NASCAR Race Weekend Central

No Bull: Is the ISC/IndyCar Divorce a Warning Shot to NASCAR?

Odds are you weren’t paying attention to the Izod IndyCar Series schedule announcement on Friday. Don’t feel bad about it; after all, what they announced was equivalent of a “rough draft” of sorts that wasn’t even complete, one date short of the 17 that will comprise a revamped 2011 version of their racing lineup.

The only people that were paying attention at the time were series die-hards, and at this point, that seems to be all that make up the tiny open-wheel racing fanbase these days. The television contract with Versus – which has several years left – has knocked the series out of the public consciousness for all but a few weeks in May, and if everyone’s favorite driver leaves for the big, bad waters of NASCAR, who knows where the IndyCar Series could end up in the short-term? Racing on the Comcast-owned channel has averaged a rating of less than 1.0 with her in the lineup; compare that to NASCAR, where the “AAA” Nationwide Series routinely gets more viewership each week.

That leaves the series looking to make radical changes to increase their presence on the national stage. As a result, we wound up with a weird quirk for next season; four IndyCar staples, Chicago, Homestead, Kansas and Watkins Glen are all off the 2011 schedule. The first two especially have routinely provided some of the best racing on the circuit, raising eyebrows on whether the sport’s reducing the quality of competition across the board.

So what’s the common denominator here? Simple: they’re ISC tracks.

The split from ISC wasn’t shocking. Increased sanction fees and a lack of a fanbase made hosting IndyCar races unfeasible, they said. But were those increased sanction fees a calculated move on IndyCar and CEO Randy Bernard’s part?

The removal of ISC tracks now aligns the series with Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. instead. As NASCAR fans know, Bruton, ISC and NASCAR haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. The IndyCar Series added a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – an SMI track – and is negotiating to move the season finale to SMI’s Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Currently, Smith’s Kentucky Motor Speedway is the final date on the schedule, but Bernard said that he hoped to have the date at LVMS finalized shortly.)

The IndyCar Series is in no position to take direct aim at NASCAR, and the separation from ISC was the closest thing to a warning shot that the Series could make. At present, it’s more like a squad of Somali pirates firing their machine guns at a US destroyer. ISC tracks weren’t making a fortune on IndyCar races, and for some, it could be a load off the track promoters’ backs.

In the future though, who knows? Bruton Smith and SMI could become a positive alliance for the Series. There’s a chance that the first ever “doubleheader” event at Texas Motor Speedway with two races in one day – yes, it too is an SMI track – could become a great race for the IndyCar Series and a much-needed second marquee event. But there’s also a chance, like the four-wide Nationals at Smith’s Charlotte drag strip, that it could be a much better idea on paper than in execution.

It’s a risk that the series has to take, though. At this point, it has nothing to lose and everything to gain with investors and teams eagerly awaiting a boost of momentum from new chassis rules. Open-wheel racing was once king of the landscape, and while it’s hard to see it returning to the throne at this point, something – anything – needed to be done.

However, the Series needs to work around NASCAR for the short-term. Schedule as many races as possible outside of NASCAR windows; heck, it doesn’t have to be public, but acknowledge that stock car racing is Goliath, IndyCar is David, and work around that to maximize attention – because we all know who would win.

In five years, the IndyCar Series may once again have a fighting shot. If they do, look back to small moments like Friday’s announcement as part of the reason why.

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