NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- When the IZOD IndyCar Series dropped the Qingdao, China street race, set for Aug.18, it created a hole in the schedule that had to be filled. The series is contractually obligated by sponsor IZOD to have a 16-race schedule for 2012 and there are several attractive venues under consideration.
But the one that makes the most sense and is the most popular among drivers, teams and fans is Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wis.
From talking to many drivers at last weekend's oval race at the Milwaukee Mile, I discovered that the feeling was strong that IndyCar should add the picturesque 4.0-mile road course. And that appears to be where INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard is focusing his efforts.
The difficulty in negotiating such a deal, however, is that time is running short. IndyCar prefers keeping the Sept. 16 race at Auto Club Speedway as its finale so that the championship can be decided on an oval racetrack, but Bernard indicated the additional race could come at the end of the season if necessary.
Ironically, the first venue that IndyCar contacted to fill in the gap was Texas Motor Speedway -- host of the June 9 race.
"Once the Texas race ended, I called [TMS President and General Manager] Eddie Gossage and told him what it would take for a race this year and asked if he would be interested," Bernard said. "He made a statement that he can't pull it off, which is fine. We have some other options right now."
Here are some tracks that should be considered.
Road America -- Elkhart Lake, Wis.
This historic venue hosted CART and Champ Car from 1982-2007. While this is the track that will most likely get the additional race, the series could not begin negotiating with Road America officials until after last Saturday's race at the Milwaukee Mile because the two locations are within 200 miles of each other. Milwaukee promoter Michael Andretti was guaranteed exclusivity in the Wisconsin market until after his race was over so it would not affect ticket sales.
Andretti, who competed in 18 races with three victories and seven top three finishes at Road America when he was a driver, realizes that the return to that road course would be beneficial to the series.
"It probably would not have a detrimental effect on this race at Milwaukee because in the past we've had two races in this state and they would fill both places," Andretti said. "I would love to race there."
Ask Andretti's son, driver Marco Andretti, and it's a no-brainer as far as he is concerned.
"Elkhart," Marco Andretti said. "Elkhart Lake, for sure."
Bernard spoke with Road America president George Bruggenthies last Saturday at Milwaukee.
"George and I did meet and it was very important that I did not discuss anything with him prior to the Milwaukee race because I did not want any rumors out there that could hurt Milwaukee," Bernard said. "We had to give Milwaukee every opportunity to go there. From the teams, drivers and fans it's the No. 1 choice. The No. 2 choice would be Pocono for next year. Pocono, it's unbelievable, the response we have gotten for that. I think they are very interested for next year.
The drivers want to race at Road America and don't mind sharing the spotlight with ALMS.
"We'll race on Friday -- I don't care," said Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe. "We're in a difficult situation and we have to make the best of it. I think that is a good weekend and a good racetrack. If we have to qualify on Thursday and race on Friday let's do it. It has to come down to dollars and cents, and at the end of the day it's a business. We have to make sure we are looking out for ourselves a little bit in that respect."
If Elkhart Lake is picked as the site of the fill-in race it will probably be in conjunction with the ALMS weekend.
"It has to be dropped into an event weekend already," said Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. "If we do a stand-alone event halfway through the season, that would be difficult. Hopefully, this whole thing turns into a positive and can be a blessing in disguise."
Laguna Seca Raceway -- Monterey, Calif.
Another popular pick is Laguna Seca -- another longtime road racing venue on the CART and Champ Car Series schedules -- but it has not played host to the current IndyCar Series. This is a track that could conceivably be added at the end of the year because it is nearly 400 miles from Fontana.
Also, this race could be held in early October because the climate is still mild in that part of California and is probably the No. 2 pick among the drivers.
"Laguna is a great, great track but it's not a very good racetrack as far as overtaking," Wilson said. "You will start from pole and that is the leader and that is how it is going to be."
If IndyCar picked Laguna as an end-of-the-season venue, it would probably disappoint Auto Club Speedway president Gillian Zucker because that facility is attempting to promote its IndyCar race as the championship finale. Bernard is respectful of this and wants to ensure that the Fontana race is successful.
"We have our wish list and it's a dream list of places we would like to go back to and then there is the business side of things that dictate the ultimate decision," said three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti.
Miami-Homestead Speedway -- Homestead, Fla.
This 1.5-mile oval stages great IndyCar races and is more traditional without pack racing. It was the site of both the CART/Champ Car Series when it first opened in 1996 before joining the IndyCar Series in 2001. But it was dropped from the 2011 schedule because of poor attendance.
This could easily host a race in October because of its hot climate but IndyCar is reluctant to return to a venue that could not draw a crowd. It's too bad because the racing is great for IndyCars at this track.
"That is definitely one to consider for sure," Hunter-Reay told SI.com. "That certainly has potential. As far as ovals, I would pick Phoenix or Homestead."
"Homestead would be great for these cars," Wilson said. "But it's all going to come down to politics."
Phoenix International Raceway -- Avondale, Ariz.
This track was a longtime staple of the old IndyCar schedules but has not hosted the current series since 2005. The crowd at the last race was so bad that one female reporter quipped, "I had more people at my wedding." But that was back in the days when there was not a unified IndyCar Series. Bernard is hopeful that the 1-mile oval would be open to the current series. Weather is not an issue at this track and the racing would be great but it is an International Speedway Corporation (ISC) track and in the past ISC tracks have not been aggressive promotional partners for IndyCar.
Bernard continues to try to get Phoenix back on the schedule and this could be a good venue for IndyCar. It would also be popular among the drivers.
"That is a fun track for sure," Hunter-Reay said. "They have to go for what makes sense and go for it now."
Kentucky Speedway -- Sparta, Ky.
To me, this venue made perfect sense because it's an easy two-hour drive from Indianapolis -- the home of IndyCar racing, where most of its fanbase is located. But Bernard made it clear that it's not going to happen.
"Kentucky? No," Bernard said. "If we are going to do a race like that one we have to make sure we have plenty of time. Long-term is more important than a 16th race last now."
While Kentucky would give IndyCar a much-needed oval race, Bernard was not happy with the lack of promotion and the size of the crowd that attended last year's race. This is ironic because when this track opened for business in 2000 it drew 61,000 fans for IndyCar. Last year's race was lucky to have drawn 16,000 spectators.
"Again, if there is nobody in the stands I don't want that," Michael Andretti said. "A lot of people want to go to tracks that have these huge grandstands but I don't want to go there if we don't draw a big enough crowd."
Pocono International Raceway -- Pocono, Pa.
It won't happen this year, but according to Bernard there is serious interest in going to this track in 2013 from teams, drivers and fans. He is currently talking to Pocono management about a 2013 date.
"The No. 2 choice is Pocono right now," Bernard said. "It's unbelievable the response we have gotten on that. Brandon Igdalsky at Pocono is interested and they are doing their study and evaluation to see if it is feasible, but I think they are very interested. For Pocono it's a 2013 play on the schedule -- not for this year."
The drivers believe now that the triangle-shaped, 2.5-mile oval has been repaved it would stage a great IndyCar race because it would have characteristics of both a speedway race and a road course contest.
"Pocono would be wicked," Hinchcliffe said.
No 16th Race at All
It's obvious that with the changing business climate of the apparel industry and new leadership at Phillips-Van Heusen that series sponsor IZOD has scaled back its promotion of the IndyCar Series. In fact, Bernard confirmed to a group of reporters before the June 9 race at Texas that there is a "presenting sponsorship for sale" at IndyCar. IZOD could remain in a smaller capacity if say a Verizon or Lucas Oil can be brought in as the title sponsor for the series.
With that in mind, does the series have to have a 16th race?
"That's a good question," Bernard said. "We'll have to wait and see."
Some drivers familiar with IZOD understand what has changed from 2008, when IZOD joined the series midway through the season and became the series sponsor beginning in 2010.
"IZOD is there to support IndyCar as much as they can but probably want to see somebody else come in the door, too," said Hunter-Reay, who had a longtime relationship with the sponsor when it first entered the sport. "Verizon would be great as a series sponsor. I would love that. It could be a blessing in disguise that becomes good for the sport."