Saturday, October 5, 2013

Indycar Schedule Diversity - How about Lime Rock Park?

2013 Indy 500 Winner Tony Kanaan Will Race for Chip Ganassi in 2014
With this week's announcement by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) that May 2014 will start with an Indycar road race at IMS, the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis has me thinking about fans and the series schedule. The 2014 schedule is not yet ready for unveiling but should be out before the season finale at Fontana. The addition of an IMS road race the first weekend in May is almost surely a replacement for Brazil. It has already been announced that Baltimore is going by the wayside due to date conflicts so where does that leave the series? On top of that, IZOD has announced it will be leaving as the title sponsor for Indycar after 2013, so the braintrusts at IMS, now led by the very capable Mark Miles, have some serious work to do in the months ahead to put the best possible series together.
The real work lies in the next 24 months as the sport hurtles toward the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. Discussion of breaking speed records at Indy by that time are intriguing and Dallara and Firestone will need to have their acts together to get these cars close to 240 miles per hour. There is no doubt that Honda and Chevy can produce the horsepower necessary to hit that speed. Both manufacturers have shown in pole qualifying at Indy the last couple of years that adding a few more inches of boost will result in more speed. But that is not my main concern. Quite simply, it is where will the fans come from? Will speed and a new event at IMS be enough? And what about the rest of the series?
Top level open wheel racing in America has a history of schedule diversity whether we're talking about Indycar or Champ Car. With the Indy 500 as the lynchpin, season schedules have been built around Indianapolis with races on short ovals, high speed ovals, street courses, and natural terrain road courses. That is a good thing in my opinion since it showcases the technical capabilities of the machinery as well as the talents of an international field of drivers from diverse racing backgrounds. Yet as diverse as the schedule has been over the last ten years, the primary ingredient which has been lacking is stability. I have to believe that stability in Indycar scheduling will do more to generate fan loyalty than all the technical changes combined. By my count, Indycar has raced at 15 tracks since 2004 which are no longer on the schedule: Michigan, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Nashville, Pikes Peak, Las Vegas, Richmond, Nazareth, Motegi, Homestead, Chicagoland, Kansas (all ovals), plus road/street courses at Baltimore, Edmonton, and Watkins Glen. Nazareth closed, there are too many bad memories to return to Vegas, fans ignored New Hampshire, and Richmond was too deep in NASCAR country to be successful. The other ovals are controlled by International Speedway Corporation whose bread and butter is NASCAR, so it’s no surprise those are gone. Nashville used to sell out, Kentucky had some of the closest finishes in Indycar history, and I haven’t even mentioned Milwaukee yet which seems to be iffy from year to year.

Not all is doom and gloom for the series schedule however, as there is a solid core of race events which can be the basis for stable and sustained future growth. Outside of Indianapolis, staples would seem to be St. Pete, Long Beach, Barber, Milwaukee, Belle Isle, Texas, Pocono, Iowa, Toronto, Mid Ohio, Infineon and Fontana. Doubleheaders at Belle Isle and Toronto are likely to continue along with Houston if all goes well this year. That’s an 18 race schedule so if dates and television coverage are confirmed next week, then it starts to look like there’s some schedule stability in addition to track diversity. Champ Car fans still lament the loss of Elkhart Lake and Laguna Seca, while the presence of two races in Texas most likely precludes Indycar from going to Circuit of the Americas. Could the exclusion of Lime Rock Park from the 2014 Tudor United Sportscar Series present an opportunity for Indycar in the northeast? Adding any of these tracks would be a boon for Indycar racing, as I believe the series should become known for bringing the fastest and most competitive race series to the best tracks in America.

My concern about stability for fans is based on three things. First, I wonder if fans are going to any other races than the one in their immediate area. Second, are fans getting alienated by having a race a couple of times in their area and not knowing if they can plan their schedules around that event for the following year (or years)? Third, if fans can't rely on schedule stability, then are they going to support the series on television or just happen to find the races as they channel check on the weekends?
Do events which are essentially "one-offs", like Baltimore, generate long term fans, where locals may go just to be part of the event due to its novelty and promotion as a "happening"? Has Indycar surveyed those fans and determined where else they attend Indycar races? Do they follow the series at all or just go when the race is in town because it's the thing to do? Or are they bailing out on the series when a race disappears from the schedule after a short stint because they are pissed off about losing their race? I sure don't have the answers but I hope the leaders at Indycar are asking these kinds of questions.

Are fans getting alienated by the loss of a hometown race or the instability of the season schedule? If so, are they going to make vacation plans for the next year with an Indycar race in mind? Indycar has races in some great tourist areas and fans of the Indy 500 certainly plan that way since you know the race is on Memorial Day weekend every year. Somehow I don't see the addition of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis being added to such vacation plans, but I expect it will be well supported locally and regionally by the diehards. Over time, the novelty factor may come into play, as it has with other events held on the IMS road course over the years, where crowds have been good initially but then tapered off.

Television coverage holds the key to future success for the series. It was good to hear that ABC would be televising the Grand Prix of Indianapolis live as well as the 500. NBC Sports Network continues to do a good job of covering the majority of Indycar’s races with extended and in-depth coverage. It would be ideal to have all the races on one network, but that will have to wait until current contracts are up. Improved fan experiences with real time internet content delivery at each racetrack would also help, in order to take advantage of smartphone and tablet technology. The social media efforts of the series have been well intended but that presence (and that of the drivers) needs to increase tenfold to attract (and keep) new fans.

The next generation of fans needs to be identified and nurtured, and there is no time to waste in this world of instant gratification. If you’ve read my blog before, then you know I’m not just spouting off. I love Indycars and the Indy 500. I give a damn. I hope the folks running the Hulman empire are up to the task. I believe that they are, and that the best is yet to come. We just have to get people to the tracks and they will come back for more once they smell the ethanol exhaust and the hot tires in the summer sun. You know where you can find me – with cameras in hand.