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NASCAR and INDYCAR unveil their 2021 race calendars

October 1/20 (GRW): This week both NASCAR and IndyCar rolled out their planned race schedules for the 2021 season. On NASCAR’s part this was the long-expected big revision to their lineup of race dates with four championship points races being replaced by four different events. As for IndyCar, three of their 2020 events will be replaced by three other events at different venues. Of course, this comparison between last year’s schedules and this year’s is based on the ones originally published before the COVID pandemic came along and scrambled all the race schedules.

• Click HERE for the 2021 NASCAR race schedule
• Click HERE for the 2021 IndyCar race schedule

On the NASCAR side there are quite a few changes from the schedule originally planned for 2020.

First, considering the races that are part of the championship series, there are five dates that were not on the original 2020 calendar. These are a second date at Darlington on May 9, a new date on the Circuit of the Americas road course on May 23, a new date at the Road America road course, and a new date on the currently fallow Nashville Superspeedway on July 12.

The five events that have been deleted are the March race at Texas Motor Speedway, the June race at Michigan International Speedway, the race at Chicagoland Speedway, the race at Kentucky Speedway and the August race at Dover International Speedway.

In addition, the now-traditional Brickyard 400 on the 2.5 mi Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be converted to a race on the IMS road course which will be paired with an IndyCar race there on the same weekend.

Since about the year 2000, the attendance at most NASCAR Cup races has been in decline with significantly smaller crowds than in the late ‘90s when many tracks were building more and more grandstands to meet the demand for tickets. Since then, almost every track that could has significantly removed seats to avoid the embarrassment of empty grandstands. Bristol is one exception; they built seating for about 160,000 spectators in a configuration that would be hard to downsize without leaving obvious gaps in their ‘coliseum’ seating configuration.

Darlington and Atlanta are two long-standing tracks that traditionally had two dates until the great expansion of the nineties and the contraction of the 2000's. Darlington is the original superspeedway on the NASCAR calendar, so traditionalists can be expected to welcome the return of the spring date here. It remains to be seen whether this revival of traditional second dates at Darlington and Atlanta will be rewarded with full grandstand seats.

We were given advance notice that the currently defunct Atlanta Superspeedway was going to get a Cup date for the first time ever. This addition is a bit hard to understand. NASCAR once ran on the one-mile track on the site of the Nashville Fairgrounds. It is hard to understand why NASCAR abandoned this track in favour of the new ‘superspeedway’. I suspect that in the hubris of the growth era, it was thought that a new 1.5-mile track would better cater to all those new fans than the old-fashioned one-mile fairground track. In short, the new superspeedway did not work out and it now sits dormant. Nowadays there seems to be a theory that the shorter one-mile tracks are more appealing to the in-person and via video race fan – but Dover ‘owns’ the date and they are taking it from their Dover track to this unloved venue. It does not seem like a good business decision – unless they can somehow sell this date to the owners of the one-mile fairgrounds speedway in future years.

The spring race at Bristol will be changed from concrete to dirt, making is an entirely different proposition. They have run sprint cars on dirt here twice and the NASCAR Truck Series has run at Eldora a few times but, I’m no fan of this cocked-up kind of racing. I’ve seen plenty of dirt-track races live and on television so I am familiar with this discipline. However, the truck races at Eldora are a mess, not at all like the kind of display of skill one sees at a sprint races on dirt. I can only imagine that the Cup cars on dirt – with many of the drivers having no prior experience on dirt – will be even more out of their element. Another amateur night show which, in my opinion, merely degrades the status of NASCAR racing. They claim they are responding to the fans’ demand for this style of racing on the Bristol oval. I hope that those fans enjoy what they get.

The two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Los Angeles is going to be converted to a half-mile short track based on the existing front stretch and pit lane area. The 2021 race here will be the last one on the two-mile track before the conversion is completed.

The Chicagoland speedway will have no races there next year nor will the Route 66 drag strip on the same site. Speculation is that this site will be abandoned in favour of some kind of warehouse development.

This leaves the races that will be moved from ovals – which are the traditional venues for NASCAR races – to proper road courses or the more ersatz road courses. Currently there are two traditional road courses used by the NASCAR Cup cars – Watkins Glen and Sonoma. In addition there are two ‘rovals’ road courses cobbled together with a road-course section in the infield of an oval and using a portion of the oval track to make a mongrel sort of race track, neither a good oval track or a good road course track. Previously there was one of these rovals on the 2020 calendar – Charlotte. This year, faced with many tracks they could not use because of the lockdown for the pandemic, NASCAR used both the roval at Charlotte and the roval configuration at Daytona.

To me these bastard layouts are ill-suited to the big NASCAR Cup cars and they produce bad racing – that it, unless you like to see ‘the best drivers in the world’ crashing out and screwing up like a bunch of unskilled novices. Some may like this demolition-derby style of crash-bang racing but I think it is unbecoming of any race series which bills itself as one of the best racing series in the world.

So what have they done? They have added a Cup date at each of two more rovals – Daytona and Indianapolis. Excuse me if I don’t cheer. I have no idea whether it will pay off for NASCAR and their television partners. Probably it will see a blip of interest based on its novelty, but I wonder how this will hold up in the longer run.

In summary, NASCAR has gotten rid of a 2.5-mile oval, a two-mile oval, two 1.5-mile ovals and a one-mile oval event and replaced them with three ovals that vary in length between 1.3 and 1.5 miles in length. I’m confused. How does this work to get rid of the dreaded 1.5-mile ovals and replace them with the supposedly more fun one-mile ovals?

As for the road course races that have been added, will more fans come to Austin’s COTA than to Fort Worth’s TMS? Will Road America’s loyal road course base of fans come out in droves for a Cup race there? Will the empty seats at IMS be less obvious when they use the road course configuration which cuts out the oval’s third turn and its vacant seats?

This new calendar feels like it is a hail Mary swing on NASCAR’s part to try to rebuild its audience before the television contracts (which have to have been paying a huge proportion of NASCAR’s income in recent years) come up for renewal

NASCAR’s strategy in reworking its calendar may become more obvious when we see their schedules for the Xfinity and the Truck Series races. Maybe we will see an Xfinity race at CTMP or Montreal next year?

As for IndyCar, at first glance their 2021 calendar seems to be little changed, but there are three dates missing and replaced by new ones.

The three that have gone missing are COTA in April, Richmond in June and Iowa in July – a road course and two short track races. They have been replaced by a second race making a doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway in early May, a new street circuit in the middle of Nashville and a third event at IMS. This will run in mid-August as the Saturday half of a doubleheader paired with the Cup race their on the Sunday.

There must be more to the Texas story than is apparent to me. This ultra-fast 1.5-mile banked oval is unloved given that it has been the site of many serious crashes in its history. Whereas, it seemed to me that Iowa, was a nice change from the mile-and-a-half and longer ovals. This does not seem to me to be a good trade-off. I am no fan of street courses, so don’t look to me to cheer for one more of them at Nashville. Nor am I much of fan of the IMS roval layout for that matter.

The Toronto round of the Indy car series is still on the calendar as is, I assume, the Truck Series race at CTMP.

Of course, most race fans only attend in person one or a handful of race events each year, finding it more convenient and less expensive to watch the rest on television. This means that it matters little how far the tracks are from your home – so long as they provide a ‘show’ that you find engaging.

If we get a big ‘second wave’ of the pandemic, we may see life disrupted on into next year and, with it, the race schedules may be blown up as well. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that things are more-or-less back to normal in time for the IMSA Daytona 24-hour at the end of January ...

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