Two races in Texas? Add another oval? Back to Richmond? Bridge that gap in August? Kansas or Chicagoland back in the mix? Race ovals as much as possible on Saturday nights? What are the best races that fit into NBC’s network availability? And can you keep some momentum without working the teams into the ground?
Those are the major decisions and hurdles that have been facing Stephen Starks during the past six months.
This is the third IndyCar schedule that Starks has worked on, assembled and labored over but he says it’s no contest with the other two.
“It’s the most challenging of the three, absolutely,” said IndyCar’s vice president of promoter and media partner relations (pictured at left). “There are a lot of moving pieces.
“We’ve got competing interests, climates, there are only so many dates available juxtaposed with each track and not to mention the economics. And budgets are narrowing, which is not the way we want to go so it’s challenging to say the least.”
Considering Phoenix is gone, Homestead looked on and then it was off and Texas seemed to be in limbo, Starks, IndyCar CEO Mark Miles and president Jay Frye have been logging a lot of miles to try and shore up the oval portion of the 2019 schedule.
“There are couple of possibilities with ISC tracks,” said Starks, who along with Frye recently visited Richmond to look over the cool improvements at the exciting bullring that hosted IndyCar from 2001-2009. “I had a really constructive discussion with Eddie Gossage (Texas president) last week, so we’re making good progress.”
Is there a certain quota of ovals that Starks must maintain?
“We do not have a quota,” he said. “But we do like the circuit diversity within our series so we are always trying to strike the right balance of ovals, road courses, and street courses.”
People just assume IndyCar picks up the phone, calls a track and makes a deal.
“If it were only that easy,” said Starks with a chuckle. “There are many challenges to adding venues to the schedule. In addition to the business challenges, factors like other major events occurring in a certain market, both at the track and away, during the period of time when an IndyCar event might take place can limit the opportunity in that market.
“For new events, it may be important to receive local government and community support, so getting the timing right on that front can play a role. And, there are many other challenges. So, no, it is not just pick up the phone and make the deal.”
There’s also a chance there will be two IndyCar races in Texas, as the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) recently has been the subject of speculation for a spring race to possibly replace Phoenix.
“It is too early to say whether that will happen,” said Starks. “Of course, we all know how beautiful that venue is, and we think the racing there could be great. But, as I’ve mentioned, a lot goes into making a race happen. So, we are taking things one step at a time.”
With Laguna Seca replacing Sonoma as the season finale, the chore for Starks is to try and maintain continuity while also not working the teams to death with three or four races in a row.
“Continuity is key, as you know. We would like to get to the point where fans know without looking at a schedule exactly where IndyCar will be when someone mentions a certain weekend during our season. I think in general we are getting closer to that point, but it’s easier said than done.
“The IndyCar race teams are very high up on the list in terms of factors to be considered when building a schedule. It’s something Mark, Jay and myself discuss all the time. Mark and Jay are involved in all of this and help me think through these issues and decisions. They’ve taught me a lot.”
The things we know for sure are that Iowa is back to Saturday night and St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Detroit, Road America, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Gateway, Pocono, Portland and Laguna are locked in, but it’s believed Barber could be earlier in April if certain races are added.
Starks says the goal is to have the schedule finalized by the finale at Sonoma next month. “That’s the goal,” he said. “Not a promise.”