The Ever-Changing Driver Lineup

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It’s no secret that I’m a traditionalist. I essentially live by the mantra “change is bad”. Whether it’s one of my favorite football teams parting ways with its coach after sixteen years (Jeff Fisher & Philip Fulmer) or watching football and baseball players move randomly from team to team – I don’t like change. This has nothing to do with my getting up in years. I was this set in my ways in college.

I don’t care for a lot of change in the driver line-up of the IZOD IndyCar Series either. Watching drivers change teams doesn’t bother me as much as in other sports. Instead, it’s the reshuffling of drivers in and out of the series after just a couple of years that drives me crazy. Just when I start to get a feel for them, they’re gone.

That’s why I was happy to see that Mike Conway is coming back to the series and he may be joined by another familiar face to open-wheel racing – Sébastien Bourdais. If anyone says that they saw either of those two coming, they’re lying. The fact that Conway is returning is no shocker. The surprise element is his new team – Andretti Autosport. Not once did I consider Conway a possibility for the fourth seat at AA. The general thinking was that Dan Wheldon was the front-runner for that ride, or that a relative unknown would fill it.

But now that I’ve had some time to digest it, it makes sense. Although they are supposedly very good friends, Mike Conway is the anti-Marco. He can come off as sort of aloof, as Marco can; but Conway is more grounded and pretty much all-business and no nonsense. He can probably relate to Marco, where Danica Patrick and Ryan Hunter-Reay may not. On the track, Conway has proven he is fast, in not the fastest of equipment. Although Andretti Autosport has fallen in the last few years, they are still a better team than Dreyer & Reinbold.

The shocker came on the same day last week when it was learned that Bourdais had tested for Dale Coyne Racing. I took this as a sign that the world as we know it, is about to end. This is a four-time consecutive Champ Car champion testing with one of the perennial bottom-dwellers of open-wheel racing. Hats off to Dale Coyne, if he can pull this off. Less than two years removed from his first and only win in twenty-five years of competition, Coyne is on the verge of landing one of the biggest fishes in the open-wheel pond. If Bourdais does, in fact, sign with Coyne; and Paul Tracy signs a full-time deal with Conquest, they can renew they’re rivalry from the early part of the last decade near the back of the pack.

It’s comforting to think that familiar names like Tracy and Bourdais might return to the series. I also take solace in the fact that we still have familiar names like Castroneves, Kanaan, Franchitti, Rahal, Andretti, Foyt, Newman/Haas, Ganassi and Penske involved in the series. Those names harken back to the nineties or even much earlier.

Continuity carries a lot of weight with me. Too many teams and drivers going in and out of the sport tend to confuse me. For every Tony Kanaan out there, there are ten Jaime Camera’s. It’s too much. I have trouble keeping up with every Mark Taylor and Ted Prappas that makes a brief appearance in the series and then vanish forever into obscurity.

Granted, I grew up in a different time. For reasons still unclear to me, after taking family members to the Indianapolis 500 for nine years in a row (I got to go to seven of those), my father lost interest and we stopped going after 1972. After a twenty year absence, I finally returned as an (immature) adult in 1992. Even though there had been a twenty year gap in that time, five of the drivers in that field that day were also in the field in 1972 – AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Gordon Johncock and Gary Bettenhausen. Johnny Rutherford had also tried to make the race but could never get his Derrick Walker car up to speed. All in all, there were ten former Indianapolis 500 winners in the field that day. Last year’s race had four. The way drivers come and go these days, it’s unlikely we’ll see a number as high as that ’92 race anytime soon.

What are the contributing factors for these shortened careers? In the 50’s and 60’s, driving careers were short due to the high mortality rate in the sport. Many that survived those casualty filled years in the sixties, ended up driving into the nineties. Nowadays, a ten year veteran is rare. There were only three full-time drivers last year that were driving full-time in the nineties – Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti.

Did the split have something to do with this? Is it the economic environment? Do the drivers simply make too much money at the beginning of their careers where they don’t have the desire or the need to push themselves more than a few years? At this moment, two of the last seven Indy winners are currently unemployed and a third is scheduled to drive only a partial schedule in the Nationwide series. What gives? Is it the so-called ”ride-buying” that’s pushing drivers out of their rides?

I don’t really know the answers to any of these questions. It may be something I haven’t thought of, or it could be a combination of “all of the above”. Regardless of the source of the blame, I think it is something that needs to be addressed. Randy Bernard has proven that he has gotten a quick grasp of a lot of problems that have been ailing this series for years. This is another one.

It’s hard to build a brand around “the fastest drivers in the world” when their lineup keeps changing. I don’t buy into the theory that the majority of the drivers need to be American. They could possibly use a few more Americans, but they need for the bulk of the drivers to remain consistent every year. Mario Moraes may be the next one headed to obscurity, since KV Racing Technologies announced a two-driver lineup last week that didn’t include his name. I’m not saying that he’s the type of driver that the IZOD IndyCar Series needs to build their brand around, but he joins Rafa Matos, Hideki Mutoh and possibly Alex Lloyd as promising drivers that appear to be gone three years (or less) after they arrived on the scene.

Driver attrition is normal in any series at any point in time. But it seems more common now than it has in the past. In order to build a loyal fan following among those new fans we hope to be getting soon, perhaps Randy Bernard can devise a plan on how to keep familiar faces like Dan Wheldon in the series. Like it or not, this series is built to exist around the Indianapolis 500. If Indy 500 champions can’t be retained for more than a few years, don’t expect fans to last very long either.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “The Ever-Changing Driver Lineup”

  1. Mike Rice Says:

    Matos should resurface somewhere. He’s a talented driver who struggled with the primarily single-car effort of Luczo Dragon/DeFerran. As was noted in other articles, if they could find a way to get a second car funded for him, pairing him with TK could completely revive his career. Wheldon, on the other hand, while a 500 winner/past champion (obvious talent) has shot himself in the foot with good teams due (apparently/alledgedly) to how difficult he can be to work with in terms of demands and a prima-donna attitude. Lots of talented drivers have gone by the wayside in this business, for a multitude of reasons. But in the final analysis, I’d bet the vast majority went away primarily due to funding now that it’s become so bloody expensive to run a car. Once upon a time it was all based on talent alone…

  2. Losing Wheldon hurts, but I’m all for trading in Mutoh, Matos, Moreas, Buagette and even Lloyd for Bourdais, Tracy, Hildebrand, Kimball, Rahal, ect.
    But I agree, the series need’s more stability in it’s driver lineup. Things like what happened between TK and AA are the exact opposite of what the series needs.

  3. It was the split. There is a generation lost to other forms of motorsport. The likes of Marco, Danica, Dixon, and Briscoe off the top of my head have to be nearing the ten year mark, right?

  4. Cowboy Racer Says:

    I would agree that the split and ride buying have both helped create the constant change of drivers over the last 10-15 years and it bothers me also, to a certain extent. What you have to also realize is, that in order for drivers to be brought up through the feeder series and into the big league, there has to be a certain amount of change on the lower end of the talent pool. What should be happening is that over time the best of the newbies stick around for the long haul, while the drivers that seemed to excel in the feeder series and don’t in the big cars are dropped from the series. It is the natural order of “The strongest will survive”. I hope now that we have a unified series and a good feeder series foundation we will see this trend of a constantly changing driver line up correct itself over the next few years.

  5. dylanpt24, I believe that fortunately we don’t have Milka Dunos any more, just that the back half of the grid could be improved a little. But how you dare include Bertrand Baguette into the nobodies class? We has Formula Renault 3.5 champion. That category has seen as champions drivers like Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica and title fighters like Justin Wilson, Sebastian Vettel and Pastor Maldonado.

    • That’s cool, but when the Atlantics, Indy Lights, 2003 CART, 2005 Indy500, ect. ect. winners are rideless, I can’t really say I care much. Now if Vettel, Riakkonen, Alonso, or Hamilton want to come over, that’s different, becuase they’re F1 champions. But I can’t say I care much about a Forumla Renault winner.

  6. Jake LaMar Says:

    We do need the sport to be mostly American again, George.

    It was that way in the 50′s, 60′s, 70′s and 80′s. And Indy Car was important and the Indy 500 the biggest race in the world.

    When it became a F1 Junior Series in the early 90′s, Indy Car’s popularity started to head south (pun intended). Then “The Split” happened, and it really went down the toilet.

    Get the sport back where it should be…(American road racers against American oval racers with SOME foreign involvement) and the sport will have a chance again. And keep them in stable rides for a good number of years.

    You can’t build anything, if your drivers keep shuffling and drivers bounce from team-to-team. Continuity in teams/drivers/driver numbers MATTER.

    • Im pretty sure that CART pre 1995 was that popular the F1 types were getting nervous. In that year there was only 9 full time Americans. But at this point CART was the best racing series in the world. I think what made it good was the fact that there were so many different chasis,tyre and engine manufacturers.

  7. Thesmartestguyintheroom Says:

    I disagree with dylan-no surprise there as I disagree with almost everything he writes, but I also disagree with Jake as well. When INDYCAR was at its nadir, it featured some of the best domestic talent with some of the best international talent. Where I do agree with Jake and everyone else is that stability in the driver lineups is crucial to the series regaining it’s footing in the world. How that can happen in such an unstable environment is something I can’t answer, but it does the series no good to have 1/3 to 2/3 of the drivers in one season gone the next.

  8. Savage Henry Says:

    I think it comes down to money, but I’m not going to blame the dreaded ride-buyers – they are a symptom, not the problem. If sponsorship dollars were more stable and plentiful, teams would be able to pay drivers rather than vice-versa. Under that scenario, teams would have the opportunity to find and develop drivers. They could give them a couple years to learn how to be successful at the top level.

    Guys like Lloyd, Matos, Mutoh, etc., all Indy Lights and/or Atlantics champs, have shown that they have the talent to compete. However, its hard to come in and immediately be successful against top-level drivers on top teams like Dixon, Fanchitti, Castroneves, and Kanaan. None of those guys set the world on fire when they first came up. They needed a couple of years to grow and mature (and earn better rides) before they were ready to win. The young drivers of today (at least those without famous fathers or significant sex appeal) don’t get that chance.

    I think that there is a big risk here for the series. All of the drivers who have won a race in the last 3 years (except Wilson and Hunter-Reay) are on the wrong side of 35. They aren’t going to be in the series for that much longer. Who is going to set up and fill the marquee roles? For all practical purposes, Rahal and Andretti have provided nothing more than name recognition so far. Hopefully that will change soon. Danica is probably off to NASCAR after this year. Indycar needs to figure out who they are going to be promoting in 2014 or 2015 and start investing in them now. If they don’t they are going to have a series full of silver-spooners or no-names.

    Sounds like 1996 all over again, doesn’t it?

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