Creating a successful race schedule is truly weird science

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Good, meet bad.

The excitement of Portland’s return to the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is shadowed somewhat by the loss of Watkins Glen. One historic track in a race-starved part of the country replaces another historic track in a race-starved part of the country.

The good? Portland International Raceway is a fast road course with a storied past and a certified reason to be on the schedule. The bad? Watkins Glen International was all that and more, but didn’t make the cut.

While Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles made it clear during the Portland announcement that INDYCAR is open to returning to Watkins Glen in the future, the on-off relationship between the track and the series doesn’t do much for schedule continuity or fan confidence. Why commit to a weekend every year to watch a sporting event when you don’t know if that sporting event will be there the following year?

In the end, INDYCAR and WGI couldn’t agree on a date. The Verizon IndyCar Series wanted Labor Day weekend, but the track wasn’t keen on that date. In the two races since its return to the schedule, Watkins Glen didn’t draw well. Both sides attempted to find a date that made sense, but couldn’t find one. In the meantime, PIR wanted Labor Day weekend and got it.

What racing needs in scheduling – what it craves – is consistency and repetition, something that’s taking form for INDYCAR. Just as the Indianapolis 500 is a cornerstone set on the same holiday weekend each year, so too must its other races establish their place on the calendar. St. Pete as the opener, Sonoma as the finale. Long Beach in April, Detroit after Indy.

Those are the obvious ones, but other venues have emerged as possibilities to add continuity to the calendar from year to year. Barber has become entrenched as a popular spring venue. The mid-summer Iowa/Elkhart Lake/Toronto run offers all three INDYCAR disciplines in a span of four weeks. Mid-Ohio is a must-see in late July. Gateway had a surprisingly strong return to the schedule this year.

And now, Portland has Labor Day weekend.

Let’s see if this one sticks the way it should. It has history on its side, so conventional wisdom is firmly backing it. Mario Andretti won twice at PIR. Michael won three times there, as did Little Al. Emerson Fittipaldi, Alex Zanardi, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan and Gil de Ferran won there. Mark Blundell’s 0.027-second win over de Ferran in 1997 remains the closest margin of victory on any Indy car road or street course.

But Watkins Glen also had history on its side, and it’s been an up-and-down proposition for single-seater racing since Formula One ended its 20-year run there in 1980. For a village whose racing heritage, memorials and souvenir shops practically beg race fans to visit, Watkins Glen has a struggle with North American open-wheel racing that speaks quietly and sadly. It should work magically, yet it doesn’t.

Motorsports scheduling is an imperfect science. If a venue works, it stays. If it doesn’t, it fades away (and sometimes returns). Scheduling doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Some surprising venues work. Some sure-fire locks don’t come close. The market is limited and entertainment dollars are notoriously fickle. Only time will tell if Portland is capable of a successful return, but the early feedback is positive.

We all have our opinions about which venues should be a part of the schedule. Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas – home to this weekend’s Formula One race – is on everyone’s minds. Cleveland, Milwaukee, Laguna Seca and Australia’s Surfers Paradise come up in casual conversations. Mexico City has been mentioned as a possible addition to the 2018 lineup. Oval advocates want a return to Kentucky or Chicagoland or Richmond. All and more are worthy of consideration, but making them work is far more complicated than just wishing they’d work.

Racing is built on simple economic principles. If demand exists, supply will follow. If demand exists, sponsors will follow. Fans drive this game. They fund it with their interest. If people aren’t showing up to a venue, it won’t be there in the future.

“The place needs to be packed,” driver Graham Rahal said of Portland last week during a news conference that revealed the 2018 schedule. “A lot of venues that we go to are successful at that. Look at St. Louis – 40,000-whatever people there (for INDYCAR’s return to Gateway Motorsports Park in August following a 14-year absence). But we haven't seen that at Watkins Glen. It's a shame because it is a great track. But we've replaced it with Portland, where I think we can have a lot of success. I'm already getting a heck of a lot of buzz on social media about it.”

We’re never going to get back to the interest this genre of racing had in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but that doesn’t mean it’s hit a plateau. INDYCAR has grown steadily in recent years, but work remains. The most positive development about this schedule announcement is that it had only one major change. And lack of change is positive.

Out with the old, in with the old. Not ideal, but also not a bad trade.

From the fans