Now that the leaders of American open-wheel racing have finally succeeded in unifying the sport under the IRL IndyCar Series banner, there's plenty of hard work ahead. One of their biggest challenges will be creating a future schedule that truly combines the best events from the IRL and the defunct Champ Car World Series.
Once it became known that open-wheel consolidation was going to happen much faster than expected, it was obvious that a significant number of Champ Car venues were not going to make the cut -- for the 2008 season, at least. Of the 16 IRL races and 14 Champ Car races that were on the docket for the upcoming season, nine were set to run head-to-head on the same weekends. So obviously, something had to give, and Champ Car events were always the ones that were going to lose out.
However, a strong argument could be made for resurrecting a few of those dead-duck Champ Car races in the future and adding them to the most successful events on the IRL calendar -- or bumping aside traditional IndyCar Series events that still don't attract fans to the track in a post-unification environment. The 2008 schedule by necessity is a compromise, but the opportunity exists to create a 2009 race slate that would be a true representation of an "IndyCar World Series."
While we're being open-minded about the future, let's consider as many potential venues as possible. There are more than 30 oval tracks in the United States and around the world, and there are just as many potential road and street racing layouts in North America alone.
But there are a lot of factors to consider before we start crafting a schedule, including:
How many races? Twenty sounds like a good round number.
What is the balance between ovals and road races? Half and half would satisfy just about everyone.
How much international flavor? The series should certainly race in the NAFTA countries, there's a successful race in Australia and business reasons dictate an event in Japan. That leaves Europe up for debate in the future.
When should the season start and end? It doesn't make sense to go up against NASCAR's Daytona Speedweeks. And IRL leaders don't want to run too deep into the NFL season. That leaves late February until mid-September -- perhaps 30 weekends to squeeze in those 20 races. And it's a given that the IRL wants to start and end its championship in America.
How significant is tradition? Cutting back the number of practice days at Indianapolis would make room for an additional race in early May. Most tracks covet date equity, but some venues might benefit from a shakeup.
How heavily should the IRL rely on International Speedway Corp. tracks? Since ISC is really NASCAR, the publicly owned track conglomerate might not be able to be counted on to put its full promotional effort into helping open-wheel racing rebound.
With all those points in mind, here is a suggested 20-race schedule for the 2009 IndyCar Series, along with comments about individual venues:
" Round 1: Feb. 20-22, St. Petersburg -- Kick off the open-wheel season in Florida the week after the Daytona 500. Any later than March 1, and MLB spring training becomes a factor. May be a lame-duck event if the Tampa Rays build a new stadium in downtown St. Pete.
" Round 2: March 7-8, Phoenix International Raceway -- Bring back this historic and once-popular IndyCar venue, but give it only two years to prove open-wheelers can again draw a crowd in the desert.
" Round 3: March 13-15, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Mexico City -- The more races that can be run in warm-weather markets prior to the Indianapolis 500, the less stacked together the summer races will be.
" Round 4: March 27-28, Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- Perhaps run it as a Saturday night special.
" Round 5: April 3-5, Long Beach -- Avoid conflicting with the PGA Tour's Masters Tournament to help the TV ratings, if possible.
" Round 6: April 17-18, Twin Ring Motegi, Japan -- Ship the cars and equipment from Los Angeles, then give the teams a week to catch up.
" Round 7: April 25-26, Kansas Speedway -- Continue oval-track buildup toward Indy.
" Round 8: May 2-3, Kentucky Speedway -- More Indy buildup, at the track closest to IMS.
" May 8-10, 13-15, Indy practice days -- Cut back the number of practice days to condense activity for fans and reduce costs for teams.
" May 16-17, Indianapolis 500 qualifying -- Two days is plenty, even if real bumping makes a comeback.
" May 22 -- Carb Day.
" Round 9: May 24 -- 91st Indianapolis 500.
" Round 10: May 29-30, Texas Motor Speedway -- Give Eddie Gossage the date he wants (first race after Indy) and leverage other choice dates with Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks.
" Round 11: June 6-7, The Milwaukee Mile -- The next couple of years will determine whether Brew-town still wants to be an open-wheel market.
" Round 12: June 19-21, Portland International Raceway -- This is a key market that NASCAR still hasn't cracked. A motivated title sponsor and a little TLC could bring the fans back to PIR.
" Round 13: June 26-28, Edmonton airport circuit -- Would make economic sense to twin with Portland.
" Round 14: July 3-5, Cleveland airport circuit -- Re-establish and grow this unique event with an annual Fourth of July tie-in.
" Round 15: July 17-18, Richmond International Raceway -- A slightly later date more equally splits RIR's traditional pair of NASCAR races.
" Round 16: July 24-26, Toronto -- It's a golden opportunity to truly recreate the Molson Indy now that the "What's a Champ Car?" confusion will be gone.
" Round 17: Aug. 7-9, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course -- A Honda favorite, though the company might get more bang from its buck by sponsoring a rejuvenated Cleveland GP.
" Round 18: Aug. 14-16, Road America -- America's fastest and most challenging natural terrain road course must be on the schedule.
" Round 19: Sept. 5-7, Detroit Belle Isle -- How about a Labor Day weekend race run on the holiday?
" Round 20: Sept. 11-12, Chicagoland Speedway -- Run the season finale Saturday night so as not to go up against the NFL on Sunday.
That's a 20-race schedule that satisfies all the criteria listed above and even has room to squeeze in another race or two during the summer if absolutely necessary. Which is good because this schedule omits tracks such as Watkins Glen International and Iowa Speedway from the current IRL schedule, as well as Champ Car venues including Houston and Laguna Seca.
If anything, it proves that there are more than enough venues in America and around the world to create a diverse and challenging IndyCar Series schedule without treading upon NASCAR or Formula One turf. And it suggests that if markets that make the cut in the first couple of years of American open-wheel racing's brave new world don't perform, there will be a ready list of candidates to replace them.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.