IndyCar schedule for 2009 has some surprises, and may not be finished

The IndyCar Series issued an 18-race schedule for the 2009 season that promises to be less stressful on competitors.

The schedule features 10 ovals and eight road or street courses, and series officials said their intention is to eventually achieve a 50-50 balance of road races and ovals. The IndyCar Series raced exclusively on ovals from 1996 to 2004.

The last-minute consolidation of American open-wheel racing prior to the 2008 campaign created some compromises this year, most notably a vicious stretch of six races in six weekends from mid-June to late July. By extending the schedule an extra month into mid-October, series officials were able to create a slate that features no more than four consecutive weekends of racing, and that should ease the burden on teams, suppliers and officials.

"Extending the season will improve the quality of life for everyone involved in the series," said Indy Racing League competition president Brian Barnhart.

The biggest change to the order is shifting the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway from the season opener to the season finale. League and track officials hope that the creation of an IndyCar Series championship week in South Florida will dramatically increase attendance at a track that has consistently struggled to attract open-wheel fans.

"We've talked long and hard about our historical performance there, and I think we are both confident that we can attract a much bigger crowd to our season-ender versus our opener," said IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt.

"We have already spoken to some new sponsors about their interest in South Florida and their interest in being involved in our final championship event, and we are hopeful we can move the needle."

HMS president Curtis Gray noted that Miami has hosted more Super Bowls than any other market, and that Homestead has hosted the NASCAR championship finale for several years.

"The Super Bowl creates ancillary events leading up to the championship, and we plan to use that same model for the IRL championship," he said. "South Florida is used to hosting championship events and that gets people very excited down here.

"Almost anything less than that makes it a tough sell sometimes.
That's why we've had such success with our NASCAR event."

The July date at Nashville Superspeedway has been replaced by the second coming of the Toronto Indy, a popular street race that was part of the CART/Champ Car schedule from 1986 to 2007. The rights to the Toronto event are now held by Andretti Green Promotions, which also stages the new season opener -- the Honda Grand Prix of St.

AGP president Kevin Savoree said his group is close to securing a title sponsor to replace Molson Breweries, which was an integral part of the Toronto event up to 2005.

"With some corporate help for the heavy lifting, we feel the event can return to the status it had several years ago," Savoree said. "We're pretty close -- we're at the draft stage of a contract with a title partner."

Several key markets failed to make the cut for 2009, including New Hampshire, Las Vegas and Cleveland. Speedway Motorsports Inc. issued a press release that was highly critical of the fact that Las Vegas Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway were not included on the 18-race IndyCar slate.

"I was somewhat surprised at the tone," said Angstadt. "But I have stopped worrying about what other people say. We continue to have an interest in those markets and hope we can keep an open dialogue."

Angstadt said that the IRL is continuing to work with Mi-Jack Promotions in the hopes of resurrecting the Cleveland Grand Prix for 2010. MJP also holds the rights to stage a race in Houston.

"We had a very good meeting with Mike Lanigan and his promotion company in Edmonton, and our interest in both markets is real," he said.

Conspicuously absent from the docket is the event at Surfers Paradise, Australia. The IRL finally acknowledged Wednesday that the IndyCar Series will honor Champ Car's Oct. 26 date this season at the Gold Coast street course, but did not clarify whether the Australian event will count toward the 2008 or '09 championship.

Chicagoland Speedway is contractually obligated to host the 2008 IndyCar Series championship finale on Sept. 7 this year, and several teams are reportedly unwilling to put in the time and expense required to race in Australia if that event is a non-championship exhibition.

One wild rumor making the rounds contends that the IRL will offer a massive points bonus to those teams that compete in Australia this year that would essentially leave them no choice but to make the trip if they want to win this year's title.

Angstadt said that Surfers Paradise has been offered two potential dates for 2009; the most logical would be Sept. 27, one week after the IndyCar Series event at Motegi, Japan, which has been shifted to the fall after being run in the spring as a CART or IRL race since 1998.

However, a late-September date would not be well-received by competitors in the Australian V8 Supercar Championship. That series traditionally stages its most prestigious race, the Bathurst 1000, on the second weekend of October, and teams would not want to risk damaging their cars at the Surfers race, which has often taken a heavy toll on equipment.

Surfers could conceivably shift to March to function as the season opener, but that would likely not go over well with St. Petersburg.

Excluding the Australian event, the IndyCar Series will go nearly seven months (from Sept. 7 this year to April 5, 2009) without a race. That's an awful long time to be out of the public eye, yet Angstadt remains optimistic.

"That's certainly a challenge that we face," he admitted. "But with our sponsorship development and some of the other activities that involve future OEMs and equipment changes, we think we have lots of exciting stories developing in the IndyCar Series and the Firestone Indy Lights Championship.

"It's always a challenge for any seasonal business, but we think there is lots of excitement and enthusiasm and business developments around our upcoming offseason, and we hope to stay in the news."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.