As Penske Entertainment brass continue to work to put the finishing touches on its 2024 IndyCar calendar, the series runs the risk of seeing its longest continuous-running stop (outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) not being run — even for just next year.
After 27 consecutive visits, dating back to the Indy Racing League’s stop as part of its 1996-97 campaign, and 36 races overall, there’s a legitimate chance Texas Motor Speedway will be absent from IndyCar’s final 2024 schedule. The schedule, that is likely to include the welcomed addition of Milwaukee and the recently-announced $1 Million Challenge exhibition race at The Thermal Club, is targeted to be unveiled before the end of the month, sources within the paddock have confirmed to IndyStar.
Despite the latest contract with Texas, unveiled during last fall’s schedule release, having been framed as a multi-year deal, there are several scheduling hurdles that could keep the race off the 2024 schedule.
Such a situation, though, could be a one-year pause in the relationship while the sides evaluate how to slot in an annual date.
As sources explained to IndyStar, NASCAR is eyeing March 24 for its stop at Circuit of the Americas — a race that, for the past couple years, has been run and promoted by TMS. With Easter weekend immediately following, IndyCar had April 7 slotting in nicely to the current schedule.
With the addition of the made-for-TV, non-points-paying event at The Thermal Club outside Palm Springs, Calif. next year, the series would’ve had a single off-weekend each from St. Pete to Thermal, Thermal to Texas and Texas to Long Beach, leading into a back-to-back with Long Beach, Barber and then the jam-packed Month of May at IMS.
But TMS, having seen its slate of NASCAR Cup series stops trimmed in recent years from two races to a points-paying race and the All-Star race (2021-22), and this year just one single, is said to have been reevaluating when to hold that event. This weekend, TMS will host playoff races for Cup and Xfinity, but one fall stop and its inherent conflict with Dallas Cowboys football is less-than-ideal.
A better fit?
Shifting that Cup and Xfinity weekend out of the playoffs and back to the spring — a move that, if IndyCar’s race was scheduled as wished, could have the two largest racing series in the country on back-to-back weekends at the same track.
And with longtime TMS president Eddie Gossage no longer at the helm — who had long championed to host a NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader weekend — there doesn’t appear to be a strong desires to combine the two series into one giant racing weekend akin to the grand weekend IMS has hosted since 2020.
Looking to the future: If NASCAR-IndyCar partnership is meaningful, it must continue after IMS
TMS is said to have countered with a September date for IndyCar (scheduled to end with the new Sept. 15 season-finale on the streets of Nashville). From IndyCar’s side, that becomes complicated the schedule with only five weekends after the end of the 2024 Summer Olympics (July 26-Aug. 11) — which will see IndyCar go dark for at least three weekends next summer. Within that window, IndyCar must fit Nashville along with the presumed new Milwaukee race, its annual visit to World Wide Technology Raceway and then likely Portland or Mid-Ohio. Adding a fifth race would create five consecutive races that simply doesn’t fall into IndyCar’s typical rhythm.
And in its 27-year history at the track, never before has IndyCar scheduled a planned race at TMS after June 12 and before Sept. 15 — largely due to the temperatures and difficulty the sport has in running races at night with its current ratings draw in the TV landscape. The only exception came in 2016, when the June 12 race was postponed twice due to weather and had to be moved to Aug. 27.
An IndyCar official told IndyStar that PEC certainly wants to see an annual stop at Texas continue, and that both sides are working to find a fix — to the level of considering options that wouldn’t necessarily be ideal for either side. And if a Band-aid can’t be found to keep the pair’s annual streak going, the marriage is at least unlikely to see the same slow, unceremonious death IndyCar’s planned 2020 return to Richmond Raceway did during and after the pandemic.
Though TMS has built a reputation in recent years as a track that struggles to put on an exciting IndyCar show — displayed by the dwindling live audience to a few thousand at a track that could hold well over 100,000 — this spring’s race was perhaps IndyCar’s best oval race in the aeroscreen era.
Some in the paddock even went so far as to say they saw it as the best IndyCar race at TMS since 2016 — or ever.
‘Best Texas race ever’: Sunday was one of IndyCar’s best oval races in years, but will it get too dangerous?
For a series that, since the end of ‘The Split’ in 2008, has been consistently losing oval venues — down to a low of three total weekends and four races in 2021 — even the momentary loss of TMS would be disappointing, even as IndyCar plans to add Milwaukee the same year.
Increasingly muddying the waters for IndyCar’s future at TMS are the long-held rumors the track may soon undergo serious renovations to reprofile and rethink the track layout after NASCAR has struggled to put on an enticing show there in recent years. How that might affect IndyCar’s ability to continue on its trajectory of holding edge-of-your-seat racing there, as it did this year, would be secondary to those plans to aid its NASCAR product.
“I just want to see Texas race the way it should race,” said April Texas IndyCar race-winner Josef Newgarden earlier this year after his down-to-the-wire win over Pato O’Ward. “I think most people would look at today and say, ‘That’s how Texas should race.’
“On ovals, that’s what we need.”