Yesterday, the IZOD IndyCar Series announced its intent to award championships to drivers based on their mastery of the series' two types of tracks. The driver who scores the most points on ovals, as well as the driver who scores the most points on road and street courses, will be awarded cash bonuses. Of course, the series' overall champion will still receive the biggest prize at the end of the year. The two trophies will be named in a fan vote after two open-wheel icons.
The dual championship format is the brainchild of IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who wanted to find a way to engage and bring together the two different demographics of open-wheel fans in America - the oval fans who are more inclined to spend IndyCar off weekends tuned into NASCAR, and the road and street course fans who likely spend some of their time watching sports car racing. Bernard wanted to play up the immense diversity of the IndyCar schedule, which, with its even split between the two types of tracks, is like no other series in the world.
On one hand, awarding extra championships begins to saturate the series. It awards certain drivers for proficiency on one type of track, while almost admitting to their lack of skill on the other. For example, drivers like Danica Patrick and Ed Carpenter would be able to contend for the oval title, but wouldn't stand a chance for the road course championship; meanwhile, Justin Wilson and Will Power should be among the top drivers in road course points, but may struggle on the ovals.
Also, nobody has ever legitimized this sort of thing before in any other sport. Sure, unofficial tallies are often made, especially in NASCAR. During last weekend's NASCAR broadcast from Talladega, the broadcasting crew noted that Elliott Sadler scored the most points in the four superspeedway races last year. Similarly, fans keep track of the best road course and short track drivers, and so on and so forth. But NASCAR does not, and never has, awarded some sort of bonus for being exceptional at one type of track over another.
On the other hand, however, this is a daring move that contributes to Bernard's making his mark on IndyCar, a sport which desperately needed a breath of fresh air at this time last year. Other series have their own championships-within-a-championship, such as the Michelin Green Challenge in the American Le Mans Series, which awards bonuses to the teams with the most efficient and environmentally friendly cars over the course of the season. But only IndyCar can award this sort of championship based on two very different styles of tracks.
It's also almost a given that the eventual winner of at least one of these titles will be the IZOD IndyCar Series champion at the end of the year. IndyCar.com posted a table with the drivers who would have won these bonuses over the past five years. In 2005, 2007, and 2008, the overall series champion scored the most points on ovals, and last year, champion Dario Franchitti scored the most points on road courses. In the only exception year, 2006, oval champion Dan Wheldon actually tied series champion Sam Hornish Jr. for overall points, but Hornish won the title tiebreaker on more wins. In effect, one of the two winning drivers is almost guaranteed to take away the big prize at the end of the year.
The only conceivable way that the oval or road/street course champion wouldn't win the big prize at the end of the year is convoluted at best, and involves some quirks. Because the series has nine oval races, compared to eight road and street course events, the season finale at Homestead/Miami Speedway is left off of the oval championship. To win the overall title without winning one of the smaller ones first, one driver would probably have to be in second place in both disciplines, and then have a great Homestead weekend while the oval and road/street course champions would falter. (Because the best drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series usually run up front at all tracks, because they more often than not drive for Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi, it's highly unlikely to expect the oval champion to be poorly ranked on street courses, and vice versa.)
This new dual championship format also opens up marketing ideas for low-budget teams looking to put together solid overall programs. If a team is torn between two drivers, one an oval ace and the other a road course maverick, they can split the schedule between the two and attempt to run for the individual championships. It probably won't happen, sure, but if somebody fails to get oval clearance a year or two down the road, it may be an attractive option for a team to consider.
The jury is still out on how the first dual championship season will play out in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but the idea holds up to the high standards of innovation that Randy Bernard has set in his brief tenure as the sport's leader. If it improves the storylines as much as Bernard hopes, we may see the trend spread across other racing series. For now, though, we can only speculate.