There's an old Chinese curse I learned my freshman year of college that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” And certainly when it comes to the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, it has been nothing short of “interesting times” – and not in a good way.
The crux of the issue of course dates back to when the full schedule for 2012 was supposed to be announced, initially, last October in Las Vegas. It turned out all the announcement was, was that IndyCar would be returning to Las Vegas in 2012.
A rehash of the events of last year isn't required but naturally, everything that happened at Las Vegas threw the schedule into a state of disarray, particularly involving ovals.
At the time, the 1.5-milers were near extinction with Texas's place in question, Kentucky dropped, and Las Vegas on the brink of saying it wouldn't be back. The one-milers weren't faring much better; Loudon was axed and Milwaukee was also a non-inclusion when the initial schedule was announced in December, at 15 races.
One race that was included was China, announced one month earlier on November 10, for the weekend of Aug. 18-19, 2012. It would run in Qingdao, concurrent with the city's beer festival.
Cynically and skeptically, at the time, I looked at this and thought, “Hmm. There's been several times where IndyCar in a former guise – Champ Car – has tried to go to China. And Korea. And guess how it's ended?”
Despite the humorous Ansan, Korea and Beijing, China “sponsored” Champ Cars aimed to increase awareness in the 2005 and 2006 seasons about the Asian races, the dreams died and Champ Car was left with a schedule of reduced races. Three straight years, a proposed China or Korea race was canceled.
The primary reason for this year's proposed China trip was that it was at the behest of series title sponsor IZOD, whose brand was looking to expand its reach and establish a footprint within the region.
It also, according to then-IndyCar commercial division president Terry Angstadt (who's no longer working with IndyCar and is now with Green Savoree Promotions), had attracted support and major sponsorship from the Chinese government. Angstadt and IndyCar had gone their separate ways by the end of November, at roughly the same time Brian Barnhart was reassigned to be the sanctioning body's president of operations, only.
The biggest issue I had, knowing the long-desired pursuit of China by the prior sanctioning body and now with IndyCar attempting to do likewise this year, was that it was designed as a pure money grab based on the potential sanctioning fee. It wasn't a race picked because fans, media or all the series' sponsors were clamoring for it.
It also happened to fall on the same weekend as the American Le Mans Series' round at Elkhart Lake's Road America. IndyCar was essentially saying – in November – it would rather run a race at “o'dark thirty” in a country that few people would publicly admit they'd want to go to, rather than pursue getting back on the docket at an event which has a built-in crowd and would be mutually beneficial for both series.
You have to think Road America track president George Bruggenthies can't have not noticed this. This was even despite a diplomatic quote from the track's then-communications manager I received via email:
“IndyCar made a business decision to go to China and we appreciate the many fans, drivers, and media who support the idea of IndyCar making Road America a stop on their schedule. Their history at Road America is strongly etched into the memories of our fans – it would be great to continue that legacy.”
Novel concept, that. Memories, fans, drivers and media who'd rather be there than China. But, at least for 2012, a pipe dream.
Following the initial announcement by IndyCar, there wasn't much said about China, save for a couple trips by IndyCar officials including Tony Cotman to explore the possible track layout. Only around Indianapolis did public concerns of China's instability on the calendar begin to arise, although IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard still said it was happening.
In the interim, IndyCar had already added a 16th race to its 2012 schedule – Milwaukee revived at the last minute (in February) thanks to the efforts of Michael Andretti and Andretti Sports Marketing. After the few months of planning, by the time race week in Milwaukee happen, Bernard's public line was that it was important to make Milwaukee a success before discussing the potential backup plan for China, if it fell through.
Interestingly, race morning at Milwaukee, Andretti was quoted in multiple outlets as saying he'd support a return to Road America – a race in the same state and basically the same market as the one he was promoting. It would be last minute, but hopes were raised that this could actually happen.
There was, as reported by the Indianapolis Star, a “Plan B” – and several potential options for what that might be. But when it became apparent China would fall through, and was announced – suddenly Road America became a popular would-be replacement. Still, much like nobody wants to be the last person picked to fill a team, Road America had every right to feel it had a chip on its shoulder as if to say, “Why do you only want us when you're desperate?”
An offer was placed – I first saw it on Twitter on June 20 from Lance Allan, my former colleague at the NBC broadcast affiliate in Milwaukee (WTMJ-TV) – that Road America had proposed a possible sanctioning fee to IndyCar for a 2012 race on the Sunday of ALMS weekend, Aug. 19.
With all the bargaining power, and with only half the time to produce a viable race as in Milwaukee – even with the built-in ALMS event on the weekend and a Corvette day on Sunday – Road America and IndyCar were reportedly far enough apart on the sanctioning fee to where it couldn't work for 2012.
Despite the media speculation, with reports and commentaries that had Road America moving from “possibility” to “likely” to “almost a done deal,” it was always going to be hard to pull something like this off at this juncture.
The bigger issue is that it even needed to come to this in the first place. There's no comprehensible reason that in June, you're still trying to figure out your schedule for the same year. If you know a race in China is potentially vulnerable, don't announce it as a confirmed race to begin with; instead, make sure all the ducks are in a row for the event to happen and don't announce it publicly. The ubiquitous “TBA” is a nicer way of approaching the situation, if anything at all is to be printed. It's fairly embarrassing needing to cancel an event at this stage of the year, rather than not having announced it to begin with if it wasn't a completely done deal.
A reasonable sanctioning fee in line with normal events could have been garnered at Road America if it hadn't been dismissed in the first place. It's hard not to salivate at the prospect of a potential big check from a sanctioning fee, but China, for American open-wheel racing, is essentially the carrot being dangled in front of a mule.
The next situation to watch now is what happens with series title sponsor IZOD. Publicly, the company has pledged support of the decision to remain at 15 races this season and not add anything at this late a date.
Still, considering the tenuous situation that China was an IZOD/Angstadt project, and the obvious reduction of IZOD marketing, promotion and advertising this season, this may be the “out clause” they need considering a 16-race schedule has been widely rumored, if never stated officially by either IndyCar or IZOD directly, to fulfill the contractual obligations.
As for Road America? Considering it would be a popular choice to rejoin the schedule after what would be a six-year hiatus (2007, Champ Car) in 2013, my only hope is the relationship between IndyCar and the track hasn't been damaged by how it's been handled this year. IndyCar is not operating in a position of strength from a fan standpoint, and races where an increased fan turnout or fan interest exists are not something to be so easily dismissed.
Given the frustration, IndyCar needs to learn from the would-be China race and the shortened schedule for 2012. For 2013 and beyond, if it hasn't done so already, IndyCar should attempt to work with either of the sports car series (ALMS and Grand-Am) to create more partnership/doubleheader rounds. It should avoid pursuing China, a market which has consistently proven difficult to break into, and instead work on reviving more American rounds – which it has already hinted at doing in Phoenix, Michigan and Pocono.
Most importantly, it should distinguish confirmed rounds from provisional rounds better on its initial release of the 2013 schedule. Formula 1 probably does the best job of indicating when a race is still subject to official confirmation, and if tentative, it's listed as such. TBAs, asterisks and new races announced after an initial schedule are far from a bad thing – not as bad as confirming, canceling and then creating an atmosphere where a circus occurs in trying to fill a calendar date at the eleventh hour.
As it is, the 2012 season is now truncated to where now, suddenly, it will be over in just six races. This year's schedule has been far from the best in planning terms, especially given the manic period just concluded of five races in as many weekends, with two in-week tests and two weeks practice at Indianapolis also included, that has no doubt stretched all participants very thin in terms of rest and family time away from the track. IndyCar's 2012 schedule organization has largely been a debacle, but it should serve as a wake-up call of what can be done better for 2013 and beyond.