INDIANAPOLIS -- INDYCAR's 2014 season is looking like a case of addition by omission.
The American version of formula car racing is losing its title sponsor (IZOD apparel) and at least one race (Baltimore, and probably Brazil). But it's gaining a high-profile new event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that could boost the sport in a variety of ways, including morale.
Coupled with the news that two popular, race-winning drivers are currently without a contract for the future, it would be easy to conclude that things look bleak for the (Insert Title Sponsor Here) IndyCar Series. Yet there's not a sense of panic at 16th Street and Georgetown Road, as bulldozers prepare to move earth both inside and outside the self-proclaimed Greatest Race Course in the World.
Set for Saturday, May 10, 2014, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is expected to draw a modest local crowd compared to the national and international masses that flock to IMS for the Indianapolis 500. Instead, the road race is being pitched as a promotional tool to build interest in the traditional month of May activities on the oval and a way for central Indiana racing fans to make a connection to the modern, road-racing-biased sport of Indy car racing as a whole.
There is no question that a vocal group of Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans exists outside of Indy car racing's core fan base. IMS fans are bound rigidly to Indianapolis 500 tradition, and the slightest deviation leaves them howling in protest.
But recently appointed Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles realizes that the sport of Indy car racing has changed dramatically in the past 30 years and that the almost total focus on the Indianapolis 500 locally has created a disconnect with fans who are unfamiliar with the direction the sport has taken.
"Exposing Indianapolis people -- Hoosiers -- and fans of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to IndyCar is a really important objective for us," Miles said. "More people will begin to understand that, sure, we race the IndyCar Series on ovals, but we also race on road courses and street races, and there's so much content and so many stories because of the diversity and the talent of our racers."
The hardliners clamoring for additional on-track activity during the month of May will get their wish, because the track will open two days earlier than in recent years, on Thursday, May 8. That day of Indianapolis GP practice will be free to the public, and ticket prices have been set at fan-friendly levels for Friday qualifying ($20) and the Saturday race.
Race-day general admission has been set at $25, and the most expensive grandstand seats will sell for $65. A two-day GA ticket will sell for $40, and IMS is encouraging fans to explore the grounds and enjoy festival-style infield mound seating rather than rooting themselves to a specific spot in the grandstand.
IMS expects to open only five grandstands for the IndyCar road race, though additional bleachers will be erected in two places lining the modified road course.
"We have resized the stadium because we don't anticipate this being 200,000 people," said IMS president Doug Boles. "We'd be excited if we have 40,000 or 50,000 people here, and we're hoping that's what we get.
"What we are trying to do here is really bring a lot more people to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on opening weekend so we can kick off the month of May with a race that brings national media attention that right now opening weekend does not," he added. "Having [the Grand Prix of Indianapolis] on ABC to kick the month of May off is going to be fantastic for everyone."
The majority of IndyCar Series teams are based in Indianapolis, so there is little additional expense involved for them. And looking at the business side from the IMS perspective, the road race is a no-brainer.
Last year, the speedway reportedly sold 4,700 tickets on opening day, so the potential to bring in 10 times that many people -- paying at least $25 a head instead of $10, not to mention the additional concession and merchandise sales -- is considerable.
With Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and US F2000 on the undercard, Indianapolis fans will also get to see the future stars of Indy car racing in action.
"This is really an exciting time for me and, I think, for all the participants in the Indy Racing League," said 15-time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner Roger Penske, who jetted in for Tuesday's announcement at the Speedway.
"As we see our sport changing -- certainly with the demographics it was all ovals back in those days -- but with road racing coming in, there's just no question that this combination and the utilization of this facility is imperative for us to build this sport where we need to be," he added. "The assets here are the best in the world, there's no question about it."
The changes to the IMS road course will be complemented over the next couple of years by major renovations outside of IMS made in conjunction with the city of Indianapolis and the town of Speedway. Sixteenth Street will be rerouted farther away from the Turn 1-2 short chute, a roundabout will be installed at the major Crawfordsville Road intersection with access to Speedway's Main Street, and Georgetown Road will be closed to vehicle traffic south of 25th Street.
Meanwhile, Miles -- who has assumed the lead role in running INDYCAR until a permanent successor to Randy Bernard can be found -- has challenges to solve outside of Indianapolis.
Though it was expected, IZOD's departure from its title sponsor role is still a public relations black eye for the IndyCar Series. IZOD came in with a splash in 2011, but its support tailed off considerably since then. A corporate management change led to a change in attitude about sports sponsorships, with IndyCar one of the first to be jettisoned.
The series is prepared to enter 2014 without a title sponsor but has aggressively courted Verizon Wireless, which sponsors Will Power's Team Penske Indy car and has created a variety of promotional links to the series. INDYCAR's lack of a chief marketing officer has hampered the search for an IZOD replacement.
The Baltimore Grand Prix has dropped off the schedule, due to scheduling conflicts in 2014 and '15. And while the door has been left open for a return in 2016, it's highly likely that Baltimore will join the ranks of Miami, Denver, San Jose, Vancouver and many other Indy car street races that have fallen by the wayside.
The three-year-old event in Sao Paulo is also looking iffy, and the addition of the IMS road race in early May is a strong clue that the IndyCar Series won't be headed to the southern hemisphere next year. The 2014 schedule is likely to be revealed at the '13 season finale in Fontana, Calif., in two weeks.
Miles has stated that no new races will be added for 2014, though he hinted that a major shakeup could be in store for 2015.
Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan is without a contract for next year, though as in 2008, he is being linked to a move to Chip Ganassi Racing. James Hinchcliffe, a three-time winner in 2013, is also seeking a ride for next year because his car's sponsor, GoDaddy.com, informed Andretti Autosport it will not renew with the team.
What INDYCAR needs right now, more than anything, is simply to be racing again. The fact that the IndyCar Series hasn't raced in more than a month has put these behind-the-scenes struggles into the forefront in recent weeks, but the focus will switch back to the track this weekend at Houston, with the final three races of the season to be contested between Oct. 5 and Oct. 19.
Helio Castroneves leads Scott Dixon by 49 points, with Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti and defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay another 20-plus points back in a tight battle for third in the standings heading into the Houston doubleheader.
A close, competitive, noncontroversial championship resolution would definitely help the series enter the upcoming five-month offseason with the momentum it needs as important decisions are made for the future.