10.01.2015 – While other websites pontificate on the potential schedule for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series, those of us who are focused on the Mazda Road to Indy watch intently, knowing that the MRTI runs a vast majority of its events on IndyCar weekends. I’ve often spoke of my belief in the value of date equity, as have many journalists, and we’re blessed to have more of that concept in the MRTI than the IndyCar series does on the whole. St. Pete, Long Beach, Indy, Toronto and Mid-Ohio are solid building blocks of our schedule’s foundation, but there are also assorted moving targets that Andersen Promotions’ Dan Andersen and Michelle Kish need to pin down year after year. In many cases, they’re put on a holding pattern waiting for IndyCar to confirm the alternate venues and dates, but that doesn’t stop us from having a little fun in predicting where we’ll end up throughout the 2016 travel schedule.
There are certainly exciting highlights for next year, beginning with the fact that we’re going to see at least one new venue. The popular Road America facility will be part of the regular mixture of temporary street circuits, natural terrain road courses and the short ovals that help train our drivers trained for the big leagues. Elkhart Lake is on the docket for ’16 and the inclusion of the full MRTI line-up was an extremely positive announcement for everyone attached to the ladder system programs.
One key confirmation that also came recently, in regards to the ’16 campaign, was the decision by Andersen Promotions to end the Winterfest series, which was initially designed to provide teams with wheel-to-wheel race opportunities for their new pilots or for those they may be testing for potential race seats. Over the course of the last two years, the program became more of an extension of the official calendar, one that became necessary for anyone hoping to contest for the USF2000 or Pro Mazda championships. If you didn’t want to be behind the eight ball to start the season, most felt that you had to run Winterfest and this just added to the overall budget of a program. Increasing budgets are a big concern for everyone involved in any junior formula series. Andersen and his staff had the best of intentions when they designed and launched the Winterfest series, but as is the case in motorsports, competition often takes even the best laid plans and morphs them into something very different. We’re told that the cancellation of Winterfest came after input from team owners during a series meeting, so it’s always a positive note to see the cooperation between the series and its teams.
So with Road America being confirmed on the late June date, and the announcement including official confirmation that the MRTI would be on the weekend line-up in Elkhart Lake, here’s a look at the remainder of the potential schedule.
As posted to its website, St. Petersburg will remain as the opening weekend of the Mazda Road to Indy calendar, running all three series. Some media sources are floating the rumor of the IndyCar series starting in Mexico City in February, and even if that came to fruition, I cannot see the MRTI on that dance card. The new early-March date for St. Pete opens things up a little (March 11-13), and the now-confirmed disappearance of the one-and-done NOLA Motorsports Park race will give everyone a little break until the Indy Lights series fires up again at Long Beach (April 15-17), as has been traditionally the case. From there, all three series are expected to be back together for an event at Barber Motorsports Park on April 22-24, which I feel was a strong weekend for the MRTI. It’s a great track that will host the IndyCar program for years to come, so it’s in the best interest of the MRTI and it’s drivers that we remain there.
The May dates are a lock, confirming all three series on the IMS road course on the May 12-14 Grand Prix weekend, and then the Indy Lights teams return on May 25 to prepare for the Freedom 100. The USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda has just one oval race on the schedule, which has been the Lucas Oil Raceway based ‘Night Before The 500’ event in Brownsburg. The race was switched to a day event this year, and was paired with the USAC Silver Crown cars instead of the Midgets, and the result was very positive. I feel that they drew a good crowd, which is something that can be built on. There’s a lot of evening oval races scheduled around the Indy 500, all within an hour’s drive from the Speedway, so positioning the ‘Day Before The 500’ ahead the other Saturday events kick-off will allow the MRTI to draw race fans who want to jet out to Andersen Speedway for the Hulman Hundred on Saturday night, for example. I also believe that the day’s open schedule could allow for more pageantry during the show moving forward. The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires will join USF2000 on the docket, as usual.
So as we move into June, July and August, this is where things get interesting. We had initially heard rumors of Milwaukee being moved to early June, but there is now some insider talk that the Mile could get pushed to mid-August, if it indeed survives the winter seeing that its Wisconsin neighbor has returned to the party (Road America). That said, should Pocono get a confirmed date, Milwaukee could be the collateral damage in the shuffling. Toronto will return to its traditional date after a one-year move to June to make the Lakeshore Boulevard venue available for the 2015 PanAm Games. If it receives a stay of execution, Milwaukee could run only the Indy Lights series as it did this year, and Toronto will very likely have all three series. A rumored IndyCar schedule puts Iowa Speedway on the weekend before Toronto, and that would likely include Indy Lights and Pro Mazda. I was absolutely enthralled with Iowa on my first visit this year. The place is immaculate and I loved how they rolled out the red carpet for the IndyCars and the MTRI. I fully expect that we’ll be back there once IndyCar confirms the date. I thought both the Lights and Pro Mazda drivers put on a great show on the 7/8th mile banked oval and I’d like to see this event become a cornerstone for both series. I like the idea of the shorter ovals for tight, close, exciting racing. The other wildcard for the Indy Lights calendar would be Phoenix, if IndyCar gets a race locked into the Arizona facility. I think this would be a great replacement for Milwaukee, if the need arises. Andersen has been vocal with the fact that he wants three ovals for the Indy Lights drivers and Phoenix would complete the trio nicely alongside Indy and Iowa.
The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course event on the first weekend of August has become a traditional stop of the full Mazda Road to Indy line-up and is a pivotal weekend in the championship, although it appears that the race will actually move to the last weekend in July in 2016. While the IndyCar press crew has not released any official confirmation and it is not yet on the track website, the Pirelli World Challenge has already set the date (July 29-31) and location on their schedule, as reported by NBC Motor Sports Talk editor Tony DiZinno (http://motorsports.nbcsports.com/2015/09/14/pwc-schedule-release-offers-more-indycar-2016-hints/). This will most definitely be part of the MRTI calendar.
The Boston event on Labor Day weekend has been confirmed by IndyCar, but I’m always leery of first-year events, especially for the ladder series. These drivers need lots of seat time, and track issues can often limit the time available. While I expect that at least one of the MRTI series could be on the schedule, I doubt that the entire three-program line-up would be there.
This leaves the championship weekend, which was held at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this past September on a dance card with the Pirelli World Challenge. One would expect that the promoters could look at this event again or potentially a stand-alone race, with the track being the ‘spiritual home’ of Mazda.
As it stands, the 2016 Mazda Road to Indy looks pretty close to complete in terms of being able to predict the overall calendar. IndyCar is talking about having its schedule out late next week, which would very likely be followed closely by the MRTI dates. The following is what I see rolling out as we turn the page to the month of October.
Potential 2016 Mazda Road to Indy Schedule
March 11-13: Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (confirmed – USF/PM/IL)
April 2-3: Phoenix (potential replacement for Milwaukee? – IL only)
April 15-17: Long Beach Grand Prix (expected – IL only)
April 22-24: Barber Motorsports Park (expected – USF/PM/IL)
May 12-14: Grand Prix of Indianapolis (confirmed – USF/PM/IL)
May 26-28: Freedom 100 / Day Before the 500 (confirmed – USF/PM/IL)
June 25 – Road America (confirmed – USF/PM/IL)
July 9-10: Iowa (potential date? – PM/IL)
July 16-17: Toronto (expected – USF/PM/IL)
July 29-31: – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (confirmed– USF/PM/IL)
August TBD: Milwaukee (will it exist in 2016? – IL only?)
September 2-4 – Boston (expected – series TBD)
September TDB – Mazda Raceway (potential finale? – USF/PM/IL)