Schedule will need to open up
INDIANAPOLIS -- Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's traveling crew was delighted when its delayed flight home from Iowa touched down in Indianapolis at 10 o'clock Sunday night, the last of eight consecutive weekends at racetracks finally completed.
Problem is, most of the crew had to be back at the airport a few hours later to catch a 5 a.m. plane to Pennsylvania for a test at Pocono Raceway. It almost wasn't worth going home.
Relief for the weary is finally here this weekend -- the first off weekend for the IZOD IndyCar Series since April 27-28. Since then, the series has raced in Sao Paulo, Brazil; spent three weekends at Indianapolis Motor Speedway dealing with the unique challenges of the stretched-out format of the Indianapolis 500; then raced in Detroit (twice), Texas, Milwaukee and Iowa.
Eight consecutive weekends is par for the course in NASCAR, but it's uncharted territory for Indy car racing. And champion Indy car driver and team owner Bobby Rahal doesn't want to see it happen again.
"It's been brutal," Rahal said. "I call this schedule the NASCAR-ization of IndyCar. There was a belief that clustering everything together would bring bigger crowds and better TV numbers.
"It's just a brutal schedule and I'm hopeful with Derrick Walker working for INDYCAR now, who has lived through these situations, he can bring some logic to it," Rahal continued. "The current schedule just consumes people, and other resources that the teams don't have -- more gearboxes and the like -- and it's just because of the lack of turnaround time. So it's costly to the teams to have a schedule of this nature and in human terms, it's extremely costly."
Rahal knows more than most just how difficult it is for a series to put together a schedule. He said it was the most difficult challenge he faced when he served as the interim CEO of CART in 2001.
"You know what you want as a series, which at times butts heads with the track promoters in terms of their dates," Rahal said. "You try not to conflict with other major events, and TV, of course, plays a role in at least setting the time of events on any given weekend. It's just really, really difficult.
"Having said that, at the height of CART when it was running 20 races, we never had more than three races consecutively."
From the race in Brazil on May 5 through the doubleheader in Toronto set for July 13-14, IndyCar will have been on track in 10 out of 11 weekends, running 10 races in that time span.
By contrast, the IndyCar Series will stage three races in the next 11 weeks after that, and a total of six in the 14 weeks between July 20 and the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in California on Oct. 19.
Tim Broyles, team manager for Ed Carpenter Racing, said he understands the reasons the compressed schedule was put into place for the IndyCar Series. Like Rahal, he believes IndyCar was influenced by the NASCAR model.
"NASCAR teams are set up much different with multiple cars for superspeedway, short track, road course and other configurations," Broyles explained. "They have big fleets of cars, where we have just two chassis for all of our events that include superspeedway, short ovals, street circuits and natural terrain courses and we take those cars to every event. When we come back from each event, we have to turn cars around with the different setups. Fortunately, this year we haven't had to do many road course to oval setups so far because it's quite a bit of work to switch the cars around for the next weekend."
Rahal pointed out that many NASCAR teams also have separate staff that builds and prepares at the shop, another group that maintains the car at the track, and a race day over-the-wall pit crew. In Indy car racing, a smaller, tight-knit crew handles all of those functions, at home base and on the road.
The other consequence of the compressed schedule that IndyCar has run the past few years is a six-month-long offseason, during which the sport fades from the public consciousness and many teams are forced to lay off staff for extended periods of time.
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"It works in [NASCAR's] case because of the volume of cars and people and resources they have," Rahal said. "Indy car racing has a fraction of that and you're being asked to perform to a similar schedule. It eats people, frankly. It's difficult to find good people because of the intensity and compression of the schedule. In ALMS racing, they have a 10-race season and get paid nearly as much or as much as guys in Indy cars. And it's not just hard on the crews -- you think of their families.
"I think part of the problem up until Derrick Walker arrived is that no one [at INDYCAR] ever had to try to meet such a schedule," Rahal added. "They had never experienced what teams are going through. Derrick is looking for ways to make it much more reasonable."
Rahal is a proponent of starting the season earlier than late March, even if it means running a few international events to kick off the campaign.
"You can't try to cram your 19 races between March and Sept.1," he noted. "There's not enough weekends and it would kill people. You also have this six-month offseason and that's hard for the teams to financially carry. I have no problem with the season ending early as long as it starts early."
Walker, who managed Penske Racing's Indy car effort in the 1970s before becoming a team owner in his own right in the '90s, empathizes with the teams and it appears he could spearhead a major revamp of the schedule for 2014.
"We have talked with INDYCAR about it and it's something I think they are looking at overall," Broyles said. "They are looking to have our series in the public eye as much as possible and get as much coverage as possible.
"This stretch has been challenging, maybe more so for the smaller teams, but it's the same for everyone," he added. "May was easier on everyone because we were sleeping in our own beds every night. We have been on two-day turnarounds with the cars for several weeks, and I think our guys have done a great job as far as prepping the race cars. We've had great reliability on the mechanical side and have managed this stretch pretty well.
"But it has gotten to the point where it's hard to keep fresh paint on the cars and I'd say everyone is pretty worn down right now."
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