Sunday, July 20, 2008
Updated: July 22, 1:36 PM ET
Teams starting to show strains from nonstop racing schedule
By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com
Racing six weekends in a row is typical for NASCAR and would barely be considered part-time for a series like the World of Outlaws. But six race weekends in a row is uncharted territory for the IndyCar Series, and five weeks into that difficult stretch, the strain is starting to show.
Maybe that's because these six race weekends (Iowa, Richmond, Watkins Glen, Nashville, Mid-Ohio and Edmonton) came hot on the heels of another period in which the IndyCar Series had scheduled activity (if not actual races) for eight consecutive weekends between April 19 and June 8.
In all, that means everyone involved with the IndyCar Series has been on the job for 14 of the past 15 weeks. Following Saturday's Rexall Grand Prix of Edmonton (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET), there is a brief respite, with off weekends sandwiching the event at Kentucky Speedway, which is the track closest to most of the teams, which are based in Indianapolis. But then it's another three in a row, capped by the Sept. 7 season finale at Chicagoland Speedway.
The unification of American open-wheel racing has been very positively received, but there were a few compromises that had to be made for it to happen. One of those compromises was the late addition of the Edmonton event to the end of a previously scheduled five-week run.
Making the situation even more difficult, the Indy Racing League insisted that the Edmonton race be run on Saturday so it would not clash with the NASCAR Allstate 400 at the Brickyard set for Sunday, July 27, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It's almost a 2,000-mile drive from Mid-Ohio to Edmonton, and the timetable is so tight that some teams, including KV Racing Technology and Rahal Letterman Racing, had planned to turn around their cars Sunday night at Mid-Ohio and leave directly for Canada without stopping at their home base.
"Our trucks are leaving directly from here to go to Edmonton, because it's a long haul," said Rahal Letterman chief operating officer Scott Roembke. "We're based only an hour away [in Hilliard, Ohio] and we're not even going home -- we're going to leave right from here.
"It's tough on all the teams and I'm sure it's tough on the officials and everyone -- even the fans. I'm old enough that I remember the first time we did three in a row [in CART in 2001] and it was a huge deal. It was Detroit, Portland and Cleveland, and I remember wondering, 'How are we ever going to do three in a row?'"
Now that workload has been doubled, and the challenge has been made greater by the fact that this six-week stretch required IndyCar teams to convert their cars from oval track to road racing trim or vice versa three times.
"If they could minimize the changes from track to track and go from oval to oval and road course to road course, that would help a ton," Roembke said. "Going from Richmond to Watkins Glen, then back to Nashville, then the road course at Mid-Ohio, that's a ton of work. You've got to take the gearboxes apart, and/or have spare gearboxes, rebuild the whole car, and change out the suspension.
"They get caught up in this whole NASCAR mentality. You can't find a NASCAR team out there that doesn't have 12 or 14 cars. But these cars are just not designed to be run week in and week out without proper maintenance. They are highly sophisticated, technical cars and when you start slapping races back-to-back-to-back-to-back, someone is going to miss something."
Andretti Green Racing co-owner Kim Green said he believes a few gaps need to be fitted into the IndyCar Series schedule for 2009 and beyond for the sake of employees' family lives.
"Especially in the summer, I think you need some breaks," Green said. "We've got a lot of family in our company and a lot of kids who don't see their dad on weekends in the summer. I think family life is very important. The only other option is you've got to have more people and more equipment.
"In an ideal world, I'd like to see two on and then a weekend off. But I don't think that's practical. They should definitely have a maximum of three or four with a weekend off."
Green said the challenges are even greater for his team because they run four cars in the IndyCar Series as well as a pair of entries in the Firestone Indy Lights support series.
"It puts a lot of stress on the teams and the systems the teams have in place -- especially for us," Green noted. "It's not like we have a garage full of race cars back at the shop like they do in NASCAR. So it creates a lot of challenges for the staff. We've crashed a couple of times in that six weeks and that really hurt.
"I think we've got great people and they are well organized, so that helps a lot. We've been able to show up at every track with race cars that are ready to go, and I think we've been pretty competitive during those six weeks as well."
AGR's trucks were planning to return to the team's Indianapolis base Sunday night and Green said the goal is for them to turn around and head for Edmonton at 2 p.m. ET Monday. The team is taking a limited amount of equipment to Canada: four tractor trailers (one for each IndyCar) and a VIP hospitality unit. AGR normally travels with seven semis and three or four motor coaches.
And AGR faces an additional challenge this weekend.
"We've got staff coming into the shop as soon as the 7-11 truck gets back from Mid-Ohio because Tony Kanaan's car is running a different paint scheme at Edmonton," Green said. "So we're going to 'wrap' it tonight and try to get it done by lunchtime [Monday] and that certainly makes it hard work for this turnaround."
Bobby Rahal, the former IndyCar driver who now co-owns Rahal Letterman Racing, said he believes running so many weekends in a row makes a career in the series an unattractive proposition for prospective employees.
"How about the exodus of good mechanics because nobody wants to get burned out here?" Rahal said. "They're all going to the ALMS or vintage car racing."
Because of the 11th-hour integration of the Champ Car World Series into the IndyCar Series, this year's brutal summer schedule should be the exception and not the rule.
"From what we hear, the IRL says they are trying to address it," Roembke said. "I don't think they're going to be able to fix it in one year and it's naive to think we're not going to have four races in a row next year at some point in the schedule.
"But over time they need to spread them out because it's going to drive the people away."
Honda Performance Development president Erik Berkman agreed that the summer stretch has been difficult on his staff, which provides engines for the entire IndyCar Series field.
"It's more of a human toil issue," Berkman said. "It's a strain on people to work so many back-to-back weeks and not be able to come up for air.
"We've talked to the league and I'm sure everyone is making the same request to have a little break here and there. They are working hard to try and set a schedule looking to the long term. The schedule this year was put together with the merged series and it was less than ideal.
"Next year I think they are going to try and sort some of that out. But there will be a summer stretch with a lot of races. That's just the nature of the game, but if we could introduce a break here or there, it would be nice."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
How about the exodus of good mechanics because nobody wants to get burned out here? They're all going to the ALMS or vintage car racing.
-- Bobby Rahal