been great had IndyCar and Pocono been able to come to an agreement that would have given us a six-oval/eighteen race schedule.

The NTT IndyCar Series has done a better job of placing its races at the far corners of the US. Portland covers the Pacific Northwest, while Long Beach and Laguna Seca have California taken care of. COTA and Barber take care of the South and Southwest, St. Petersburg satisfies the open-wheel appetite in Florida, while Indianapolis, Belle Isle, Mid-Ohio and Road America all have the entire Mid-West covered. But what about the most populated area of the US – the Northeast? With Pocono gone, they have nothing. Watkins Glen, New Hampshire and the Boston debacle have given IndyCar fans in the Northeast a tough ride over the last decade. Now it continues with Pocono.

Although the loss of Pocono is my biggest gripe about the 2020 IndyCar schedule, it’s not my final one. If they really wanted to spice things up at the end, forget the double-points. Just swap places between Gateway and Laguna Seca and have Gateway be your season finale. Robin Miller has been touting this for a couple of years. Decide the championship on an oval on a Saturday night in the Central Time Zone in front of a packed house, rather than on a road course that will most likely offer very few passing opportunities in front of even fewer fans. But that will never fly because IndyCar wants to entertain their clients in an exotic location like Monterey. I get that. Just do it two weeks earlier, then decide the championship two weeks later on an oval.

OK…end of rant. I’ve gotten it all out of my system. I’ll be back Friday with a more normal tone regarding the NTT IndyCar Series.

George Phillips

13 Responses to “Some Thoughts on the IndyCar Schedule”

  1. What are some options for IndyCar presence in the Northeast? How about a Philly street race?

  2. I’ve heard that the final nail in the coffin for Pocono was ABC Supply pulling out at the last minute. Hard to push a race forward when you lose your title sponsor. I don’t have much opinion about it leaving the schedule, the races there usually weren’t all that exciting and it looks kinda ugly on tv. I can’t speak on whether or not the track has dangerous design flaws, but on the other hand I also can’t think of any other track in the world that starts with a mile-wide straight away which feeds into a very long, very wide, very banked high-speed turn that then funnels down to a one-line, narrow, low-banked turn. If Richmond can produce more entertaining racing then I’m fine with it, though I would have an 18 race schedule.

    I don’t understand why people keep saying Chilton is not racing ovals anymore. That’s false. He said he’s not racing on ovals until the aeroscreen is introduced, which will be at the next oval they visit. After not making Indy his chances of finishing any higher than the back of the pack in the championship was close to nil so why put yourself at risk for no gains? I don’t see anything wrong with that choice and he’ll be back on the ovals next season.

    I also don’t get why people think Laguna Seca will be a snooze fest. These cars are completely different than the last IndyCars to race at that trac, there’s no guarantee they will race the same, or better, or worse than the previous cars. Laguna Seca offers at least three possible passing zones and I’m optimistic that the current car will put on a decent race at this track. They always put on a great show at Barber which only has one passing zone, so why can’t they be good at Monterey too?

    • billytheskink Says:

      The jury should be out on Laguna Seca until these cars actually race there, but I understand the pessimism (I don’t agree, but I get it). The track is relatively narrow for the series and has historically not provided a tremendous amount of passing.

      CART’s 22 races there averaged only 2.9 lead changes and 6 of those races there were led flag-to-flag. Comparative CART stats at other road courses:

      Portland – 5.5 lead changes, 0 flag-to-flags
      Mid-Ohio – 3.9 lead changes, 0 flag-to-flags
      Road America – 4.1 lead changes, 3 flag-to-flags

      And, for another example, Indycar at sometimes-maligned Sonoma – 5.8 lead changes and 1 flag-to-flag

      You are right to point out that the current car has put on good races at similarly narrow Barber. Here’s hoping for similar action in Monterrey.

      • I’m sure I saw some of those past races but it’s long enough ago that I don’t recall. I’ve read about them being bad though. But these are all new cars and mostly new drivers so I’m reserving judgement until I actually see them race there. It could be rubbish, it could be great, I’m not going to presume either way. I fear it will probably be a bit too narrow for these big cars, but with the way the current batch of drivers love to crash I’m sure it will still be an entertaining race one way or the other. 😀

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I’m fine with ending the season at Laguna Seca. I wish Milwaukee was the 6th oval and I would love to see Watkins Glen back on the schedule. I’m sorry Pocono is gone but these tracks need to have good crowds to continue. Like Gateway!

  4. billytheskink Says:

    COTA’s move from the beginning of what should be called “Texas racing month” to the end is probably a wash for this local racing fan, though hopefully nothing else winds up scheduled opposite it. If current announcements and expectations hold true, Texas race fans have:

    NASCAR Trucks/Xfinity/Cup at Texas
    MotoGP at COTA
    World of Outlaws Sprint Cars at Devil’s Bowl
    NHRA at Houston
    Indycar at COTA

    All on consecutive weekends. What a time to be alive!

  5. I am glad I made a mid summer decision to attend Pocono this year as I feared it was the last on this historic super speedway. I sat in the 300 section and could see the whole track which you can’t do at Indy (at least where I sit in Stand A). I throughly enjoyed my time and planned to bring the whole family with me in 2020 if it did make it back on the schedule. I live in Tampa, Fl big sports fan overall and travel to various sporting events. I essentially replaced one of my football traveling weekends for this race and would’ve done it again in 2020.

    For the pro Pocono crowd like me, all the points on increased enthusiasm and larger crowds each year for the past seven years are facts. Also, I firmly believe Pocono going to one NASCAR weekend next year in early June would have opened up a huge opportunity for a late Summer/early fall race regardless of Olympic schedule. This would have allowed more dedication and time to properly promote and market the race with even adding some additional racing or big name concert.

    I read this blog weekly and rarely comment but feel very passionate on this topic and firmly believe taking this off the schedule and not making a deal with Pocono is one of the dumbest IndyCar decisions in a long time. Mark Miles and Jay Frye should have made this happen one way or another.

    • Hey man, you can’t say “regardless of Olympic schedule” because the Olympics are huge for ratings and NBC and all of their stations will be covering them. Without a broadcast partner it makes no sense to schedule a race during that period. Period.

      • Hey man, you missed what I was saying. “regardless of Olympic schedule” meant you could still fit a race in late July or late August and not interfere with the Olympic broadcast. Plenty of open weekends to make it work and I am sure one of those was on the table during the negotiations for 2020.

  6. I am sorry Pocono was dropped and wish the Glen was back. The breaks in the schedule are troubling, but maybe 2021 will be better for that issue. At least the break between Portland and the finale in Monterey will be shorter. Still pondering a trip out to Richmond in June, although Monterey is much closer.

  7. 1. “Contrary to what you might perceive after reading this, I am excited to have Richmond back.” me too. a lot.
    2. “No, it was what all things boil down to – money.” either family or money as the sharps say.
    3. “IndyCar wants to entertain their clients in an exotic location…”
    well, if this is exotic to IndyCar’s clients, it implicates the client base.
    go Gateway.

  8. I don’t think the issue with so few ovals on the schedule is safety, but rather profitable viability. Yes, the series found great partners at Gateway, but oval attendance (save for IMS of course) struggles everywhere. Gossage can’t even get people in the seats at Texas anymore. I too love oval racing, but I don’t need to be a business owner to see that ovals haven’t been good for business. If they could find promoters like they have in St. Louis, then by alll means, find ‘em in Fontana, Kentucky, Homestead, Brooklyn, MI, and Milwaukee and let’s go oval racing. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen them anywhere, and more to the point neither have Miles and Frye.

    As for Pocono, I know I’m in the minority here, but I won’t miss it. I respect its history, and no, I haven’t been there in person so perhaps I’m being unfair, but I haven’t enjoyed the racing there since IndyCar returned. I’m not talking about the accidents, just the racing itself. There’s only so much tv can do to enhance the look of 17 cars (after the typical opening-laps crash) contesting a superspeedway for the better part of 500 miles.

    But the way George, I think your rants are gold. Don’t curb the ranting on our behalf!

  9. Thanks George for your comments on the 2020 IndyCar schedule. Here are mine:

    It’s close to being as good as this year’s schedule, but still does not improve on the current schedule. Losing one event that was slowly but definitely gaining momentum with the fans is the only reason for that: with 18 races, the schedule would indeed have improved over this year.
    Usually, IndyCar produces great short track racing, so Richmond is a welcome addition to the schedule. Dropping Pocono, the circuit where champions go to win, is the reason why it’s not 18 races next year. If a new title sponsor for the event can be found, I guess a return after a one year break is possible, given how the promoter and the series still would welcome each other back. The promoter probably might even get an introductory deal again after the one year break and the local fans will most likely be happy if the race returns. After all, hasn’t Pocono been the event in the Northeast with the best attendance figures of all the venues IndyCar has tried in the region in recent years? As special as it has been to watch Alexander Rossi beating Scott Dixon on merit at Watkins Glen, it is unlikely that the series will be back, mainly due to the attendance figures. And the Loudon ship has probably sailed, too. Montreal might make sense as a 2nd Canadian round but I wonder if fans from the Northeast of the US would be willing to travel North across the border.

    Laguna Seca is an improvement over Sonoma, and here’s hoping the upcoming event is going to showcase this.

    I agree with you that Barber should go back to its traditional date because the weather is better then. Yet, the 3 weeks after St. Pete are obviously the most difficult to fill with events, also because of the weather.

    Milwaukee is still missed, and so is racing into the month of October. Yet, it’s great that the schedule is stable.

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