A Break In The IndyCar Schedule

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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?

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “A Break In The IndyCar Schedule”

  1. Mike Silver Says:

    I can think of past IndyCar administrations that would have stubbornly. kept the date then blamed the track promoter for the poor attendance. The series sure has gotten smarter under Jay Frye.

  2. Indyspeeddmon Says:

    I think it’s terrible but only because I can’t see Indy cars on track. I understand the reasons, and agree with them, but I also feel the same way about the off season. Cars on track: I am happy, Cars not on track: I want cars on track.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    Amen to everything you have written here today George, particularly your comments about the Milwaukee Mile.

  4. The 4 months due to this non-permanent move of the Phoenix “GP” reminds me a lot of when Randy Bernard’s tenure as IndyCar CEO ended and he left the series with an unfinished schedule that had a 4 week long hole in the latter stages of the season when the Sparta KY Indy used to be held.

    That race and Milwaukee would be very welcome additions to the schedule, especially since Milwaukee draws such high TV ratings for the Indy 500 in recent years. Hopefully, they can work out a long-rumored co-promotion of that event with Road America to bring back the Mile.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Not only would Indycar have faced a suffocating fan attention and media environment had they run on Final Four weekend in Phoenix this year, teams and fans alike would have found it difficult to acquire reasonably-priced hotel rooms too. A wise decision to move

    I do wonder, however, about keeping the Phoenix race scheduled directly against the Final Four television broadcast next year and for the foreseeable future. I guess Indiana isn’t getting to the Final Four anytime soon, so those concerns may not be warranted…

  6. Incredible how long it has taken the higher ups to understand the importance of date equity. Milwaukee being gone is a crime. The whole debacle of Milwaukee screams of incompetence. When you have a former driver turned owner stepping in to market and promote the race at the Milwaukee Mile, it speaks volumes. Obviously there are details, facts, nuances about this situation that I do not understand . Why has it not been treated with more importance? This is IndyCars heritage. One of the oldest races in the world is off the calendar. I still don’t understand how this could be allowed to happen. Meanwhile tracks like Houston, NOLA Baltimore, Boston Homestead, get the oil. Pardon my French but wtf?

    • billytheskink Says:

      While Indycar certainly appeared to put some extra effort into making Boston happen, I’m not sure I would say the same for the other events that you listed.

      – The Houston race had a relatively successful debut in October 2013 but was pushed to June in 2014 at Indycar’s discretion. This move devastated attendance and the promoter (Mike Lanigan) opted not to continue the race unless it could return to a fall date. Indycar did not accommodate.

      – Baltimore, like Milwaukee, was rescued by Michael Andretti’s promotion group. This, perhaps, occurred with some help from the series, but on that note it is worth stating that Indycar also allegedly cut Andretti a discount on the sanctioning fee in Milwaukee for most, if not all, of the years his group promoted it.

      – NOLA was also promoted by Andretti’s group and Indycar made no effort to bring it back after one rain-marred, money-losing event. NOLA was likely the torpedo that sunk Andretti’s race promotion group, and it may well have taken Milwaukee’s chances of continuing down with the ship.

      – Indycar ended essentially 13 years of date equity at Homestead when the race moved from spring to fall in 2009. The reason it disappeared from the 2011 schedule, though, likely had more to do with Indycar’s then-deteriorating relationship with ISC. There were 4 ISC tracks (Homestead, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland, and Kansas) on the 2010 schedule, none returned in 2011.

      Indycar clearly mishandled scheduling for Milwaukee. Folks in Houston, Fontana, Kentucky, Miami, and more could say the same, though.

  7. Milwaukee. The Sunday after Indy 500. 12 pm local time start. 5 year commitment on that date regardless of attendance. Indycar promotes it themselves. (If it’s their $$$ maybe they’d care more.) Promote the hell out of its history, specifically the oldest race track taking place the week after the 2nd oldest….back in its “traditional” date. If that doesn’t work then close the book on it one and for all and accept it as being part of the sport’s history. I think it could still work.

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