Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Month of May: Threshing the Wheat from the Chaff

I thought I would drop a few lines about the new qualification schedule this evening, because tomorrow evening I will be packing like crazy to get ready to head to Long Beach and then the next night in route @ 35,000 ft.

When it comes to the Izod IndyCar series, many people consider themselves to be traditionalists. Whereas, I consider myself a Futurist. Not a futurist in the sense that I secretly dream of Phallic shaped Tricycles zooming around the speedway @250mph using single cell cold fusion engines, rather a Futurist in a more simple interpretation of the word. I simply want this race, this series and this sport to have a better future than it currently enjoys today. Anything that does not contribute to a stronger tomorrow is expendable. This explains my obsession with younger drivers, younger fans and my apathetic dismissal of older journeyman drivers and fans who insist on living in a cold war (cart/IRL) box as to what the series should look like.

And onto the topic at hand, That is why truncating the month of May does not elicit immediate panic and rage from me. You can move my cheese if there is more cheese in the place where I ultimately find it. Judgement is found in evaluating the benefits of the move. The historical schedule has simply fallen out of touch with how people live today and the list of entertainment alternatives people have when it comes the their free time in person or in front of the tube. This new schedule acknowledges that fact and simply respects a casual fan’s ability to engage the spectacle.

From a television standpoint the plan for qualifications is brilliant. It insures that on day one, all the most important action, the laps that will determine the pole and the first three rows will occur in a compressed 90 minute window. Likewise, for bump day, the drama is back loaded into the final 90 minutes by circumstances. This plan requires a lower investment of time from a viewer who may have an interest in seeing the meaninfull portion of qualifying, but not the interest in investing 9 hours to see it. My guess is that these two qualifying events could have better ratings than many races, perhaps even being ABC worthy. Overall, it creates a scenario where across two weekends, three broadcasts with strong television numbers are staged which can be leveraged with current and future sponsors, and doesn’t stoop to having relatively meaningless “shootout” races as a lead in to the big show.

In addition, I would imagine that the 2011 schedule will feature an additional Oval track the week after Kansas (or whatever replaces it) on the schedule. That date is a month or more removed from the first cup dates at Michigan, Pocono and New Hampshire. Plenty of spacing for an IndyCar event until the cup boys come to town giving the promoter and track time to sell tickets and turn a facility around. Since I am not a fan of having 4 cookie cutter 1.5’s on the schedule, replacing Kansas with one of those other tracks would be just fine with me. New Hampshire, Michigan, Indy and Texas in a row would be a tremendous stretch of track variety and good racing. More TV momentum.

Something else that we are all excited about this year is the potential to have 40 cars vying for 33 spots. That is the way it ought to be and it will make the 90 minutes of bump day qualifying riveting TV. The risk though is this, for cars not named Penske or Ganassi, there is now a 20% chance your ride won’t make the show. That is up significantly from the 5% chance that fringe teams were facing last year. I worry that in future years, that risk of failure will again drive down car counts for the month of May. Which, is why I am a proponent of a Pay 36 rule. Where 33 qualify for the race but 36 get Money. Positions 34 – 36 would not need to get the $270k that a non TEAM alotted back marker gets. $135k would be enough to cover an engine lease and some out of pocket expenses. It mitigates the risk of failure, enticing a predictably regular entry list of 38 – 39 entrants each year. Overall it will insure that there is always bump day drama leading to a good crowd and Tv number.

These are all good reasons to be optimistic for the future of the 500 and for leveraging even more exposure out of it to take to prospective sponsors. The race for the Poll and Bump day are vital, qual days 2 and 3 are not. It’s wheat and chaff. It’s about money makers and money losers. It’s about making tomorrow better than today and these are good steps.

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