IRL adding Infineon, Watkins Glen road trips

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The Indy Racing League is set to release a 16-race schedule on Tuesday that will include the IRL's first ever road racing events.

As revealed on ESPN.com in early July, the IndyCar Series will travel to Watkins Glen International in New York and Infineon Raceway near Sonoma, Calif. Simultaneous announcements featuring IRL drivers are expected at both venues Tuesday to commemorate the IRL's foray into road racing.

Through the month of August, the 2005 IndyCar Series schedule is very similar to this year's 16-race slate. But the month of September has a completely new look, kicking off at Infineon on Labor Day weekend and ending at Watkins Glen.

Officials for the IRL and track owner International Speedway Corporation believe that Watkins Glen's history as an open-wheel road racing venue will create the opportunity for an IndyCar race to draw as well as the track's popular NASCAR Nextel Cup date. (When NASCAR began its modern era affiliation with the track in 1986, more than 88,000 fans showed up to see Tim Richmond win the Cup race. The annual race now is touted as New York state's largest weekend sporting event.)

An oval race at Chicagoland Speedway will split the pair of September road races, and the season will conclude in October at California Speedway, which is planning a massive promotional effort to mark the occasion. The California race could be expanded from 400 to 500 miles, while Michigan International Speedway is considering running two shorter sprint races on its July 31 date.

But the big news is the two road races, which have IRL drivers and even officials excited at the prospect. Ken Ungar, the IRL's vice-president of business affairs, wouldn't confirm specific dates or venues, but he didn't deny the IRL was going road racing at a pair of venues where the League already has established business relationships with promoters International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports Inc.

"The schedule is consistent with our philosophy of controlled growth," Ungar said. "The question is not how many races, but what are the right races?

"Road racing is important for a number of reasons," he added. "We're excited to be at a point of maturity where expanding beyond ovals is a possibility. It's a real breakthrough for the IRL because it helps us access markets we can't reach because they don't have an oval track."

One benefit of scheduling the IRL's road racing debut late in the season is that it gives the League's chassis and engine manufacturers extra time to develop their road course update kits. The IndyCars will need significant modifications to their suspension, brakes, gearbox and cooling systems, and engine mapping will have to be reprogrammed to produce the torque curve necessary for road racing.

"We'll have to wait until the first road course test to identify the issues," said Bryan Herta of Andretti Green Racing. "There are definitely things that can be done to improve the cars for road racing, but until we actually get one on track, it's all speculation."

The IRL cars aren't expected to be as fast or nimble around a road course as a Champ Car, but that is of little concern to the drivers, most of whom are happy just to have any opportunity to turn right again.

"It's great to see," said defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon of Target/Ganassi Racing. "Let's face it, 90 percent of the field is from a road racing background, so we are all welcoming it with open arms. It puts a bit of variation in the series and it's great for the fans. I'm definitely looking forward to it, as I'm sure most people are."

"Bring it on," added Milwaukee winner Dario Franchitti of Andretti Green Racing. "Obviously I'm very excited to see the IRL go road racing -- it's a direction I was hoping to see them go in. It will complement the series very well and I hope there are additional road races to follow. Right now it looks like we're going to two tracks I've never driven, so I'm excited in that respect."

Conspicuously absent from the slate is Portland International Raceway, which hedged its bets between the IRL and Champ Car and appears to have lost out both ways. Champ Car elected not to bid for a 2005 Portland race, as the city demanded, while the IRL's interest in the Oregon road course was apparently never serious.

Two races were dropped to make room for the new road races. SMI exchanged Texas Motor Speedway's October date for the Sonoma race, while from ISC's perspective, Watkins Glen replaces Nazareth Speedway, which is ceasing circuit racing operations at the end of the 2004 season.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.