IRL: Fourteen races on 2006 compacted calendar

The Indy Racing League is hoping its shorter, more compact 2006 IndyCar Series schedule has fans amongst teams, drivers, sponsors and, of course its fan base. Moving from a complicated 17-race 2005 schedule that began the first part of March and...

The Indy Racing League is hoping its shorter, more compact 2006 IndyCar Series schedule has fans amongst teams, drivers, sponsors and, of course its fan base.

Moving from a complicated 17-race 2005 schedule that began the first part of March and draws to a conclusion the second week of October, the League has produced a grouping of events that will take place in 25 weeks, reducing the lineup by three events and the time period by eight weeks.

"The primary reasons are momentum and consistency," explained Brian Barnhart, IRL president and chief operating officer. Hoping for "momentum from the drop of the green flag in Miami, into the month of May and right through the heart of our season and into the championship battle," Barnhart has worked 'closely with teams to evaluate the impact of this type of schedule" on all involved.

Barnhart says the new IndyCar Series schedule, which drops visits to Phoenix International Raceway, Pikes Peak International Raceway and California Speedway, the latter the site of this year's season finale has "received a great deal of enthusiasm." League officials are "open to a possible return" to those three venues not on the 2006 docket.

Senior vice president of business affairs Ken Ungar believes the new schedule will promote more excitement and visibility for the series, which has a three-week layoff after next weekend's inaugural visit to the Watkins Glen International road course. "We are definitely losing momentum with the time off at the close of our 2005 season," he related.

"We're looking to bank on the increased fan interest this season," with attendance up by 17 percent, television viewership increasing by at least 26 percent, website traffic on the League's official site soaring into triple-digit increases and trackside sales up by 50 to 100 percent, Ungar stated.

The primary reason to change the schedule is to make sure the Indy Racing League completes its trek before the start of National Football League and college football, both of which receive a lot of attention from the League's television partners, ABC Sports and the dual ESPN networks. "We considered this two and a half years ago and thought it would be the most difficult and complex schedule we've ever done. Still," Ungar believes," it lays the groundwork for our future success."

Barnhart does understand that teams will be challenged by the new schedule but he thinks the teams currently working in the IRL have the capabilities to be prepared for the shorter time period of races. "We think the anticipation of coming weekends (at a rapid clip) will make our championship even more compelling."

Homestead-Miami Speedway's 1.5-mile oval will, for the fifth consecutive season host the season opener on March 26th with ABC Sports coverage and, from there the series will move to the other side of Florida and the 1.8- mile St. Petersburg street course on April 2nd in a race televised by ESPN.

The IRL's sole overseas venue Twin Ring Motegi will hold its 300-mile contest on April 22 (ESPN), leaving the month of May as a proper buildup to the 70th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28th.

The League's second visit to Watkins Glen International will take place on June 4th next year in an ABC Sports-televised contest and The Glen's president Craig Rust believes that "having the Indy 500 and Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix on consecutive weekends will make for an amazing two weeks of racing.

"The history and heritage of open wheel racing at both facilities should really help create momentum for the rest of the season and allow us to promote in conjunction with Indy," Rust said. "As a promoter, we feel we can grow the event with the excitement [coming] from Indy."

Barnhart believes the regular IRL teams, after getting their cars into the magical field of 33 for next year's Indianapolis 500 contest can turn their spares into road-racing configuration prior to Carburetion Day, usually a one- to two-day endeavor. "I don't think it's a huge hurdle for the teams," he related.

Following Watkins Glen the Indy cars traverse to Texas Motor Speedway's high banks for the June 10th night race on the 1.5-mile oval, an event that will be televised by ESPN.

Richmond International Raceway's 3/4-mile bullring is the site of the (ESPN2) June 24th night race and Kansas Speedway retains its holiday weekend position on July 2nd in a race that will air with ABC Sports coverage.

From there it's on to Nashville Superspeedway for the final night contest on the concrete 1.33-mile oval (ESPN) on July 15th, while The Milwaukee Mile will host the IRL on July 23rd for a third time with an ESPN telecast.

Michigan International Speedway's 2-mile oval has its traditional July 30th date and Kentucky Speedway's race takes place on August 13th with both contests shown on ABC Sports.

The Indy cars will travel cross-country for their sole West Coast swing on August 27th in a second visit to Infineon Raceway Sears Point's 2.4-mile road course and the season finale will take place September 10th on Chicagoland Speedway's 1.5-mile oval.

Matt Alexander, vice president and general manager at Chicagoland Speedway believes "our IRL weekend will be an unforgettable, unparalleled experience for our fans. Each year our IndyCar Series races have been really close and now, with the excitement of the final race of the season," Alexander believes he's got a real calling card for fans.

The lack of a race at Pikes Peak International Raceway, which has been on the schedule since 1997, has more to do with track ownership and the lack of SAFER barriers than with a date conflict. "Pre-sales of tickets for this year's race were up from 2004," Ungar admitted, "and if the issues are resolved we would love to add the track back into our schedule."

Last year the League announced 16 races and later added the inaugural Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to the docket. The same thing could happen within the next couple of weeks. "Others may come about, but we've got to step back to go forward and we're looking at races that make good business sense from a competition standpoint," Barnhart insisted.

The schedule changes have been driven by ABC/ESPN. "We may lose one or two races but we will increase our exposure and our story lines, week by week," Barnhart said. "If issues can be addressed by the three events currently off the schedule, we'd love to return to those tracks."

The League and California Speedway tried very hard to find a suitable date but couldn't find a weekend that worked for everybody involved. "We know that Los Angeles is a very important market," Ungar reminded.

The plausibility of going to both Canada and Mexico is in the mix, as well. "We've had a number of discussions with various Canadian promoters, primarily in the Eastern provinces," Ungar revealed. "I can't comment in front of a workable deal though but would like to state that we are looking at Canada and Mexico in the near future. Whether it's 2006 or 2007, either time would be fine for us."

The Western half of the United States won't be deserted by the League, despite the likelihood of losing Phoenix, Colorado Springs and Fontana as 2006 venues. "It wasn't feasible to do events in Phoenix and at California Speedway but Pikes Peak is a completely different situation.

"We are looking at the new track being built in Seattle as a possible venue in the future," Ungar continued. "The Western United States is very important for our future plans."

The Indy Racing League has two more races on the 17-event 2005 docket, the inaugural Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix takes place next Sunday, September 25th, while the tenth League season wraps up at California Speedway on October 16th.

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