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Friday, September 10, 2010

Opinion: 2011 Schedule Slightly Incomplete

IZOD IndyCar Series drivers and personnel gathered at the Milwaukee Mile this morning to announce the series' 2011 schedule. CEO Randy Bernard, flanked by current drivers Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe and a handful of key track executives, announced the 17-race plan for next year.

As Robin Miller unveiled to SpeedTV.com a couple of days ago, the new schedule dropped all traces of events at tracks owned by the International Speedway Corporation, replacing them with events at Baltimore, New Hampshire, the Mile, and a to-be-announced oval season finale that will likely go to Las Vegas.

It's a solid schedule that captures many of the sport's historic best tracks. It sacrifices the intense pack racing of Chicagoland, something akin to a superspeedway race in NASCAR, for the trickier, more demanding short and flat ovals at New Hampshire and Milwaukee. It preserves many of the sport's best events while also adding Baltimore, which (if all goes to plan) will become sort of a Long Beach East, and a Labor Day weekend staple. Even more interesting is the choice to make the Indianapolis 500 the first oval race of the year.

And yet something feels missing with a 17-race schedule.

It's true that the past few years have featured some of the largest schedules ever sanctioned by the Indy Racing League. But recall that the IRL was for many years the underdog to CART, a more established series with many bigger names. If you consider the heyday of modern American open-wheel racing to be CART under FedEx sponsorship from 1998 to 2002, you'll notice that the schedule always featured at least 19 events. The series even went up to 21 races on some occasions.

A lot of CART's best tracks - Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, and Road America, to name three - have been left off of this year's schedule, to the disappointment of many fans. All three tracks put on some fantastic shows in their CART tenures, and while it is important to note that the Dallara IndyCar is an entirely different racecar than the Lolas and Reynards that used to run in CART, many of the same drivers (in fact, eight of the top 13 in CART's 2002 points) are now involved in the IRL as drivers or team owners.

Of course, Bernard understands that the IRL was originally designed as an ovals-only series, meant to combat the dearth of foreign drivers that were winning races and championships in CART. (The last American CART champion was Jimmy Vasser in 1996.) He's done his best to balance the ovals and road courses on the current schedule, currently settling on an eight oval, nine road course tilt that is in many ways no different from this year's. It's not at all a bad schedule.

But people have commented recently that enough interest exists from tracks and promoters to feasibly put on 24 races. Perhaps this is infeasible for the teams, which have been taking on pay-drivers for a number of years now to stay afloat, but with such interest, you begin to wonder why 20 events are not possible, at the very least.

This would also open up the series to return to the two big ovals at Michigan and California. While they are both ISC tracks, and ISC has been somewhat of an unwilling partner with the series at times (remember, they are the same family in charge of NASCAR), the Michigan and California events almost always produced good racing. One of the more popular ideas among fans over the past couple of months was the idea of a "Triple Crown" of IndyCar - three 500-mile races at Michigan, California, and Indianapolis. It'd eradicate the dumb, old IRL policy that only the Indy 500 could be a 500-mile event, and it'd drum up significant interest.

Adding Laguna Seca and replacing the often-panned Mid-Ohio with Road America would set us at a 20-race schedule, perhaps one of the best in American open-wheel history. Almost all of the stinkers would be gone, save for Edmonton, which may yet be turned around by a solid race promoter.

Granted, Bernard and his staff are still attempting to bring the series out of the depths of bush league. It's a long process to bring in some of these races, and with many pre-existing contracts in place, it's a costly endeavor to cancel some races and then attempt to negotiate others. If the fans were guaranteed to step up and attend those new races, make them profitable, and make thew series a little more relevant in the sporting world as we know it, it'd be one thing, but we have no guarantees on that front.

In the meantime, it looks like we'll have to take this 17-race schedule, appreciate what we're getting, and hope that 2012 brings an even better group of events.

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