IndyCar, MRTI 2016 schedule thoughts, musings, observations

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So, it’s finally happened. The Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy 2016 schedules have come out in back-to-back days this week, and if you’re a fan of either or both, you can officially begin making plans (yes, chances are you probably prepped sooner given by the drip-by-drip nature of each track prior to the full rollout).

Some thoughts, musings and observations on the schedule, now that it’s out, are below:

  • Embracing the spacing. Earlier this year I wrote a column noting that after 10 consecutive weekends of on-track activity from the ultimately one-and-done NOLA round in April through the moved-up-for-2015-only Toronto round in June was simply too much of a grind for the drivers, particularly the crews, and others involved in the series. So the fact INDYCAR has heeded the calls of those noting how tightly bunched last year’s schedule was and spread it out more – the fact there are only three back-to-back weekends outside the month of May (Long Beach to Barber, Indy 500 to Detroit and Iowa to Toronto) is a welcome change of pace. The schedule lasts more than 50 days longer from start to finish in 2016, even though the number of races stays the same.
  • TV isn’t everything, it may be the only thing. Channeling the late, great Vince Lombardi here, but it’s obvious that the delay in the full 2016 schedule release was TV-impacted. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Here’s Hulman Motorsports CEO Mark Miles on that: “What we’ve said is there is a model in working with our existing broadcast partners that we think can be even more potent in attracting fans.  That would be kind of to split the season into halves.  The perfect model is perfect continuity where one broadcaster has the first half the season and the other has the second, and where both broadcast platforms can choose between cable and free-to-air broadcasts as suits us and them. I still believe that is the direction we need to head in ’17 and ’18 under our current contractual provisions and relationships with those two.” The reason for some of the growth last year across the board was start times that were more amenable to a potential bigger audience. Does 5 p.m. ET on a Sunday in Iowa sound great? Not particularly… but then consider that was the same start time for Milwaukee last year, and how improved the Milwaukee number was, and you begin to see how it could make sense. The prime time window for the Sonoma finale, at 7 p.m. ET with NASCAR as a lead-in and Sunday Night Football thereafter, should fit nicely as well.
  • Balance across the board. With six street races (five venues), five road courses and five ovals, it’s a near perfect split of races for the disciplines required of a versatile IndyCar schedule. You can’t really have any weaknesses, and you need to be solid across-the-board to be in contention for the championship.
  • Never say never again. Yes, Road America was announced in August and yes, Phoenix has been strongly hinted at for at least a couple months. These two tracks coming back though are a positive sign that having strong relationships can bring back tracks from the brink – former president of competition and operations Derrick Walker helped deliver Road America back to the calendar, while IndyCar’s chief revenue officer Jay Frye was instrumental in Phoenix’s return. The fan reaction to the Road America return was massive, as evidenced by the huge crowd at its September test (again, big for a random Tuesday), while Phoenix will ensure at least one one-mile oval stays on the schedule.
  • Which brings us, sadly, to Milwaukee. As some of you readers will know, the triumvirate of Phoenix, Milwaukee and Road America are without question, my three home tracks. I originally am from Phoenix and attended races there in the mid-to-late 1990s through to about 2006, but with family roots in Wisconsin, stops at the Mile and at “America’s National Park of Speed” were summer staples. Is it worth trading two-for-one? Gut says yes, even if sadly, I think this is the end for Milwaukee on an IndyCar schedule.  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ace reporter Dave Kallmann has a good column up on the situation and whether it will ever come back. Milwaukee’s risen from the ashes twice in the last six years – the 2011 schedule was announced at the Mile in 2010 and in 2012, it came back as a last-minute replacement announced in February. With few promoters and fewer dates available to work with, it seems the long and winding journey at America’s continuously operated oval has reached its apparent end. The difference between Phoenix/Road America and Milwaukee is of course, simply, those other two tracks have other events to support their bottom line; the Mile, as part of State Fair Park, doesn’t.
  • The Mazda Road to Indy finale conundrum. On the whole, the schedules for the three Mazda Road to Indy look pretty good… and then we get to the finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, announced for Sept. 9-11. Now granted, this year’s joint MRTI/Pirelli World Challenge weekend didn’t really serve either party well. It was a case of “whose headliner was it anyway?” So instead, what was already a semi-awkward weekend has now been split in two: MRTI and PWC will both return to the track, but on separate, standalone weekends… which to me, doesn’t make much sense. In the MRTI’s case, they’re now crowning their champions as a headliner weekend with no support content, and still with the same problem of doing so not in front of IndyCar teams, media and fans. The only way this makes sense to me is so that the MRTI champions can be feted and, potentially, the Indy Lights champion could make his/her debut at Sonoma Raceway the following weekend. I love Mazda Raceway, and I’m a big fan of all Mazda does for motorsports. But given how little turnout there was with an overload of content at Mazda Raceway this year, I’m skeptical either organization will enjoy crowning their champions on solo weekends.

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).