Constructing a schedule for a major racing series is like assembling a massive box of frayed puzzle pieces and being left with extras and holes they don’t fit.
Promoters, conflicting dates, weather. Attendance expectations. Date equity. All important pieces. Markets must show enough interest or be alluring enough for the courtship. History should be honored before new history can be layered atop it.
While much of the 2019 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is already in place because of long-term contractual arrangements, the announcement by ISM Raceway officials last week that the suburban Phoenix track would not return creates conjecture over what venue could replace the 1.022-mile oval.
Speculation on an even broader scale is more entertaining, hence this ultimate INDYCAR schedule, admittedly shaped somewhat by past norms and sensible assumptions of future prospects. It’s a mix of sensible business options with some wishful thinking on my part. It’s a puzzle.
The proposed series uses the current schedule as a framework for a few additions that would elevate what drivers and series officials assert is the most diverse formula in motorsports. The number of races would increase from 17 to 20. The percentage of ovals would increase from 35 to 40 percent, in theory enhancing the signature Indianapolis 500 and assuaging a sector of the fan base interested in high banks and high speeds.
An emphasis was placed on manifesting the series’ destiny into areas where its presence lacked – namely the Northeast – and providing that region with multiple forms of venues. Broken into regional “tours” that could be contested as a group to maximize weather and momentum of interest, each could award a micro champion – reminiscent of the ovals and non-ovals champion once crowned by INDYCAR – that could be awarded additional standing points. Or give them a uniform patch, whatever. That’s in the small details.
Realizing that some of these venues may not be feasible due to the logistical issues mentioned up top, this theoretical schedule still provides food for thought.
Midwest Tour: Detroit’s Belle Isle (temporary street course), Gateway Motorsports Park (1.25-mile oval), Indianapolis 500 (2.5-mile oval), INDYCAR Grand Prix (Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course), Iowa (0.894-mile oval), Road America and Mid-Ohio (permanent road courses).
Despite its reach across North America, INDYCAR is an acknowledged Midwest-centric series. Its base is there, it’s greatest race, the Indianapolis 500, is there and much of its traditional fan base knows the joy of a casserole. This core group of venues and regimens is nearly perfect, although there will always be melancholy for the Milwaukee Mile. The balance of the region is even solid with three ovals – each a different length – and three road/street courses.
Northeast Tour: Toronto (temporary street course), Pocono (2.5-mile oval), Richmond (0.75-mile oval), Watkins Glen (permanent road course).
Yes, Richmond, Virginia, is technically in the South, as evidenced by its position relative to the Mason-Dixon Line and its sylvan boulevards lined with statues of unsuccessful generals. But it’s close enough. It’s closer than the Dallas Cowboys being in the NFC East or the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference of the NHL. So, go with it Richmond. An INDYCAR host from 2001-2009, it’s a much-needed oval peg amid a 900-mile desert of open-wheel racing.
Toronto is a staple. Pocono’s expanse adds to the diversity of the series. Watkins Glen would again add in multiple ways, in a challenging racetrack, in a motor-crazy region, at a venue marinated in history. Conflicting events and date equity concerns from track officials led INDYCAR to replace the Glen with Portland this year. But in this dream scenario, a perfect free weekend is discovered and the New York track returns.
Plan B? Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, where Champ Car raced from 2002-2006.
Southern Tour: St. Petersburg (temporary street course), Barber Motorsports Park (permanent road course), Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway (1.5-mile ovals).
St. Petersburg was planted along the Gulf Coast as a warm-weather, early season stage for the series’ first non-oval event before reunification has blossomed it into a staple of the schedule, popular among drivers and well-received locally. Six hundred miles to its north, Barber rooted into Alabama soil long tread by stock cars, just a long pit window from iconic NASCAR track Talladega Superspeedway.
Texas has been an oval mainstay of the series since 1997. Homestead-Miami Speedway, which hosted Indy cars from 1996-2010, would rejoin the schedule in an admittedly fickle market with much to tempt local ticket-buyers.
But location, location, location and the prospect of holding spring oval testing there – Sebring International Raceway in central Florida currently serves as a primary street/road training site – warrant another opportunity for Homestead, especially in the spring. There should be no fear of soaking the market, as Tampa Bay and greater Miami are insular entities and the proliferation of motorsports in Florida in the spring might make an early Homestead date a value-added bonus for racing tourists, particularly from Europe.
The success of Indy car racing in Alabama does make the mind wander toward places like Darlington Raceway, however.
Western Tour: Long Beach (temporary street course), Portland and Sonoma (permanent road courses), Auto Club Speedway (2-mile oval).
Long Beach stands as one of handful of classics in the series. Portland, which returns on Labor Day weekend to major anticipation as a North American open-wheel venue, provides INDYCAR an anchor in the Pacific Northwest. Sonoma has served as the site of the season finale since 2015 and is a valuable hook in a major market of Northern California. There’s also all that wine.
The Western conference, though, is therefore very much in need of an oval and another hook in Southern California. Auto Club Speedway in Fontana can be considered Los Angeles only for those looking at it on a map, as opposed to driving there any time but 3 a.m. Palm Springs feels closer. But the big oval, which fell off the schedule after 2015 because of unresolvable discussions over a race date, would help fill that gap. ISM Raceway appears out of play for now despite its lengthy Indy car history, but we can always yearn for a return.