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.