It’s been a long off-season for IndyCar fans as it seems like an eternity since the last race. It’s also been disappointing, which is the main reason I haven’t written since the end of last season. For me as a fan, various media and IndyCar had been promising fans more races each of the last 3 seasons. I was hopeful that 2016 would finally be the year to ramp up to a 20 race season. Although the Series added races at Phoenix, Road America and Boston it equally lost Milwaukee, Fontana and NOLA. The net result was a draw and fans were left with the same amount of races. Fans were also told the season would be longer in the hope that more races could be added, especially to the front of the schedule. Well the season is longer but with the same number of races, now there is just more time between them.
If you look at the big picture, IndyCar has no voice on the national scene. IndyCar tries to generate press in the off-season by telling us stories of IndyCar drivers attending various events around the country. Although this may be of interest to the diehard fans, for most it isn’t even worth mentioning. It doesn’t even register a beep on the radar. Add to this the lack of testing and it’s no wonder the casual fan forgets the sport even exists. To be honest, silly season has been quite mundane which leads me to IndyCar’s dilemma.
The best thing IndyCar has going for it is the Mazda Road to Indy. It is one of the strongest ladder systems in the world and one could argue it is the best ladder system in motorsports. Yet what good is this ladder system if the last rung is unreachable, a mere facade? Take a close look at the recent history of the Indy Lights champions since 2010 and how they fared making the jump to IndyCar:
- 2010- J.K. Vernay never drove a single race and disappeared
- 2011- Josef Newgarden currently driving for Ed Carpenter Racing
- 2012- Tristan Vautier won rookie of the year in IndyCar 2013, then could not find a ride in 2014 and after DCR had a joke of a driver lineup in 2015, Tristan was called to make the team respectable starting at Indy. He currently has not been signed for 2016.
- 2013- Sage Karam drove in one race, the Indy 500 in 2014 then drove in 12 of the 16 races in 2015 for Ganassi. He has signed in sports cars this season and the only IndyCar race in 2016 will be the Indy 500
- 2014- Gabby Chaves won rookie of the year for BHA in 2015 and news just broke on 2/17 that he has lost his seat for 2016 due to financial problems at BHA, which had to merge with Andretti Autosport.
- 2015- Spencer Pigot is currently signed for 3 races with RLL. He is currently looking for additional funding.
So to sum up the Indy Lights champions since 2010, only Josef Newgarden has been a mainstay in the IndyCar Series. Is this an Indy Lights or Mazda Road to Indy problem? Absolutely not, especially since the champion gets a scholarship to make that jump to IndyCar. The problem is IndyCar.
The underlying and biggest dilemma IndyCar faces is a financial one. Every one of the above drivers are talented or they wouldn’t have had the success they had. Karam, Chaves and Pigot are the future of the sport, yet they can’t land a solid and stable ride. The reason is money. Unless a driver can bring a big, fat check he has little to no hope of driving in the Series. Can you think of any other sport where the athlete has to bring all or most of the money to be on the team? In fact, it’s the other way around. The teams of the other sports go after the athletes and sign them to big money. Why? Because the teams and sports are financially viable.
In a year when it’s the 100th running of the Indy 500, the marquis event of the sport, you would think that money should be pouring in hand over fist! Not so in IndyCar. As you take a step back and look at the sport, IMS has been able to secure sponsorships and add to the existing ones. In fact, IMS recently signed a presenting sponsorship deal plus received $100 million from the State of Indiana to upgrade the facilities. There has been a huge influx of cash to IMS. If you take a closer look at IMS, they are expanding their events outside of motorsports by hosting concerts and other types of entertainment. Could it be that IMS knows that to survive financially, they need an influx of cash outside of motorsports? They realize the motorsports market is shrinking as even NASCAR has felt dwindling crowds, which equals a loss of revenue.
Let’s face it, IndyCar teams are on life support. In a celebratory year when it should be easy for teams to expand or be well in the green, IndyCar teams are shrinking. Sarah Fisher gone; KVSH from 2 seats to 1; BHA merges with AA; ECR has not hired a road/street driver; DCR only has 1 seat so far. Instead of teams giving rides to those deserving drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy, they look for drivers that come with funding. I honestly could care less about some washed up or wanna be Formula 1 driver. They don’t bring eyeballs to the sport. Nothing against Max Chilton, but he brought the money and that cost Karam a seat. Gabby loses his seat to BHA financial troubles and now Rossi could land that seat because he couldn’t get a seat in F1. Let’s face it, IndyCar is not the final destination these guys want. They want F1 and IndyCar is the after thought. Stop welcoming these ride buyers as they could care less about the sport. Jack Harvey busted his butt in Indy Lights and deserves a seat, yet it’s like everyone has forgotten about him. I fear Spencer Pigot could experience this roller coaster ride as well.
There are no easy answers for IndyCar to fix this dilemma. It didn’t get to this point overnight and it’s going to take some time to right the ship. Miles seems to be banking on either an influx of cash for the Series by scheduling overseas races (we have zero this year) or putting all his stock in growing the tv market. I don’t think either addresses the underlying problem that the outdated business model of the 80’s and early 90’s doesn’t work anymore. Instead of band-aids being slapped on a crumbling foundation, shouldn’t we be focusing on a complete restoration? The foundation is the key to any house or business so is it any wonder that IndyCar is struggling? How long before these young drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy realize they have no shot at IndyCar because of money and leave? Instead of MRTI grooming drivers for IndyCar, could it be grooming them for sportcars? When Andretti and Ganassi are having to take driver’s money, there’s a huge problem.
Please fix this dilemma! Can Miles and Company do this? Do they even have a desire to fix this? Are they more interested in keeping the status quo? Should the Series and IMS be separate business entities? If so, is the Series worth anything to anyone? Can IndyCar function like a normal sport and pay deserving athletes to drive in it, instead of the driver paying to drive in the sport? I can’t imagine applying for a job at Target and Target telling me they can afford to pay me $5/hour and I must bring the other $15/hr to work there. Do you see how ludicrous this is? Drivers major in driving skills not in pr, marketing and sales. Yet the Series has created this atmosphere. The Series and the teams must work together to fix this dilemma. Both are at fault for creating this environment. Who’s going to be the Series Batman and solve this riddle?
I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Twitter: @Open_Wheels @davidindycar and we are also on Facebook.