Double-Headers Are A Double-Edged Sword
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.