2007 Schedule Update - Sonoma

Posted by Iannucci | 10/12/2006 | 0 comments »
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Oh joy, another road course announcement. The 2007 Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma will be held August 26, leaving only a date for Michigan International Speedway to be announced. Trackside Online thinks it's the first weekend in August, but we will wait for the official announcment.

The official 2007 total is now up to 16 races.

March 24 at Homestead-Miami Speedway
April 1 in St. Petersburg, Florida
April 12 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan
April 29 at Kansas Speedway
May 27 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
June 3 at The Milwaukee Mile
June 9 at Texas Motor Speedway
June 24 at Iowa Speedway
June 30 at Richmond International Raceway
July 8 at Watkins Glen
July 14 at Nashville Superspeedway
July 22 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
August 11 at Kentucky Speedway
August 26 at Infineon Raceway
September 2 at Belle Isle
September 9 at Chicagoland Speedway

Today's announcement brings the total number of non-oval tracks in the IndyCar series to five. This recent outbreak of right-turns has left hardcore IRL fans wondering why the league keeps veering away from its oval roots. So what gives?

In the larger sense, it’s probably part of an “acting like a winner” strategy. This past year we heard many drivers and teams (as well as reporters and fans) chirping with extra volume about the need for a merger, and perhaps Brian Barnhart and the braintrust feel that adding more road courses that feature racing that looks like Champ Car will reduce the perceived need for unification. I don’t know this for certain, but if any of you see Mr. Barnhart feel free to ask him if that is the case.

In a microscopic sense, these five races were not added without purpose. Looking at the races individually shows how each one addresses a specific interest.

St. Petersburg – This race is presented by Andretti Green Promotions, so file this under “keep the four-car owner happy”.

Mid-Ohio – With so many Honda facilities in this part of Ohio, it was just a matter of time before the sole engine provider of the league helped the league to this track.

Watkins Glen – This is for the remaining IndyCar fans in New England, after the random wrecks at Dover Downs made that track of no use to the IRL.

Detroit – Roger Penske wanted it, and he’s perhaps the most prolific owner in the history of open-wheel racing in America.

Sonoma – Highly-populated Northern California needs to be served, plus the drivers and their wives love shopping in San Francisco.

So using this logic, if Chip Ganassi wants a race in streets of Pittsburgh then we’ll get that as well.

It’s no secret I’m not a big fan of the road and street races, but if the individual events draw crowds and serve other interests in the league then I can handle them. Just like if all this Danica PR helps expand the fan base of the league then it’s worth withstanding. Longtime fans in the viewing audience are ready to take a few for the team so long as another oval race is just around the corner.

But if the overall plan is to pull the CCWS audience out from under them by having road races then the IRL is chasing the wrong dog. They may think they can scoop up whatever remaining Champ Car fans there are by featuring a similar style of racing, but those few CCWS fanatics will give up their allegiance when you pry their cold, dead league from their cold, dead hands.

No, the opportunity for garnering more fans lies in the ranks of NASCAR.

Before you laugh too hard, understand that I never expect to see open-wheel racing pass NASCAR in popularity. The advantage to NASCAR a given, especially since the difference in the number of fans is so vast. Barring a scandal of race-fixing, there is absolutely no opportunity to completely overtake NASCAR.

But the fact is NASCAR is going international in all aspects, and some longtime fans are losing enthusiasm. I’m not trying to paint the fan base as xenophobic, but it’s true that much of the popularity of NASCAR has been having Americans driving American cars on American tracks. It’s more an issue of the comfort of that which is familiar than being about hating foreigners.

Now, consider that next year NASCAR will have races in Mexico City and Montreal. Next year several teams in the Cup series will be driving Toyotas. Next year Juan Pablo Montoya and perhaps Jacques Villenueve will be driving in that series as well.

Meanwhile the IRL still has only the Motegi race outside the US, and will feature Uncle Sam as the reigning Indy 500 and IndyCar series champion. The most popular driver is that American Girl in the Batmobile, and team owners such as Penske, Ganassi and Foyt are familiar in many ways to NASCAR fans as well.

I’m not saying anything IRL officials don’t already know because they already have displayed a piggy-back strategy with the Bumping Behemoths. They occasionally feature IndyCar events with Busch series races, and they have many races on ISC tracks, which are largely owned by NASCAR founders in the France family. The fact that Barnhart and company are eyeing a road race at Daytona shows they still have NASCAR on their minds.

But the addition of all these road courses not named “Daytona” does nothing to help attract American race fans in regions away from those courses. These events not only diminish the value of the best part of the entertainment, but they also remind any fickle NASCAR fans in the TV audience why they stopped watching CART a decade ago.

Whenever someone starts talking about adding another road race, look at this quote from a writer who covers NASCAR:

Is there anything in sports more thrilling than three-wide racing at Talladega? I don't think so.
Show this guy three-wide or even four-wide at Texas or Michigan or Chicagoland or wherever the IRL features actual passing in place of the slow-moving trains of restrictor-plated beasts at Talladega and this guy may likely change his tune. American fans love this stuff.

There is no three-wide on a road course – ever. American fans hate that stuff.

I'm not trying to start a riot or anything, but if you agree with me then let the league know here. This is just too much of a bad thing.