Double-Headers Are A Double-Edged Sword

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This weekend there will be, not one, but two races when the Verizon IndyCar Series takes to the streets (and parking lots) of Houston for the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. This will be the second of three double-header weekends over an eight-week period.

The good news is that for us fans, we get twice the racing of a normal race weekend. Along with the normal Friday practices, Saturday and Sunday are both crammed full of IndyCar action with qualifying and races for each day. How could any fan complain about more racing?

I am not a driver or a crew member, nor have I ever been. Plus, I’m at the age where heat wears me out and endurance is something I no longer take for granted. So take everything I say with a grain of salt.

That being said, I think if I were a driver or team member, I would absolutely dread seeing the double-headers come around on the schedule. Most people talk about how the weekend wears on the drivers, because they are who we pay to see. But don’t discount how these weekends take their tolls on the crew members. The team members are the backbone of this series, but they tend to be forgotten a lot of the time. That’s unfortunate, but a driver’s crew needs to be fresh in order to be effective and competitive.

When I did the two-seater on race weekend this past May, I had to stand in line for close to an hour while wearing a Nomex fire suit. The temperature at the time was in the low 80’s, yet it seemed brutal while wearing that suit. Fortunately, I had the luxury of unzipping the top and tying the arms around my waste, while cooling off in only a (100% cotton) polo until it was time to get into the car.

The pit crews have no such luxury. They are required to wear the entire flame-retardant fire suit, complete with helmet – throughout the entire race. While wearing that ensemble in the heat, they have to deal with the pressures of executing pit-stops at a lightening quick pace. There is no room for error, but fatigue causes errors.

Of course, it’s a level playing field. The heat affects all of the teams up and down pit road and they all have to deal with the grueling task of two races in two days. What really tips the scales is when a team suffers a crash. On top of all their other duties, now they have to thrash a car back together – sometimes performing miracles overnight.

Heat will definitely be a factor at Houston this weekend. The forecast looks slightly better than many expected, but it will still be hot. Heat is not the only factor to make a double-header weekend grueling. It was not scorching hot at Belle Isle, but the weekend still took its toll on the participants. Toronto will likely be cooler than Houston, but don’t think it will be easy by any means.

Then, there’s the wear and tear on equipment. Between two practices on Friday and qualifying and races on Saturday and Sunday both – that’s a lot of on-track time. The chances are pretty good that a team will suffer some kind of contact throughout an extra-long weekend like that. It’s a lot tougher to rebuild a car on the road rather than hauling it back to the shop for repairs.

And of course, the drivers get worn out also. The three street courses that have been tabbed for double-headers, Detroit, Houston and Toronto, may be the most physically demanding on the circuit. Generally, when you see the winning driver agonizingly pull themselves out of the car to stand on the podium – they are tired but they know they have at least a week to recover before the next race. Whoever wins Saturday has to climb in the car early the next morning to qualify and race again less than twenty-four hours after winning Saturday’s race. I would imagine by Sunday night on a double-header weekend, a driver just wants to crawl in bed.

But what about the fans? It’s easiest on those of us who are watching it on TV. We have the luxury of using the DVR during the middle of the day and going back to watch either Saturday night or Sunday morning – then possibly Sunday night again. There’s nothing too grueling about that. But if you don’t have any type of recording device, you have to choose between giving up two summer weekend afternoons or foregoing the IndyCar races while you pursue your normal summertime activities. To us die-hards, it’s not much of a choice. But to the causal fan – they’d probably prefer to be in the pool than watching the races.

How about those who go to the races? There are fans that will travel and then there are those that live in the market area. Those that travel will more than likely buy weekend passes. Surprisingly, a check of the website for this weekend’s races shows that there is not much of a discount at all for a three-day pass over buying tickets for individual races. A three-day pass for Grandstand One costs $130. A ticket for Friday’s practice is $10. Race tickets in Grandstand One costs $65 each day. Altogether, you save a whopping ten dollars by buying the weekend pass.

If I’m a race promoter, I’m thinking that you would like to encourage people to buy the weekend pass and come out for all three days. Instead, this pricing structure encourages fans to choose a day and save money. Fans that invest in both days will come out both days or give their tickets to friends. That provides more bodies wandering the grounds, buying T-shirts, souvenirs and refreshments.

More than likely, however – they know more than I do. Perhaps they realize that it is grueling on most fans to commit to two days of hard racing. Maybe they know that the casual fan won’t commit to a full weekend, so they make more money if they do choose to attend one race instead of two. They would have different people for the weekend, but the total turnstile count for the weekend may be lower. I’m a die-hard and I know I would be there all three days, but not everyone is as in love with this sport as I am.

Not only do the promoters love the concept of double-headers, the sanctioning body does also. Let’s face it – it’s a cheap way to say there are eighteen races on this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. In reality, there are only fourteen venues on the current schedule – the three double-header tracks and the two races at IMS account for the difference in races and venues. If that’s what they have to do to satisfy sponsor contracts, I get it – but it also insults my intelligence when I hear this schedule called an eighteen race schedule.

This weekend will be the fifth double-header weekend since this experiment started last season. Toronto in late July will be the sixth. By that time, I think the series should have a pretty good sampling of these weekends. By that time, it’s already time to get serious about next year’s schedule. I’m not totally against them, but I’m not near as big a fan of the double-headers as I was a little over a year ago.

When it is time for the powers-that-be to sit down with the track promoters and start negotiations for 2015 – I hope that they will listen to all parties involved. The promoters, the TV partners, the teams and drivers – and the fans all deserve to have a voice in deciding if double-headers are here to stay, be tried for another year or scrubbed altogether. Like the proverbial double-edged sword – they certainly have their pros and cons. Hopefully, the bottom-line is not the only factor that will be considered, when deciding the fate of double-headers.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Double-Headers Are A Double-Edged Sword”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    Fourteen venues is really weak. There are vast parts of this country that do not have a IndyCar venue for fans to experience a race in person.

    Living near Milwaukee as I do, the race there is something I look forward to for the entire year. If it were a double header that would diminish the sum of the annual experience for me. (probably a better way to express that) In addition, most fans don’t have the time to spend an entire weekend at the track. I sure don’t.

    In addition to the wear and tear on the teams, these double headers mask the underlying weakness of the series: Only 14 venues.

  2. I’m pretty neutral on double headers. I rarely watch both races on a weekend, because as George points out that’s a lot of time to commit. Sometimes I’ll watch one live and fast forwwrd through the second one on DVR. Double headers do save the teams money and energy in transport costs, but they are the poor man’s way to get to 18 races. From a promoter’s perspective in a huge market, they offer fans choices of what day to come to, so that’s probably a good thing. More butts in seats, overall, for the weekend. If IndyCar can add other road/street races like the beloved Road America, these double-header weekends should be the first to go.

  3. Its just another of the bad ideas coming out of current Indycar management. Watching a race like this once is bad enough. But twice in two days??

  4. I feel sorry about us, Brazilian fans. Due to the World Cup, we won’t have any broadcast of the two races (TV Broadcaster Band will show the game)

  5. S0CSeven Says:

    Street races are very expensive things to run. Unlike road courses and ovals, a street course doesn’t exist. It has to be built. You have to build all the walls, install all the fencing and cabling. Put in electricity. Install a communications system for all the corner workers and race control. You have to build all the grandstands, bridges over the track…………………….etc. etc. etc.

    And then after a 3 day event, you have to dismantle the whole thing and store it somewhere until next year when you begin the whole process again.

    I’m not the finance expert here but I’ll bet the promoters are in it for millions before a single wheel has turned and the only way to recoup the money (without a MAJOR sponsor) is on the ticket prices.

    $150 or so per ticket isn’t possible for most families (the future fans) so it’s very fan friendly to get to go to a practice/qualifying/race for half the price if you want to. A fan can also now opt for different corners on different days if they so wish. For me, double headers are a brilliant idea.

    • Good point and one I hadn’t considered much. Your points are also why street race schedules are generally STUFFED with races from sun rise to sun set — in order to get maximum value out of the temporary track.

  6. agree with P-Dog, it’s a “poor man’s way” to construct a schedule. if they could afford more real races on the schedule, it would maybe be interesting to stage a double-header once a year or something as a special event, but even then I’d like to see them come up with a gimmick to make the two races a little different–like day/night or something. I don’t need to see two races at Belle Isle or Houston, but I guess they can only race where the sponsors are…

  7. billytheskink Says:

    While I can see where claiming to hold 18 races when they take place on 15 event weekends at 14 venues can seem a bit disingenuous (and I’d certainly like to see more venues), I think “insults my intelligence” is a bit much.

    The double-header races are not abnormally short like 2011’s Texas twins were (no Indycar oval race had been scheduled as short as those 166 milers since 1985). Each double-header race is roughly the length of other stand-alone street races and pays full points. They’re full races as far as competition is concerned, and I don’t struggle with Indycar claiming them as such.
    World of Outlaws doesn’t insult my intelligence by claiming an 80+ race schedule, they do run 80+ points-paying races even if it is through 60+ events at 50+ venues.

    Not a quibble, just something worth noting that you did not mention in your comparison of individual day and 3 day passes for the Houston race. The highest 11 rows of seats (the best seats) in grandstand 1 are only available via 3 day pass. Individual day tickets are only available in the lower 12 rows. So there is an additional advantage for 3 day tickets to the slight discount. Other Houston ticket comparisons: A 3 day pass in grandstand 3 is $85, and only 3 day tickets are offered in this grandstand. In comparable grandstands 2 and 4, where only single day tickets are offered, 3 days of tickets would cost $100. A weekend general admission ticket is $40, versus $60 if purchasing general admission each day.

    • Every word. 100% agree, skinkster, plus what SOCSeven said above. If doing doubleheaders makes good sense for the promoters, it’s good for the series. That’s about where it begins and ends for me.

  8. Give me a double header at Mid-Ohio please.

  9. Chris Lukens Says:

    I’ve never been a fanboy of double header weekends. I always felt that ( just like GWC, competition yellows & Lucky dogs ) they were just gimmicks.
    However, I think they are here to stay. So, why wouldn’t the promoters try to differentiate each day of racing as much as possible. Rolling start on one day and standing start the other. Different race lengths on each day. Make each day a different race.

  10. Yannick Says:

    Double-headers are an easy solution for a series in need of additional events on the schedule. But do the promoters have to pay the full sanctioning fee for the 2nd race again? I doubt it. Hence, this is a way to get a discount price for an IndyCar race as a promoter. I wonder if a promoter would get that same discount if the 2nd race was run on another weekend later on in the year. If that were the case, an oval promoter from Texas might or might not be interested.

    To be honest, I have never liked the Reliant Park circuit, and Dario Franchitti’s career ending crash last year there has only added further detail to that. I like IndyCar staging street racing. Tracks like the Sao Paulo Sambodrome Circuit, the Streets Of Long Beach, the Baltimore Grand Prix provide very good racing whereas Houston’s Reliant Park track is just taking up space on the schedule. Even the often derided Meadowlands Grand Prix track and Caeasar’s Palace GP have provided better racing in the past. Why can’t Shell sponsor a race at COTA instead?

    • amen to COTA.

    • You’d have to ask Shell, but my guess is that part of their race sponsorship is bringing tons of employees or business partners out to Reliant Park for a day (or two), either as a thank you or in order to curry good favor. Since most of those folks probably live locally to Houston (which is where Shell’s headquarters are), that’s probably a much more attractive to have folks just drive across town for the day than it would be to bus them to Austin (a 165 mile trek), where they’d also have to be put up at hotels, etc., etc. I’m sure it’s far more cost effective for Shell to do this in Houston than it would be to do it anywhere else, and if the ultimatum came down to “sponsor a race at COTA, or you get no race”, I bet they’d opt for the latter choice with a quickness.

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