DiZinno: IndyCar’s 2017 schedule provides clear long-term road map

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I thought the same things as you when I saw the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule for 2017 (and to a near extent, 2018) released on Thursday, August 25.

Thought number one: The IndyCar schedule? In August?!?

Thought number two: Where’s the next big street race or international race?

Thought number three: There can’t be… date equity… can there?

For once, going with the more traditional route of keeping the same 16 races as in 2016 and adding another oval (yes, selfishly, I wish it was Milwaukee, but Gateway’s been pushing hard for this for years) is a brilliant masterstroke for IndyCar, because it isn’t about the negativity… or the question marks.

Every year, it’s seemed IndyCar’s schedule would be one of the last ones out, and there’d always be that one or two races you’d look at with a skeptical eye.

Then you’d see the ‘ol infamous asterisk top right of the last letter with the guide at the bottom confirming that asterisk meant, “To be confirmed.”

None of that goes on now with the 2017 schedule, and with Hulman &. Co. CEO Mark Miles confirming Thursday all events are also locked into 2018, IndyCar has a clearly defined road map and product platform for its events for the first time in years.

“We thought it was important to get it out now,” Miles said during a teleconference. “If you’re committed to making the bulk of schedule the next year, it’s important for the next step, which is careful tailoring and crafting of the television schedule.

“But we’re in August; we’re announcing a schedule and they have a year to prepare. Every promoter would relish the chance to sell next year’s tickets at this year’s race.

“For promoters, for fans, for our broadcasters, for our teams as they prepare, and this plus the test schedule that will come out… the sooner the better.

“We said we’d get this out in August… we’re still in August.”

This is a far cry from years past and the litany of races that have been on again, off again, or dropped over the last few years.

NOLA, Fontana, Milwaukee, Houston, Sao Paulo, Baltimore, Edmonton, Loudon, Motegi, Kentucky and Las Vegas have all dropped off just since 2011, and then add in that Boston, another Brazil and China races were canceled before they ever occurred.

Suddenly it seems as though IndyCar has rediscovered itself from a scheduling standpoint; returns to tracks where the series left but then came back make a greater impact than first-time or other venues where the history isn’t quite there.

Phoenix came back after more than a decade, Road America in nearly a decade and Watkins Glen will come back for the first time in six years in a little over a week. Road America was incredibly well-received, Phoenix was positive and Watkins Glen has generated early rave reviews.

At-track attendance has been an interesting talking point this year and Graham Rahal has mentioned to me on numerous occasions it’s been up, and he and other drivers have taken notice. INDYCAR confirmed it has at six events in its 2017 schedule release.

Knowing when events are from a scheduling standpoint and knowing there’s not the year-on-year risk of them falling off helps fans better plan their schedules.

It also helps from an overall business perspective; companies are in the process of finalizing their marketing budgets in August and this allows teams to go out and hustle if they still can at a much earlier date.

Miles also strongly suggested the 2018 schedule – given all tracks for this year are on board – will be out even earlier next year.

“I loved the idea of releasing ’17 and ’18 at the same time, and we were very close to doing that,” Miles said. “Some prospects need to develop for international and other domestic opportunities for ’18. But I don’t think we have to wait of August ’17 to release the ’18 calendar. I’d expect it even earlier before ’18, than it was before ’17.”

Credit INDYCAR and Stephen Starks, VP of Promoter Relations; additionally, credit all the track promoters.

“He has brought great fresh thinking to [the process],” Miles said of Starks. “We can focus on the few things we want to do better. He does deserve huge props for driving this process inside INDYCAR.”

And then there’s the Jay Frye factor. Frye’s presence in INDYCAR is generally, if not exclusively, regarded as a net positive thus far.

Even though he’s been moved from the commercial onto the operational side of the business now as President of Competition and Operations, his high approval rating in the paddock cannot be understated in terms of how INDYCAR’s schedule has evolved to a more solid state rather than the fluid one it’s been in the years previous.

And he says so with a smile, too. He and I exchanged a good laugh at Pocono last weekend when I asked about the schedule and he replied, “And hey, not only are we gonna have a schedule, but we’ll actually run all the races we’re scheduled to!”

We both laughed, but the fact such a line is a laughing matter speaks to how chaotic the IndyCar schedule has been over the last several years.

For once, it appears that the future IndyCar schedules are no laughing matter indeed.