What To Look For In A Schedule
The IZOD IndyCar Series schedule for 2011 will be announced on Friday at The Milwaukee Mile, so that should tell you something. I don’t know if it will have the same glitz and glamour of the past few announcements in the IZOD-Randy Bernard era, but it is still highly anticipated. By this time last year, the 2010 schedule had been out for almost six weeks – but NASCAR threw the IndyCar schedule makers a few last-minute curves, so some late tinkering had to take place.
I would expect at least some cheesy pageantry for this announcement, since the series is expected to return to Las Vegas to wrap up the 2011 season. The Indy Racing League actually ran the very first event held at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1996, with Richie Hearn taking the victory. Al Unser, Jr. won the final IRL sanctioned race at Las Vegas in 2000. Champ Car ran at Las Vegas in 2004-05 with Sébastien Bourdais winning both races.
Randy Bernard thinks he can make Las Vegas work this time. I’ve never been to the track, but I understand it is quite a hike from the strip in Las Vegas. The thinking is that it takes an event of great magnitude to get visitors to Las Vegas to come out of the hotels and casinos. Randy Bernard has a lot of key connections in the city. If he can make it work, it could be a marketing coup for the league. If the results are mediocre or worse, it could be a significant black mark against the legacy of Randy Bernard. I think it’s safe to say that this will be Mr. Bernard’s signature event – no matter which way it goes.
I fully trust Randy Bernard. At the risk of sounding like a suck-up, I think what he has done in a little over seven months has been phenomenal. It takes a lot to offend me, but I actually take offense to the “Ropin’ Randy” moniker that some have placed on him in reference to his days as head of Professional Bull Riding. In his time there, he took a sport that was much more obscure than open-wheel racing and transformed it into a successful enterprise. His track record there is what initially caught the eye of Josie George and Jeff Belskus. I was as skeptical as anyone when the hiring was announced, but I have quickly become a believer. I hate to think where we would be right now without him.
Another reason I respect Randy Bernard is how quickly he has brought himself up to speed with the traditions of our sport. He understands the role that oval tracks have played in the history of open-wheel racing, while acknowledging the current role that road course racing plays. Not only has Mr. Bernard proclaimed his desire to have at least 50% of the schedule be comprised of ovals; he has made it a priority to get a very important venue – the Milwaukee Mile – back on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. It looks as if those efforts will pay off. With Friday’s announcement being held at the famous track at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, I would say it’s safe to assume that it has found its way back onto the schedule for 2011.
So there will be four new venues for 2011 that were not on the schedule for 2010 – the new street race at Baltimore; along with ovals at New Hampshire, Las Vegas and Milwaukee. But that is only treading water when you figure that four from 2010 will likely not return next year – Watkins Glen, and ovals at Kansas, Chicago and Homestead. So we’re still looking at eight ovals and nine non-ovals for next year – unless there is another surprise coming.
I wasn’t crazy about this season being divided into “quarters” with four road courses, followed by four ovals, five more road courses and capped off with four ovals. I understand that it was easier on the teams to not be jumping back and forth between various configurations, but if you prefer one discipline over the other – it gets a little tiresome when your preference isn’t running for a couple of months. Next year, it looks as if the first oval of the season will be the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
I am also an advocate for a very unpopular stance. I am all in favor of wrapping up the IndyCar season on or before Labor Day each year. We’re having trouble attracting viewers in the spring and summer months, when the main competition in the US is baseball and NASCAR. Those two sports have now become relatively insignificant as of this week with College Football starting last weekend and the NFL kicking off tomorrow night. No one but the true die-hards will be watching races after football starts.
I consider myself a true die-hard, but if the Kentucky race were running this Saturday against my (depleted) Tennessee Vols taking on Oregon – it would be the Kentucky race that would be relegated to the DVR. For the second year in a row, the finale at Homestead will be run on a Saturday. If the Tennessee-LSU game is moved to a night game, I’m going to have a tough decision to make, but the race will likely lose out.
Any Sunday races in the fall will face even stiffer competition for that coveted casual fan, once the NFL is in the picture. Next year may be a different story with the labor unrest in pro-football, but in most years – it’s suicide to go up against the NFL behemoth. A couple of weeks ago – a meaningless pre-season game featuring Brett Favre for four plays drew a 7.2 rating. When was the last time the Indy 500 drew a 7.2? Versus would kill to have a 1.0. Last year’s dramatic finale at Homestead drew a whopping .15. Yes, that reads “point one-five”. That’s what going against college football does to your ratings. Fortunately for me, the Georgia-Tennessee game was played earlier in the day so that I could be counted in that measly total.
Another ratings killer is having Motegi in the fall. When Danica Patrick won her first (and only) race, no one besides us die-hards knew until the next day, because it happened half a world away, after midnight in the US. Until last week, it looked like there was a strong chance that the IZOD IndyCar Series champion could be crowned in the same fashion. At this time of year, you’re going to lose some die-hards who have lost interest in watching yet another Penske-Ganassi duel after midnight. It’s late in the season and very few people care at this point. It would be my hope that if Motegi is to remain on the schedule, it be moved back to the spring. This would guarantee at least one oval before Indianapolis. Plus, being early in the season – it is still a novelty to watch a race, no matter how late you have to stay up.
Contrary to popular belief, I wouldn’t get rid of all of the road/street courses. In fact, I would choose to keep many of them. Of course, I would dump a few of the snoozers like Sonoma and Edmonton, in favor of places like Cleveland, Portland and my favorite – Road America. But I guess I’m getting way ahead of myself now.
I’ll be curious to see if Randy Bernard has any more surprises that have been kept from the media. Getting Milwaukee back should be enough of a surprise, but having one more oval would sure be nice.