It's been a hot topic for quite some time, and looks like it'll continue to be a hot topic for some time to come for the IndyCar series: how do we draw more eyeballs to our on-track product?
One idea that's been kicked around in the blogosphere and in multiple calls to Trackside over the last year or so is that of trying to get an IndyCar race on a common weekend with a NASCAR Cup race. This idea has been floated about several tracks, but the one that seems to come up the most often is the spring NASCAR weekend at Phoenix. Curt Cavin has said that he understands that the IndyCar series has been offered by Phoenix International Raceway (a track owned by International Speedway Corporation, a sister company of NASCAR) a Thursday race day for that weekend, and that the IndyCar brass have turned down this option. I can't say that I blame them, as Cup team haulers are barely arriving in town by Thursday, much less any race fans. The majority of the attendance for such a race would have to either be local or willing to spend the entire week in the area, and anybody who wanted to come in for just the weekend and catch the IndyCar race would be out of luck.
I do not believe that NASCAR has any intention of helping the IndyCar series in any way, as any extra attention paid to the IndyCar series by fans, the media or sponsors could be taking away from the attention that all of these parties pay to NASCAR. I've said in the past here that NASCAR treats GrandAm, another sister company to NASCAR, as a third rate citizen when they share a track, making GrandAm race hours in advance of any other NASCAR action or even days before the headlining race. They would treat IndyCar no better should they ever decide to share a race weekend with IndyCar.
So, in order to get more eyeballs on the IndyCar series, are there any series out there that could team up fanbases? The obvious (I would hope) answer here is the American Le Mans Series, a series that already shares a couple of weekends per year with the IndyCar series. Things have not always been happy in that partnership, from what I've heard, with the two sides tussling over who headlines at what race and which series gets what amount of track time. The time for this ego-driven bickering to stop is right now.
The IndyCar series does not appear to be as healthy as many people would like. Several top line drivers, including Graham Rahal, Oriol Servia, Bruno Junquiera, J.R. Hildebrand and Buddy Rice are currently without rides, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is sponsored by the series title sponsor, Izod, lacks the sponsorship dollars for an entire season. By all accounts, car counts will not top last year's, and there's a good chance that some fields will be back down to the 20-21 car range. Meanwhile, the ALMS has had to consolidate its prototype classes and introduce two "spec" classes, one prototype, one GT, in order to boost car counts beyond 20. For either of these two series to categorically say that they are in superior enough shape to dictate terms of race weekends to the other is absurd at this point.
I wrote here about going to a joint ChampCar / ALMS weekend at Road America a couple of years ago. It remains one of the best race weekends that I've ever attended, even though we skipped out on the Sunday ChampCar race (I had little interest in flying home at midnight after watching only 17 cars race, and with a couple of those occupied by the immortal Tristan Gommendy and my personal favorite, "Bleepy" Dan Clarke, who actually posted one of his two career ChampCar podiums that weekend). I can tell you from my personal experience that that weekend was by far the most crowded non-Indianapolis USGP road race that I've been to, far beating out events that I've seen at Cleveland and Mid-Ohio.
IndyCar and the ALMS share weekends this year at Long Beach and Mid-Ohio, but this could be much, much better if IndyCar's new management and ALMS's long-standing management could put aside their egos and work together on their 2011 calendars. With few exceptions, IndyCar and the ALMS should race together just about every time IndyCar takes to a road course. With a couple of IndyCar's current road races possibly going away for next year (Edmonton is rumored to be on the rocks, and Sears Point seems to be universally reviled by the fans, if not team sponsors), IndyCar could even add a couple of ALMS events to its calendar without upsetting the balance of ovals / road courses.
I don't mean for this to turn into a "if I could run the racing world and construct my favorite calendar" exercise. I want this to represent what the IndyCar calendar could look like, if they were to sit down at the table with the ALMS and tweak their schedules to dovetail one another's. Here goes:
March 5, 2011 - Homestead (an oval-based series ought to start on an oval; this is a separate blog post, I think) - IndyCar only
March 19-20 - Sebring - ALMS 12 Hour race on Saturday, IndyCar 200 Mile race on Sunday, or they could swap the order to maintain ALMS's headliner status (Sebring would be great for IndyCars: long straights, wide, plenty of passing; this would replace St. Pete, which I wouldn't miss much)
April 2-3 - Barber Motorsports Park - IndyCar on Saturday, ALMS on Sunday
April 16-17 - Long Beach - ALMS on Saturday, IndyCar on Sunday
May 7 - Kansas Speedway - IndyCar only
May 21 - Indy Pole Day (assuming that the current qualifying rules stand next year, not that they should)
May 28 - Indy 500 - IndyCar only
June 4 - Texas Speedway - IndyCar only
June 19 - Iowa Speedway - IndyCar only
July 3-4 - Watkins Glen - ALMS on Sunday the 3rd, IndyCar on Monday the 4th (this is tricky; the ALMS teams will be back from Le Mans by now, but will ISC be willing to allow this to happen at one of their tracks?)
July 17 - Toronto - IndyCar only (unless ALMS wants to come play)
July 30-31 - Mid-Ohio - IndyCar on Saturday, ALMS on Sunday (giving a nod to ALMS headlining a weekend; ALMS usually puts on a better show at Mid-Ohio, anyway)
August 13-14 - Road America - ALMS 500 Miler or 6 Hour on Saturday into the evening, IndyCar 200 Miler on Sunday (this needs to happen, and I will not argue about it)
August 27 - Motegi - IndyCar only (if it must stay on the calendar for now...)
September 4 - Kentucky - IndyCar only (a quick turn around from Motegi, but it's close to most teams' shops)
September 17-18 - Road Atlanta - IndyCar on Saturday, ALMS on Sunday for Petit Le Mans (changing Petit from Saturday to Sunday to maintain ALMS headlining status for their season finale)
September 25 - Chicagoland - IndyCar only (the season finale MUST be at Chicagoland)
The ALMS will have to make a couple of concessions with this schedule, namely shifting their Miller Motorsports Park date back to May and moving their Lime Rock date to coincide with IndyCar's Toronto date or one of the oval weekends. But, they also have some latitude to fit in a race at Laguna Seca, six-hour, sprint or otherwise, possibly in late August. The ALMS might be upset that they're not headlining more dates than they are, but if you're only fielding 20-25 car fields over four classes, can you really call yourself much of a headliner?
Anyway, how's that for a schedule? Eight ovals, three street races (if you include Sebring), and five road courses, including the triumphant return of Road Atlanta and Road America. We lose St. Pete for Sebring, Sao Paulo goes away (it sounds like it's on somewhat uneven footing this year, but if it turns out to be a success, maybe we can slide it in by moving up Homestead one week and putting it before Sebring), Edmonton drops off (as it might anyway), and Sears Point goes the way of the dodo. IndyCar and ALMS fans both win because now they get fantastic value for their dollar at SEVEN different tracks, and every non-NASCAR fan in the country has those dates all circled on their calendars. I don't know about you, but I'd be seriously tempted to turn in my Indy tickets in exchange for weekend passes at Sebring and Road Atlanta. OK, maybe that's a stretch, but you get my drift.
The era of insisting on standing and succeeding on one's own is more or less over for both IndyCar and the ALMS. It's time to put away the egos, embrace what the fans have been asking for and stand together. It might be their last chance.