IndyCar still afraid of football in 2015

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As Tom announced yesterday, the Verizon IndyCar Series has published its 2015 race schedule. Although it begins earlier than it has in previous years, it also ends earlier. The first race of the season will be a new street race in Brasilia, Brazil on the first weekend of March, and the season will end on the last weekend in August at Paul Charsley’s office, Sonoma Raceway. There’s a lot of good things about the 2015 schedule, but there’s also some things that make me scratch my head, and some others that I’m a little worried about. Here’s my take on good, bad, and the ugly of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.

Leaving so soon?
The reason INDYCAR has given for ending the season with a full month of summer and good weather left to motor car racing is that they don’t want to compete for viewership with the National Football League. Ok, yes, the NFL is the strongest sports property on TV, and on the surface it makes sense to not want to pick a fight with an 800-lb gorilla, but does the NFL pose a genuine threat to IndyCar viewership? While there is some cross-pollination between motorsports fans and stick-n-ball sports fans, it’s not that the former is a subset of the latter. As NASCAR and Formula 1 have demonstrated, if you have a product that engages and interests your fanbase, they will watch it. Period. Perhaps they DVR the race and watch it later that afternoon or evening, but there will still be viewership. If you’re still concerned about the NFL swiping your viewers, schedule Fall races on Saturday. Then there’s no issue of overlap at all.

The shortened season has some positive aspects, but it also carries some negatives as well. The compressed schedule helps to maintain fan interest and engagement throughout the season since there’s no more than a two week gap between events. Over most of the season, there’s racing action every weekend. This is good for the fans, but a real hardship for the teams and their crew. Once the season starts, there’s a mad rush through to the end of August with only three weekends off from the first domestic race at St. Petersburg to the final race of the season at Sears Point. The other downside to the compressed schedule is the extremely lengthy off-season. I’m a huge IndyCar fan, but even for me thoughts about the series and the upcoming season have been pretty far back in my mind, and we’re not even though October yet. We still have four more months left before the green flag flies on the 2015 season. While I understand the need to maintain viewer engagement during the racing season, the cost of racing nearly every weekend is that you lose much of that engagement over the off-season and have to start all over again in the Spring.

Same race, different date.
Toward the end of this year’s season and over the last several weeks, there has been much speculation as to where the Toronto GP would be placed in the schedule, or if it would even make the schedule, and where other events may get shuffled to in order to make room for the Canadian Classic. Toronto isn’t the only wild card, as a couple of other new events have also been announced for 2015. The races that have traditionally been part of the schedule in recent years, but are moving to new dates, are Barber, Milwaukee, Iowa, Pocono, and Fontana. Date equity is extremely important to many events. Just ask Eddie Gossage who has an enormous amount of date equity in the 2nd weekend after the Indianapolis 500.

The Alabama Grand Prix at the Barber Motorsports Park has traditionally been held in early April, but for 2015 it will be held on the last weekend of April. Although this is a deviation from it’s traditional spot, it isn’t a large change, and I don’t think that it will be the factor that affects attendance. More on that later.

The Toronto Grand Prix has always been held in July, but in 2015 it will move to mid June due to a scheduling conflict with the Pan Am Games taking place at Exhibition Place in July. This might pose more of a challenge as the date is a more significant departure from it’s standard date. Working in it’s favour, is that the event is bracketed by the two superspeedway races at Texas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway. The fan base for these events are very different both from an interest level and a simple geographic standpoint. Not all fans of oval racing are fans of street racing, and vice versa. You’re also not drawing on the same regional population for the three races, so the Toronto date may work out very well, although expect it to return to it’s normal slot for 2016.

2012-IndyCar-MKE-RaceStart

The Milwaukee and Iowa dates are more problematic. Both events are short ovals in the Northern MidWest, therefore drawing on the same pool of race fans. In 2012 and 2013, these two races were held adjacently in the middle of June, while in 2015, they will be held adjacently in the middle of July. I don’t think that July versus June is a significant factor, but I do think that having the events so close together on the schedule with their being so close geographically is less than ideal. If they had greater separation as they did on the 2014 schedule, both events will have a better opportunity to grow their attendance numbers, something that the Milwaukee event needs quite desperately. As it stands now, I fear that too many fans will decide on going to one or the other of the two events rather than pulling the trigger on both.

The Pocono event has had a tough time gaining traction since it’s return to the IndyCar calendar. Many of the die-hard fans, Spike Rogan most notably, have been lobbying for IndyCar to come back to Pocono, a venue built specifically for Indy car racing. Now that it’s back, where are all the fans? The event has not been back long enough to build any type of date equity, but the move places it adjacent to the magnificent Mid-Ohio weekend. The two events aren’t in exactly the same geographic region or market, but close enough that there may be some overlap, enough that it should concern the promoters at Pocono. Fortunately, there are no other events in the Northeast US, and that will work to Pocono’s advantage. It still could be a very successful event, but the attendance numbers MUST improve or there’s no way it’s on the 2016 schedule.

Fontana. Southern California. End of August. I don’t think I need to say much more. The weather will likely be brutally hot. Keep in mind that the Auto Club Speedway is not on the coast, but about 50 miles inland. This event has struggled for attendance since its return to the schedule in 2012, and its placement on the schedule for 2015 doesn’t promise much in the way of improvement.

Gone but not forgotten.
Houston did not make the cut for 2015, but honestly, will anyone miss it? The surface was ill-suited to open-wheel racing, the placement of the event in the middle of summer guaranteed that it would be melt-your-face-off-ark-of-the-covenant-style hot, and when you got right down to it you’re racing in a parking lot. You’re racing in a freaking parking lot! Why not simply set up some cones, forget the barriers because there’s only 12 people there anyway, and call it the Houston the Indy Autocross 200? Don’t get me wrong, I *LOVE* autocross. It’s an amazing sport, but an IndyCar race should be more than dodging barriers in a parking lot. A seriously bumpy hotter than the surface of Mercury parking lot. I’m neither surprised nor disappointed in its absence. I do regret that Shell, which is an awesome partner for the event, loses out on a hometown race, but perhaps this opens up the opportunity for Shell to be involved with another venue that’s close by, or work on preparing a proper street course.

Well hello there newbies!
Two new events join the 2015 calendar, although neither are really secrets. The first weekend of March, IndyCar will return to Brazil after dropping the Sao Paulo event from its 2014 schedule and race at the Autódromo Internacional Nelson Piquet de Brasília in Brasilia, Brazil (not to be confused with the Autódromo Internacional Nelson Piquet in Rio de Janeiro). Unlike the Sao Paulo circuit, this will be a 12-turn 3.4-mile long permanent road course. The layout looks …well… tight. The course is squeezed into a lot right in the middle of town. The good news is that the National Stadium of Brazil Mane Garrincha is right next door so there’s plenty of parking, the front stretch grandstands are right on the bus route, and there’s a drive-in theater (I kid you not) inside the track! The bad news is that as of the main grandstand bleachers are absent as per the most recent February 2014 Google Earth imagery. To be honest, it looks like a great site for a zombie movie! Bleachers are easy to erect, though, and the site could really be dressed up over the next four months. I’m going to withhold any elation about the event, however, until I see what it looks like the the cars arrive next March.

On a more positive note, the NOLA Motorsports Park which hosted half of the 2014 Mazda Road to Indy Winterfest and will do so again in 2015 as well as hosting an IndyCar race on Barber’s traditional date in early April. The circuit opening late in 2011, and is still growing its infrastructure, but the layout offers a good diversity of elements including an Esses section that will require good rhythm and timing. It won’t offer an opportunity for drivers to overtake, but like the Esses at Suzuka, it will offer the better, smoother drivers the opportunity to close a gap pretty quick. There will be some good passing opportunities as there are few hard braking zones, so overtaking at NOLA won’t be quite as difficult as it is at a venue like Barber or Mid-Ohio. One drawback to NOLA is its proximity to Barber both geographically and temporally. The two venues are only 370 miles apart, and many fans may be faced with the same dilema as they are wtih Milwaukee and Iowa. The two events only being two weeks apart from each other may force fans to choose one event or the other. I know this is my situation. I’d love to go to both, and if they were separated in time more, I’d be able to make it work. The two-week turnaround, though, makes it a challenge.

Parting thoughts.
You’ll hear lots of grumbling throughout the IndyCar fandom about the schedule. There’ll be lots of comments on the order of “My [insert local/fav event here] isn’t on the weekend I want it to be,” followed by the normal chorus of “Ovals suck!”, “Road courses suck!”, “Street courses suck!”, and it ends with the grey beards grumbling about Burke Lakeside Airport, Road America, or [insert old IndyCar track here] not being on the schedule. Set aside all of those old tired arguments and look at the 2015 schedule honestly. Is it perfect? No, of course not, but it’s pretty good! There’s a nice mix of road, street, and oval racing. We have some new events, some traditionally well performing events, and a host of historically significant events. Even the oval events show great diversity with two very different short track with the flat Milwaukee Mile, and the high-banked 7/8-mile Iowa Speedway, the classic cookie-cutter 1.5-mile D-oval of Texas Motor Speedway, the 2.5-mile “oval” at Indianapolis, the 2.0-mile speedrome that is Fontana, and the Tricky Triangle of Pocono.

I would like to see the season extend into late October. It would be better for the fans, and it would definitely be better for the crew members if the events were more spread out. Don’t be afraid of the NFL, IndyCar. Embrace the Fall TV environment and find a way to showcase your product during a time when hoards of people already have their TV sets on! Can you imagine an event at Barber in the Fall? Tell me that wouldn’t be epic on-screen eye candy! Colourful cars and beautiful fall foliage would be magnificent. If you schedule it right, you can tap into a population of viewers that are already tuned to NBCSN for college football and convince them to stick around to watch some amazing racing.

2015 Verizon IndyCar Series Schedule

DateRace/TrackCityVenueNetwork
March 8Autódromo Internacional Nelson PiquetBrasília, Brazil3.4-mile road courseNBCSN
March 29Streets of St. PetersburgSt. Petersburg, FL1.8-mile street courseABC
April 12NOLA Motorsports ParkAvondale, LA2.7-mile road courseNBCSN
April 19Streets of Long BeachLong Beach, CA1.968-mile street courseNBCSN
April 26Barber Motorsports ParkBirmingham, AL2.38-mile road courseNBCSN
May 9Grand Prix of IndianapolisIndianapolis, IN2.4346-mile road courseABC
May 16-17Indianapolis 500 QualifyingIndianapolis, IN2.5-mile ovalABC
May 22Carb DayIndianapolis, IN2.5-mile ovalNBCSN
May 24Indianapolis 500Indianapolis, IN2.5-mile ovalABC
May 30Raceway at Belle Isle ParkDetroit, MI2.35-mile street courseABC
May 31Raceway at Belle Isle ParkDetroit, MI2.35-mile street courseABC
June 6Texas Motor SpeedwayFort Worth, TX1.5-mile ovalNBCSN
June 14Streets of TorontoToronto, Canada1.75-mile street courseNBCSN
June 27Auto Club SpeedwayFontana, CA2-mile ovalNBCSN
July 12The Milwaukee MileMilwaukee, WI1-mile ovalNBCSN
July 18Iowa SpeedwayNewton, IA.875-mile ovalNBCSN
Aug. 2Mid-Ohio Sports Car CourseLexington, OH2.258-mile road courseNBCSN
Aug. 23Pocono RacewayLong Pond, PA2.5-mile ovalNBCSN
Aug. 30Sonoma RacewaySonoma, CA2.385-mile road courseNBCSN

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