Published April 28, 2010
There's an old saying about bad things coming in threes. But the Indy Racing League is eager to disprove that theory with a new triple-title format for the IZOD IndyCar Series that begins with this Saturday's 300-miler at Kansas Speedway.
As announced earlier this week, the series will feature new oval and road/street course titles within the bigger overall series championship. The season's first four events (all on road/street circuits) have been counted retroactively, and the oval title fight will begin this weekend in the Heartland.
The oval championship will be decided on Sept. 19 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, while the road/street title will be handed out on Aug. 22 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. As a result, the Oct. 2 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will honor the overall IZOD IndyCar Series titleholder. Both oval and road/street champs will receive their own trophies, which will be named after open-wheel racing legends as determined by an upcoming fan vote, and special bonuses with an exact purse yet to be announced.
It's certainly an ambitious plan by the league and its CEO, Randy Bernard, to add more weight to the races outside the cornerstone that is the Indianapolis 500. But by emphasizing these two distinct disciplines that make up the sport, do they also stand to confuse its fan base with the new "sub-titles"?
Here's a look at some of the potential positives and negatives that come with this format.
Pro: Increased intrigue
The series boasts a unique blend of tracks and its embrace of both oval and road racing ensures that whoever emerges as its champion is truly a top-tier driver. That appears to be what Bernard keyed on as he settled into his new job as the sport's leader and looked to come up with ways to immediately improve it.
"After my first six weeks, I kept saying to myself, 'We need to be able to deliver a consistent message about our sport that separates us from other forms of auto racing,'" he said in a release put out by the league. "What hit me is that we have the fastest and most versatile drivers and race cars in the world -- and no one can deny that -- and now we have to show why we're the fastest and most versatile.
"We have 17 events, but how do we create better storylines?"
As mentioned earlier, the format tries to do that by giving more prestige to relatively low-key rounds like at Infineon and Motegi. What were once ho-hum events now have the chance to play more critical roles in the outcome of all three championships, and while nothing is ever going to top the "500," it's still critical for the series to create and sustain a noticeable buzz at every track it goes to -- and nationally, as well.
Con: Lack of TV presence
Of course, it'd be a heck of a lot easier for the series to build excitement amongst the masses if it enjoyed a bigger television profile. Versus' early ratings in their second year of IRL coverage have improved, but an event as prestigious as Long Beach should be pulling way more viewers than it did. Such is the state of the league on the airwaves; everything is going to be an improvement because everything's tiny to begin with.
As it stands now, the league's relative lack of network TV (four events on ABC; St. Petersburg got rained out and was shifted to ESPN2) is a major obstacle to promoting the new format. The folks on 16th and Georgetown should be grateful that the Versus-DirecTV standoff is over.
Pro: Emphasis on diversity
Ever listen to an alternative rock station on the radio and hear a slogan that positions the stations as "[Your city's] only alternative" or "The new rock alternative"? That appears to be what Bernard is doing with the IRL in an American racing landscape that's dominated by NASCAR. The new format pushes the different and unique aspects of both oval and road racing, and banks on attracting the respective bases of both disciplines.
Enter title sponsor IZOD's emphasis on speed (note that their TV commercials call the series' drivers "the fastest drivers in the world") and the series' international pool of drivers and you have a product that, if correctly marketed, can be a successful alternative to the brand of racing that NASCAR provides. It may never be as big as NASCAR, but it can find a good niche and get a decent amount of fans in the stands and on TV.
Con: Isn't one enough?
Making sure that the oval and road/street championships are secondary to the overall IndyCar title (and getting that point across to fans and the media) is going to be very important for the league as it goes forward with this new format. But even if the IRL manages to do a swell job on that part, there may still be folks wondering why the "sub-titles" are even necessary.
There's still going to be the grand prize of the overall series title and the argument of that being enough is a valid one. While it's nice that the smaller teams now have something to aim for thanks to these secondary crowns, they're likely to still be way behind Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing (and maybe Andretti Autosport if their oval program is up to snuff) in the overall standings.
That is the big picture. And to some, it should be the only picture.
Pro: A bone for the oval brigade
The league's shift from its all-oval roots has bothered a lot of fans that prefer IndyCars making left turns only. And it could get worse for that crowd. This week's stop, Kansas Speedway, is ramping up efforts for a second NASCAR Sprint Cup event, which could wind up shutting the IRL out of the 1.5-mile oval. Also, the city of Baltimore, Md. is looking to nail down a street race at the Inner Harbor next summer.
But Bernard said in a league release that he will be looking for an "evenly balanced" mix of ovals and road/street events for future schedules. And with this new oval championship, it would appear that, at least at first glance, he and the league are truly sincere about keeping speedway racing as a viable part of the series' makeup.
After last year's debut of the new speedway aero package, fans at Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway were treated to phenomenal races full of wheel-to-wheel action that evoked memories of the IRL's former days. The league needs to ensure that this stays an equal priority to road racing.
Con: Danica defection still likely
The oval championship certainly gives Danica Patrick, the league's most popular driver, the opportunity to become a titleholder. To state that she is a better racer on ovals than on twisty tracks is, after five years, stating the obvious. So one can argue that this new format is a shrewd move on the IRL's part to try and keep their biggest star from jumping to NASCAR full-time (she currently drives on a part-time basis in the Nationwide Series). But will it really work?
The answer: probably not. With the amount of road racing that goes on these days in IndyCar, Patrick is at a bit of a disadvantage. Her results in the first four events of 2010, all on twisties: 15th, 7th, 19th, 16th. Also keep in mind that her position as the series' best female driver may come under attack soon if Simona de Silvestro can adapt to oval competition (and gets good equipment to work with from her HVM Racing team).
And of course, the power of NASCAR's marketing machine behind her probably has a say in this as well.