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Changing schedule could keep IndyCar on right track

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Less than a month after the season opener was canceled, IndyCar Series chief Mark Miles outlined a new vision for scheduling Tuesday that includes more races, fit perfectly between football seasons in hopes of adding interest and fans.

“We know that in the past whatever our average (television) ratings declined 30 percent after Labor Day and we know why,” said Miles, the CEO of Hulman & Co.

College football and the NFL, the ratings king of sports, dominate the airwaves in September and October. So rather than compete against football, Miles believes the smarter play is to fill in the gap.

Ideally, he wants a 20-race schedule that begins one or two weeks after the Super Bowl and ends Labor Day weekend, a few days earlier than the NFL’s first regular-season game and at a time most of college football’s best teams are playing non-conference games.

This year, IndyCar has 16 races between March 29 and Aug. 30. Last month, organizers canceled the 17th race, the opener scheduled for March 8 in Brazil. Financially, Miles said, the series had protections from taking a big hit. But the delayed start will keep the series off the grid even longer, hurting a series that hasn’t held a race since late August.

A longer season and shorter offseason would keep IndyCar on the radar, and series officials could have more flexibility to avoid other scheduling conflicts such as Final Four weekend and the first week of Major League Baseball. Plus, they could frontload the schedule with an international race or two and even add a warm-weather venue in the U.S., such as Phoenix.

Drivers like the concept.

“I think 22 (races) would be a great number,” said Scott Dixon, the three-time series champ with Chip Ganassi Racing. “But I love racing and if we do it more often, that’s great.”

Miles also would like to change the series’ television strategy. He said he is talking to ABC and NBC Sports Network about dropping the “exclusive rights” clause that exists in the current contracts. ABC is the sole broadcaster on the network side, while NBC holds the rights to all cable telecasts.

Miles said ABC’s expanded coverage of Indianapolis’ two May races led to a 55 percent increase in viewership. Ticket sales for the month of May, which were helped by the inaugural Indianapolis Grand Prix, were up by about 75,000 to 360,000, Miles said. And he thinks those increases can continue, especially if ABC and NBC agree to expand coverage of other races.

“If each could have (rights to) both, you could imagine ESPN, for example, possibly being a player for us, and you can imagine NBC, as opposed to NBC Sports Network, taking some races,” he said. ESPN and ABC are both part of The Walt Disney Co.

“That is harder, that is not consistent with our current agreements,” Miles added. “There are ideas like that are being discussed for a next set of improvements.”

Things will look different at the track, too.

Teams will get their new aerodynamic kits, which are expected to increase speeds, in mid-March. Brian Barnhart returns to a more visible role as IndyCar’s race director. He was the series’ chief steward from 1997-2011 but was replaced after making several contentious calls.

While Team Penske still has defending champion Will Power, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and former NASCAR and Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya, it added a fourth full-time car when by signing France’s Simon Pagenaud.

James Hinchcliffe left Andretti Autosport to sign with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. And Sage Karam announced Monday that he would be driving for Ganassi’s team at next month’s season opener in St. Petersburg.

But most drivers are tired of talking about this season.

“Being here is nice, but being around the guys is a tease,” Graham Rahal said. “Some guys ran four days (testing) in the last two weeks. You’re building up, get going, then, boom, it stops all over again. It’s going to be a long month.”

Miles wants to make sure that never happens again.

“We think our growth is to add two or three races in February, the beginning of March,” he said. “Lengthening the season by starting earlier, it’s still a full seven months of racing, and that’s a full season.”

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