In the face of losing Texas Motor Speedway off its 2024 schedule, Penske Entertainment Corp. president Mark Miles touted how the 17-race slate gets to the heart of what American open-wheel racing is all about – “fast oval racing.”
The speeds would say otherwise.
But before we get there, it’s important to note: In 2024, IndyCar will run six events – or more than one-third of its races – on ovals. That benchmark in a non-pandemic-altered year last came in 2018 and served as the high watermark until you get back to the years after The Split – 7 in 2011, 8 in 2010, 10 in 2009 and 11 in 2008.
Doubleheaders aside – there are two – a more balanced schedule that provides more of what differentiates IndyCar from other high-level open-wheel series around the world is something to celebrate.
But next season’s schedule loses a track where last year’s pole was 220.264 mph for two races at a venue that the series last ran at in 2015 with a lighter car and a pole of 170.223 mph. Did Penske Entertainment brass succeed in balancing out the schedule, even if they had to take on a significant promoter role and brand one of the races as a streaming-only broadcast to get it done? Yes. Is that admirable? Yes.
But is it also reasonable to be discouraged at the way the track that hosted one of the most unique, edge-of-your-seat exciting races from 2023 simply vanished from the 2024 calendar?
Loss of Texas impacts Indy 500 rookie preparation
There’s a reason you’d heard next-to-nothing about Texas Motor Speedway, as it relates to IndyCar, since Josef Newgarden edged out Pato O’Ward on the final green flag lap of April’s PPG 375 that ended with Romain Grosjean’s single-car crash with a pack of half-a-dozen at the front rotating like a synchronized dance number in the closing stages. For the first time in five years or more, IndyCar officials had nailed the race day package to counterbalance a reconfigured track that had never truly suited American open-wheel racing.
Having announced a new multi-year deal last fall that started with Newgarden’s victory and was expected to, at minimum, roll through 2024, TMS’ place on the calendar was assumed. IndyCar had the racing figured out. Miles had a non-traditional spring race to fill a gaping hole in IndyCar’s pre-Indy 500 action. And Roger Penske had a pre-500 oval that, as he told IndyStar in 2021, was pertinent to oval novice’s learning programs ahead of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
“You don’t realize how important it is for us to run here,” Penske told IndyStar in May of 2021 at a time when his series’ future at TMS was somewhat uncertain due to dismal fan attendance and largely single-file racing. “It’ll make the Indy 500 that much better because if we don’t have fast racing on ovals prior (to the 500), you just don’t have the ability to practice your car at that kind of speed.”
'It's important for us to run here': Roger Penske, Graham Rahal defend IndyCar's future at Texas
Series president Jay Frye downplayed the loss of TMS that he, Miles and Penske emphasized is hoped to be just a pause stemming NASCAR and TMS’ scheduling switch for the venue’s lone Cup weekend from the fall to the spring in 2024.
“We’ll continue to have (rookies test at Texas). We’ve got data for the last seven or eight years on rookie drivers coming in, and we’ve made them go to Texas to shake down their car before they come to the IMS open test,” Frye said. “Texas was a phenomenal race, and it did a lot of great things leading into the 500, but we think we have good plans for the current rookies coming in, and they will be completely up to speed before they get to the 500.”
Linus Lundqvist, Tom Blomqvist, Marcus Armstrong, soon-to-be 19-year-old Kyffin Simpson and prospective rookies Juri Vips and Christian Rasmussen better be. For at least next year, there’s no other choice. And as Miles explains, it was very little of IndyCar’s doing.
IndyCar loses out when 'partner' turns 'competitor'
Barely one month ago, I found myself sitting in IMS president Doug Boles’ broom closet of a makeshift office in the Pagoda -- separate from Boles’ corner office in the track administration building -- that allows him to be in the thick of the action while staying connected to the organized chaos that is the NASCAR-IndyCar crossover weekend at the Racing Capital of the World
And for the first time since his tenure at the track began in 2010, he said the two sanctioning bodies – IndyCar and NASCAR – could honestly and productively work as partners. “To watch the transparency of NASCAR leadership and Roger and (IMS), that wasn’t there several years ago,” Boles told IndyStar. “And I think a lot of it is because we figure out how to work together around this event.
“There was a point in time where NASCAR and IndyCar were true competitors, and I feel like now, because of this event, in a lot of ways, we really do work together, promoting together and trying to help each other out.”
But those words ring hollow when you consider that IndyCar, which felt it had settled – albeit perhaps verbally – with TMS on April 7 for next year’s race date, saw its annual stop snatched away at the last-minute in what appears to be a simple decision on priorities.
“What we knew was that the NASCAR schedule wasn’t out, so we didn’t know (how things were going to shake out),” Miles told reporters Monday when asked about when Penske Entertainment began to realize that scheduling a spring race at TMS would be an issue. “We knew there were all kinds of possibilities, but it was really fairly late in the process for us that it was clear what (NASCAR’s) schedule was going to look like, and therefore the implications for us.”
Despite having run together for four consecutive summers at IMS – a historic move born out of necessity during the pandemic – Miles said TMS, its owner, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and NASCAR seemed less than receptive to the idea of a doubleheader when not at the home of IndyCar.
To be clear – the shared IMS weekend and the prospective one at TMS – would’ve been NASCAR doing IndyCar a massive favor by preserving a normal number of races on its calendar. At IMS, NASCAR had a chance to participate in a historic event that, theoretically, exposed the sport to a couple tens of thousands of race fans that otherwise wouldn’t have had reason to be around the sport.
At TMS, IndyCar’s high watermark of maybe 10,000 fans for last year’s race would’ve been a drop in the bucket (and likely had a significant amount of overlap) to the stock car-heavy fan base.
5 thoughts on IndyCar's 2024 schedule: Risk in Milwaukee return, loss of Texas and more
Adding Milwaukee, losing Texas: Here is the 2024 IndyCar series schedule
It’s likely why TMS pushed for a September date, a time that both would’ve created separation from its other big weekend of the year and perhaps been less-penalized by the overlap with the college and NFL seasons due to a smaller, uber-passionate open-wheel fan base in the area.
But having felt Texas was done early in its schedule planning process, IndyCar brass had moved on to what it thought was a more difficult issue: How to best position oval weekends at World Wide Technology Raceway and Milwaukee for success; how to host a more glitzy, more attention-grabbing season-finale and how to do it all while navigating a nearly month-long break for the Summer Olympics.
The first piece of the puzzle – declaring the end of next season to be Sept. 15, 2024 – created a finite portion of the post-Olympics calendar to work with several months ago. Five weekends for four races (WWTR, Portland, Milwaukee and Nashville) – without considering Texas. From IndyCar’s perspective, holding five races (three of them ovals) in five different locations (including Texas and the West Coast) was simply too much of an ask – particularly with midday temperatures at TMS in recent weeks regularly topping 100 degrees.
Mid-summer, with temperature concerns as bad, if not worse, and with IndyCar having just three off weekends from April 21-July 21, there was no viable option for a last-minute switch – particularly one being forced upon them.
“We just didn’t really see the opening that would work for us, so we thought, ‘We’ll hit pause, and then we’ll see what we can do moving forward,’" Miles said. “I think (our collective relationship) is in the best possible place, under the circumstances. I think both of us would have preferred to be able to keep a pretty normal schedule and to be returning there next year. That just wasn’t possible.”
A complicated, hopeful future
One can hope this loss on IndyCar’s calendar will be a forgettable blip in a decade, and perhaps it’ll provide a runway for IndyCar, TMS/SMI and maybe NASCAR to plot out a plan that’s as mutually beneficial moving forward – whether that includes a combined weekend or just a better line of communication.
Miles emphasized Monday that IndyCar sees the Dallas-Fort Worth market as “really important” to its footprint. “It’s not something that’s going to be neglected,” he said.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the reality of IndyCar playing second fiddle at one of its most important tracks of the last 30 years, and it’s a reminder of how vital growth is for the sport in the next 3-5 years. The series has long struggled to persuade NASCAR and SMI that it can be a viable money-making visitor to host for a race-weekend, and it’s large-in-part why you’ve seen tracks like Homestead, Phoenix, Watkins Glen, Richmond, ovals in the northeast (Dover and New Hampshire) either disappear completely over the last 15 years, or in some cases, reappear for a brief stint before being axed once again.
Penske Entertainment officials continue to say they feel as if they’re building inroads with other major players in the American racing space, but evidence continues to point to a one-way conversation.
“I think we have a really good relationship with NASCAR,” Miles said Monday. “There are intermittent conversations about the possibility of doing more together.
“I think the spirits are willing, and then you get into all the complicated difficulties of laying schedules on top of each other or side-by-side and making that work. I think there will probably be more in the future, but I can’t tell you right now where that may happen.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar: Mark Miles explains why Texas couldn't fit on 2024 schedule