The 2006 Indy Racing League schedule-which is two months shorter and has three fewer races than 2005-has teams considering either cutting staff or expanding into other race series to fill the void.
"You hate to make any staff cuts, but that's one question facing all the [IRL] teams," said Doug Boles, chief operating officer for locally based Panther Racing. "This is a very competitive industry and to keep your good people, you want to keep them employed year-round."
But with limits on testing and engines largely prepackaged, there's only so much an IRL team can do during the offseason. With the release of the compacted 2006 schedule, the IRL off-season grew from 4-1/2 months to 6-1/2 months.
"The timing is right for this schedule change," said IRL team owner Eddie Cheever. "The downside is the staffing issue. In the end, you have to run your team like a business."
IRL teams now find themselves considering expanding into Grand Am Series or American Le Mans Series to avoid downsizing.
"Teams face an interesting situation," said Dennis Reinbold, coowner of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. "Some reorganization will be needed."
IRL officials said they shortened the schedule to avoid competition with the National Football League and, more important, to have a more consistent week-to-week schedule where fans can count on seeing a race on television almost every weekend. Officials for ABC and ESPN-the IRL's broadcast partners-were proponents of the change.
"The primary reason for the compacted schedule are momentum and consistency," said Brian Barnhardt, IRL chief operating officer. "Scheduling our races on a consistent basis in a compacted time frame will give us momentum from the drop of the green flag [at the season opener] in Miami into the month of May, right through the heart of our season and into the championship point battle."
If teams cut staff, communications and marketing, hospitality and other ancillary positions would be the first cut to parttime or seasonal, team owners said. Teams will try to keep drivers and engineers on full time.
"The biggest effect could be on the mechanics," said Cheever, who employs 50 people full time, including 15 mechanics. "It might return to the way it was 15 or 20 years ago, when some of the race personnel had to go out and find other jobs during the off-season."
That might be easier said than done, admitted Boles.
"You could end up losing some of your talent to teams or series that can afford to employ them full time," Boles said.
Though series officials said the shorter schedule should help contain teams' costs, some team owners said it could lead to a greater disparity.
"For some teams, the Andretti-Greens and the Team Penskes, they'll be able to better deal with this situation financially," Cheever said. "It could have a bigger negative impact on the medium-size and smaller teams."
Another concern is that the IRL and its teams will be forgotten during such a long off-season, sports marketers said.
Team owners said racing in the American Le Mans Series or Grand Am Series, even if it's only during the IRL's downtime, will give drivers valuable exposure, which could boost the IRL.
The Grand Am Series, which starts in early January, seems especially promising, Boles said.
The American Le Mans Series is a series of sports-car endurance races patterned after the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Grand Am Series is a sports-car racing series founded in 1999 by NASCAR principals. The exposure of IRL drivers to the diverse fan base ranging from NASCAR to Formula One fans is another positive of expanding into the series.
"There's a lot of history in both of those series, and they have similar demographics as the IRL," Cheever said.
Though some additional capital would be needed to equip a team in another series, the benefits could outweigh the costs, Boles said. Sponsorship packages combining a team's IRL efforts and exposure in another series are already being embraced by corporate sponsors, Boles added.
"Not only could it make financial sense, you also can't forget that inactivity blunts the competitive spirit, and we have to do everything we can to stay sharp," Cheever said.