Will the IRL go international?

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The IndyCar Series has already changed from an all-oval series with a predominantly American driver corps to a series with a diverse set of tracks and racers. Some may say that this shift has made the series into an global affair. If it isn't that right now, it may be in a year or two. Last week, the Associated Press reported that the league intends to hold a March 2010 street race in Ribeirao Preto, Brazil, a city known for its links to the country's sugarcane industry and as the hometown of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves. Naturally, Castroneves was happy about this possibility.
What will be on the IRL schedule? The IndyCar Series may be looking beyond North America for future races, but there's been other movement on the schedule. While the 2010 schedule will not be officially be released until next month, it is believed that the 18-race docket will feature a 50-50 split between ovals and road/street courses. Unfortunately, this isn't concrete yet, but that doesn't mean we can't imagine what the schedule would look like if we were in charge of the IRL. Here's my ideal sked for the series, at least as of now. Ovals (11)
Las Vegas
Motegi (Japan)
New Hampshire
Drop: Kansas
Add: Las Vegas, New Hampshire Road Courses (6)
Watkins Glen
Road Atlanta
Interlagos (Brazil)
Drop: Infineon, Mid-Ohio
Add: Barber, Road Atlanta, Portland, Mont-Tremblant, Interlagos Street/Airport Courses (4)
St. Petersburg
Long Beach
Drop: Edmonton
Add: Cleveland

— Chris Estrada, FOXSports.com

"I'm very suspicious to talk about it because I'm biased," he said. "It's great to show these type of cars. [The Champ Cars] were there once, maybe it wasn't well promoted. But by now, it just seems everything's connected together. We have [ethanol supplier Apex-Brasil] putting a lot of effort and money into the series helping everyone. It'd be great. I'd love to race in my hometown. If it doesn't happen, it's just the way it is, but it would be a great thing for the series." When asked about the report, Terry Angstadt, IRL commercial division president, told FoxSports.com that the Ribeirao race has not been confirmed yet. But he seemed enthusiastic about a possible race in Castroneves' backyard. "It is not and we are very careful about when we actually confirm races," he said. "It has not been signed yet. All the conversations have been very positive. It's got a lot of momentum behind it. I was asked my confidence level and I said, '90 percent,' so it's way high. But it's not confirmed until it's signed. The location is not yet determined either. "Ribeirao is way aggressive. They're great. It's got UNICA support, it's got Apex-Brasil support, it's in the heart of the sugarcane region, it's Helio's hometown — that's just kind of a sideline. But there are other markets that we are considering in Brazil." With the IRL's ethanol fuel being supplied by Apex-Brasil and a solid block of Brazilians in the driver corps, including Tony Kanaan, Vitor Meira, Mario Moraes and Raphael Matos, a trip to the South American nation seems like a matter of when, not if. China is another market being mentioned by Angstadt as a potential stop for 2012. Specifically, the plans call for a motorsports venue with a oval and road course in the city of Qingdao (pronounced CHING-dao). However, there's an outside chance of a 2011 street race while this track would be built. Angstadt said that the planned venue, which featured a 400,000-seat capacity according to him, is just conversation at this stage and that the league tried to temper the enthusiasm on the creation of such a facility. But he also revealed that it's just one part of a major master plan. "They have this big economic development region, so they're building this huge 15-mile bridge over Qingdao Bay and it's in this area that they want to build this motorsports park," he explained. "So it's part of a real master plan with marinas, commercial fixtures, residential housing, just a beautiful 10-year plan. This is part of that." A global expansion of the series does have potential benefits with the main one being the IRL hooking into the international popularity of open-wheel racing. But while the league has been able to stay intact in the midst of the current recession, there are many obstacles to be faced here in the U.S. Among fans and most media, the driver corps may as well just be Danica Patrick, Helio Castroneves and "the rest." And the league's continuing shift toward more road/street racing is rankling a fair chunk of the IRL fanbase, although delighting those who have migrated from the old Champ Car World Series. Patrick, the league's biggest star, tried to stay neutral on the matter yesterday during a press conference at Richmond International Airport. "I think that to be really simple, it's not my decision," she said. "Wherever I race, I'll be excited to go to each event. But you know, I think it's also important to think about your core audience and that's here in America. "To leave and go to another country and be in another time zone and miss the national news exposure I think is a risk. But I don't really know the situation and there might be a lot of reward." If the league and its teams obtain suitable compensation to do the trip to South America, it will definitely be a financial reward for the league that they may need down the line if the recession continues for an extended period. But the question remains: Would an overseas push be the right thing to do? Patrick's maiden win last season came at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on a late Saturday night here in America. While the victory re-ignited Danicamania, the results could have been even bigger with a Stateside win in front of American media. As a result, there was lost buzz and when Patrick was unable to come up with another win in 2008, Danicamania subsided yet again. A victory in America — preferably on network television — could have been a bigger shot of publicity. For a driver that cares about her brand as Patrick does, that couldn't be good news and may have been why she explicitly mentioned the league's "core audience." Another driver that felt the same was Dan Wheldon, who said the league needed to be really careful about where it wanted to expand. "I think it's good, but you have to remember where your roots are and you have to remember what's really made this series exciting for a lot of fans," the Englishman said. "You saw what happened with [Champ Car] when they [did more overseas races] and I'm not ruling going to different countries out. But I think the IndyCar Series has to be very careful about the races they pick and make sure it's for the good of the series." But most of the drivers were a bit more supportive for going to a more international schedule. Graham Rahal admitted that it may not be the best move for some of the series' team sponsors but it intrigues him. "For me as a driver, as far as trying to expand out of the U.S., it's more beneficial so I think it's a good thing," he said. "But we'll see what happens. There's obviously been some trouble in Formula One lately. I think NASCAR is struggling a bit. It hasn't been so outspoken yet, but I think IndyCar racing could be in the best spot to be honest. "I think we need to make the series have more races. A lot of people don't agree with me, but I think so ... I think 20-22 races in my opinion would be cool, but that's just me." A couple of the owners also had their own bit to say on the situation. Like Rahal, Panther Racing co-owner John Barnes also called for an expanded season if the series decides to go overseas. "I think that if they go do these races, they need to add races to the series," he said. "I think it would be a very big mistake setting the schedule at 18 races and doing away with races here in the United States to do races overseas. If we go to China or go to Brazil, it needs to be a 20-race season instead of 18. "I wouldn't trade jobs with Terry Angstadt for nobody. He's got a very tough job. But essentially, you're asking me if I'd like to go to Brazil or China, I'd love to go. I'd love to go to Abu Dhabi or all those places that want to pay us to come. But I don't want to take away from the core races we have here in the United States." Dreyer and Reinbold Racing co-owner Dennis Reinbold felt that going to Brazil made sense for the series if it's done correctly. "We make one trip, it's all-expenses-covered, and we have the opportunity to make good prize money, really good prize money outside of the TEAM money that's in place," he said. "The only concern I would have is that some of our sponsors may not do business in Brazil, so you lose a little bit there. But if there are enough races in the schedule that they can still get their value from the domestic races, then I think Brazil makes a lot of sense. It's probably the second-biggest place for IndyCar fans outside the U.S. "With China, it'd make sense from a standpoint of coupling it with the Japan trip as you're on that same trip anyway in that part of the world...To make that a two-race swing and include China within a week or ten-day period would be doable also." All in all, it appears that drivers and owners are looking forward to a potential push overseas, but only if it's done right and only if it doesn't take away from the core audience in North America. "You can't lose sight of the prize and that is the U.S. and Canada, and really making North America a foothold and stronghold for what we do as the IndyCar Series," Reinbold said.
Tagged: Danica Patrick, Mario Moraes

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