A Break In The IndyCar Schedule
It seems that lots of people have been complaining in the past week about how IndyCar dropped the ball by not having another race between last week’s season-opening race at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9th. Many have scolded IndyCar for not having a second race in that time frame at Homestead.
Granted, four weeks is a long time between your first and second races of the season. In fact, four weeks between races is a long stretch at any point in the season. But there are several things at play here. I don’t make it a habit to defend CEO Mark Miles. But in this case his hands are tied.
First of all, as far as I know – Homestead has not come calling, begging the Verizon IndyCar series to come race there. The last time the series raced there in 2010, it looked like the drivers were racing in front of friends and family only – and that was to decide the championship. I’ve heard there may be some mild interest in discussing a possible return at some point, but I don’t think it’s anywhere close to happening.
Apparently, what some fans don’t realize – this four-week break is a one-time deal. The current IndyCar administration has finally realized the importance of date equity in each of their events. It has been determined for everyone involved, that the best place for Phoenix on the IndyCar schedule is the first Saturday night in April. That’s where it was last year and that’s where it will be next year and hopefully for years to come as the event grows.
The reason it is not in that slot this year is simple – the Final Four will be taking place in Phoenix during the first weekend in April. This is the first time in history for Phoenix to host the event, so it is obviously a big deal for those that live in the Valley of the Sun.
IndyCar could have been stubborn and tried to go up against the Final Four taking place just a few miles away. But it would have been disastrous for attendance and TV ratings. IndyCar and CART have both raced on the weekend of the Final Four, but they raced on the Sunday afternoon of that weekend, when there was no basketball. A Saturday night race would have been going up against either the end of the first game or the beginning of the second game. Neither would have been good. Imagine if Purdue or Butler made it to the Final Four. Even the hardest core of the IndyCar fan base probably would have chosen basketball over the second IndyCar race of the season.
Local attendance would suffer too. Most sports fans in the Phoenix area would either be going to the game or wanting to see how their city came off on television with the Final Four telecast.
Last year, there weren’t too many in the stands to witness the return of the Verizon IndyCar Series to Phoenix for the first time in a decade. The decision was made by IndyCar officials to not try and go up against the Final Four in order to give those fans and potentially new fans a chance to watch the Final Four and attend the IndyCar race a few weeks later this year, rather than risk racing in front of completely empty stands on April 1st.
I think IndyCar made the right decision. This was not an ideal situation, but it couldn’t be helped. Sometimes you have to make painful short-term decisions in order to achieve a better long-term result.
One thing that IndyCar officials found out the hard way is that date equity matters. The Milwaukee Mile died a lingering death before finally being dropped from the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. For the final three years of that track’s existence on the IndyCar schedule, its date bounced from mid-June to mid-August to mid-July. There is no way any potential customers could make annual plans with that type of sporadic scheduling. After the 2015 race, it was no longer deemed a viable venue for an IndyCar weekend. There are many sad tales of tracks going away, but I still consider it a crime that the Milwaukee Mile is no longer on the IndyCar schedule. Even sadder is that there doesn’t seem to be any momentum to bring it back any time soon.
Homestead and Fontana were both victims of a lack of date equity. Homestead went from being the season-opener to the season-finale in the last decade. Fontana suffered similar inconsistent dates. The last three years that Fontana was on the schedule, the IndyCar race there was held in October of 2013, August of 2014 and then June of 2015. Is it any wonder that it was eventually dropped?
It’s hard to imagine the Indianapolis 500 being run this May, but learning that next year it would be held sometime in August. We Indianapolis 500 fans like making our hotel reservations in January, getting our blue envelopes in March and losing our ability to concentrate at work once the calendar turns to May. These are all annual rituals that we can set our clocks by. Move it back and forth by a couple of months and our enthusiasm would wane considerably after a very short while.
After Pocono had been jerked around for a few years, it seems to have found a home in mid-to-late August. Mark Miles and Jay Frye seem to understand what others did not – that date equity is vital if you want to establish an event for the long haul. St. Petersburg flourishes with its March date. Long beach has long been a fixture in April, along with Barber. Texas likes its June date and Toronto does OK in mid-July. The Toronto date is the same slot that Nashville used to have. Other issues undermined the Nashville race, but attendance was never a problem for the IndyCar race at Nashville Superspeedway. I have to think that the fact it was the same weekend for eight years in a row helped.
The long-term goal is to establish Phoenix as the premier event in the Phoenix area on the first weekend in April. That won’t be done overnight or even in the first couple of years. IndyCar and track officials seem to know that and both appear willing to invest the time to build it up right. By doing so, they will honor that first weekend in April date each year. Unfortunately, the Final Four dictates that the race will be shifted for one year only. Putting another race in that slot would have been short-sighted. IndyCar officials chose to vacate that date for one year so that they could easily go back to it next year and for many years to come. I agree.
The good thing is that we have many things to keep our minds busy during this gap. The best thing is that heading into the April 9th weekend at Long Beach, we’ll still have sixteen races remaining in the IndyCar season, and it’ll be pretty much non-stop for the next two months after that. Who can really complain about that?