When Is A Starting Field Too Large?

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Most of the news that has been coming from the IZOD IndyCar Series lately has been positive. There are things out of the series control like the exit of Firestone and the fact that two former champions are still without rides (three if you count former Champ Car champion Paul Tracy), but overall the good has far outweighed the bad. As of Monday, you can now chalk one up in the “bad” column.

On Monday, it was announced that all races this season, excluding the Indianapolis 500, will be capped at twenty-six cars. Just a few years ago when eighteen-car fields were the norm, that seemed like a wonderful problem to have. This season, however, it is a very real issue. Worst still is the formula they will use to determine the 26: the top 24 in speed plus two (umm-err, ahem) provisionals.

Just the mere mention of the word “provisional” conjures up images of an over-the-hill Darrell Waltrip taking up a spot at the back of the grid. At least the IZOD IndyCar Series won’t base a provisional starting spot on a lifetime achievement award like NASCAR. The champions of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, as well as the 2010 Indianapolis 500 champion are protected. They all happen to be the same person – Dario Franchitti.

There are other determining factors further down the line like highest-ranking driver among the top twenty-two, fastest practice time among Leader Circle entries, entry with best qualifying time, etc. All of that ensures that most of the well-known drivers that fans are paying to see will be able to race. Still, there is a chance that the fastest cars will not be among the ones starting a race. It also means that on most race weekends – someone will be going home.

I think Randy Bernard is doing a great job promoting this series. The future looks brighter than it has in years. But he hasn’t gotten it there yet. Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and the aforementioned Paul Tracy are all currently without rides due to a lack of sponsorship. How happy do you think they were to hear of this development?

These three drivers are not in the running for seats with Penske or Ganassi. Tracy has been in discussions at Conquest, while Kanaan has been linked to Dale Coyne Racing – both of which are fixtures at the bottom of the speed charts on any given weekend. If a potential sponsor was on the fence, do you think Monday’s announcement pushed them closer to committing their money?

What about sponsors who were signed over the winter? Charlie Kimball is a true rookie, driving for a new team with a new sponsor. Chances are, Novo Nordisk was told their car would be racing in sixteen markets in addition to the Indianapolis 500. Although they are a satellite team of Chip Ganassi, there is a strong possibility that his car will struggle at some tracks and may not make each race.

Although things have improved over the past couple of seasons, I don’t think the IZOD IndyCar Series has grown to the point where they should be sending sponsors away. Missing just one race may be all it takes to blow up what was intended to be a long-term and lucrative deal. I haven’t seen sponsors pushing each other out of the way in order to get to sponsor a car. Teams that have decals on their sidepods consider themselves to be very fortunate. Now another potential hurdle has been created.

The question is – why? Iowa and Mid-Ohio present problems with not enough space in the pits to accommodate a large number of cars, but who came up with twenty-six? I haven’t heard who thought this plan up, but it sounds like it has Brian Barnhart’s fingerprints all over it. Is safety really the issue? Twenty-nine cars started the 1.5 mile oval at Chicago last August without any noticeable additional danger. Many other races had twenty-seven or more without any crashes being blamed on too many cars on the track. How did twenty-six become the magic cut-off?

Brian Barnhart is very fond of using the term “unintended consequences” when talking about rule changes having an effect on-track. Well, I think this rule change will have a very negative effect off-track. As my kids were growing up, when they were faced with a choice; I always told them to look at a situation, think of the best thing that can happen and then the worst thing that can happen before making your decision. I can see a lot of bad things that can happen from this, but for the life of me – I can’t really see the good.

The IZOD IndyCar Series has begun to offer potential sponsors a viable alternative to NASCAR. Sponsors have now realized that they can get a good return in IndyCar. That could all change when sponsors learn there is a possibility that their car may miss one or perhaps several races. When this series grows to the point where they can afford to turn drivers, teams and sponsors away – they will have come a long way. In my opinion, which counts for absolutely nothing – they still have a long way to go.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “When Is A Starting Field Too Large?”

  1. The field at Indy has been limited to 33 cars for quite some time. Some of the most memorable moments in “500” history–nail biting, dramatic, emotional moments–have come on bump day. I’ve never heard anyone complain they should allow more entries because a sponsor didn’t make the race. So limiting the field is a good thing. The only question is how many?

    They picked 26, including the provisionals. I don’t like provisionals because in Nascar it means “everybody else.” But other than that, it doesn’t bother me. Racing is supposed to be hard and I like the idea that someone may not make the race. I’m amazed that they’re “limiting” the field to 26–I remember years they couldn’t find that many cars.

    Maybe in the future they could just–in the Indy tradition–limit the field in all races to 33 cars.

  2. I like the idea of encouraging the best drivers and good competition, but I’m not sure on the number. I honestly don’t think it’s going to matter much this year at most races, but I’m taking a wait-and-see approach.

  3. The American Mutt Says:

    I’m more bothered by the provisional rule, than the limitation. It strikes me as a “Protect Penkse and Ganassi in the event that one of their drivers puts it in the wall during qualifications”

  4. I don’t understand this rule. Why limit the field to 26??? It does sound like a Tony George/Brian Barnhardt plan….

  5. Mike Silver Says:

    I think the rule is very short-sighted and the provisional is inane. If you meet a minimum speed requirement, you should be allowed to race.

  6. It’s a bad idea. Too low a number considering this is the last year with this equipment. I’m guessing this has everything to do with keeping Milka out, which is a shame for everyone else who pays the price.

  7. Savage Henry Says:

    I guess the big question is, ” who is this rule really targeting?”. Is there a driver or team (or drivers or group of teams) that they are trying to discourage from showing up? It doesn’t make sense any other way.

    I can see limiting field size at a particular facility if is a specific issue – e.g. lack of pit space. But across the board? I agree with George that it only exposes the series to the wrath of sponsors. Not something that sounds like a good idea.

    I think that a significant part of the prestige of the Indy 500 is that it is limited to 33 cars and cars that show up don’t make the race – be it a small, backmarker team or the Penske juggernaut. Bump day is full of action and drama BECAUSE it is the Indy 500. I don’t like the idea of bumping at other tracks. I think that it takes away from the 500 (and, yes, I am a total Indy bigot).

    • Savage Henry Says:

      As I wrote the above I may be realizing what the issue is. This is the last year for these cars. There are probably a lot of Dallara/Hondas in circulation. The series may be trying to discourage teams (active and past) from emptying their garages just because they can. They want to keep the level of competition up. Perhaps the cars that they are trying to keep out aren’t going to have any or much sponsorship anyway.

      How much is it going to cost to roll out your old Dallara/Honda from 2005, get an unemployed driver and go racing? I don’t know the answer. Fuel. Tires. Is there an entry fee? Obviously it isn’t a trivial amont of money from a normal person’s perspective, but from a racing perspective? Maybe somebody will figure its worth it.

      • An excellent take on this, Mr. Henry, and the first real argument that I’ve heard yet that makes any sense as to why they’re doing it. I’m still basically opposed to the 26 car cap, but at least I can see a reason as to why they might be doing it now.

  8. The idea I guess is to boot Milka out while keeping CITGO’s money in the sport, but that isn’t worth it if other sponsors are lost.

    I seriously think Danica could have issues qualifying on road courses now especially with no more Kanaan to help on setups. She hasn’t been exactly lightning fast on them the past several years. That could hugely backfire.

    People go on about provisionals being a NASCAR gimmick, and to a degree they are but they are so much less gimmicky than what NASCAR did before. Let’s not forget that in the past, tracks sometimes had promoter’s exemptions to get fan favorites in the field (maybe this is just a NASCAR thing though, not racing in general) so it’s not like this idea is something new. I think it’s less gimmicky than double-file restarts, which everybody seems to be praising strangely…

    Nonetheless, the field isn’t going to be that much larger than that and I’m failing to see where 26 cars would be an issue at most tracks (Iowa? Really? They have truck races for 36 trucks, so why would 26 cars be an issue?) It should at least be 28. But really there shouldn’t be a limit at all until the series has a stronger sponsor base.

    They should have just solved this by revoking Milka’s license instead, even if that means losing the CITGO money.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    It baffled me when ChampCar announced they were capping their fields at 24 (though they never reached that number) and this unexpected announcement baffles me now.
    And as much fun as it was speculating which F1 backmarker would surprise by prequalifying and qualifying, I never cared for the Grand Prix circuit’s old arbitrary 26 car ceiling either.

    High car counts are good for the series, good for fans, and generally good for the racing. Fields should be capped, but only by the limitations of track and pit space.
    We have a 105% rule to keep moving chicanes off the track, we don’t need this as well.

    • Br!an McKay Says:

      I agree with you and others: no need to irk sponsors and team owners when tracks & pit lanes and paddocks can accommodate everyone.
      I want to tell Barnhart to care about quality, not quantity, and enforce a 105% rule! We want (need) sponsors’ money. Let’s take it and spend it on Indy Lights graduates like Hinch, Indy Lights champions, and top-tier champs like TK & PT.

  10. Mike Rice Says:

    It’s a double-edged sword. Quality vs. quantity is great on one hand, but a complete negative if a sponsor ponied up to the tune of 6+ figures per race only to get pipped in qualifying. This happens occasionally as a perennial backmarker finds a magic bullet in qualifying that they can’t comparitively sustain in a race. Keeping Milka away would be a good thing to do for the on-track product, though as Sean said above, they could simply yank her license. This way they don’t have to do that. Hopefully, as the series gains strength (if it continues to in the wake of some recent developments), they’ll be more discerning/discriminating in judging who is qualified to hold a license to drive these cars.

    It may keep some people working if the sponsor hangs in through a season, but the downside is that nobody can expect that sponsor to return for another year of no return on investment. It’s just a mixed bag.

    • billytheskink Says:

      If they really didn’t want Milka around then they would take away her license and tell her not to come back. That was supposedly what was done to Marty Roth.

      It’s silly if the series is designing rules around the idea of keeping a driver or two driver “in” the series but off most of the starting grids. That may not be the reality here, but it’s easy to perceive this new rule as such.

  11. Chris Lukens Says:

    I’m not sure that the concern is that owners will pull spare cars out of the garage to race. I seem to remember that the last time there was a last year of a design spec, there were a lot of cars sitting in owners garages, all missing the same replacement part that was no longer available from the manufacturer.
    As far as the 26 car rules goes; I remember watching a race at I-25 Speedway, in Pueblo Colorado, a 1/4 mile track, where 26 Supermodified’s took the green flag ( one of which was driven by Davey Hamilton ). If these guys could handle 26 cars on a 1/4 mile track, I don’t know why “the best drivers in the world” couldn’t handle 28 at Milwaukee or even 33 at Texas. Anything that is arbitrary smacks of being contrived. I vote no on the 26 car rule.

    • H.B. Donnelly Says:

      Two days before The 500, they put 33 full-sized V8 sprint cars on the high-banked, paved quarter-mile at Anderson, IN. When I first heard the premise, I thought it was insane. The only insane part of that race is how fun it can be to watch.

  12. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    I don’t see it being a big issue until the last few races (Motegi excluded) when the teams try to empty the garages; IndyCar likely won’t have 26 cars qualifying, especially in the early road races.

    As for 26, it does seem like a fairly arbitrary number. The only correlation I can see is that the FIA uses the same number for Formula One, though I don’t see anyone confusing Ferraris at Monaco with the Dallara/Hondas in Alabama…

  13. The Lapper Says:

    I say open it up and allow some front engine cars in the field.

  14. I admit I’m not fond of the idea of an arbitrary car count at certain races-except where space dictates-but I dislike the “provisional” idea even more-because it came from NASCAR along with certain other rules-see indystar.com for the details.

    IndyCar isn’t where F1 was back in the late 80’s-early 90’s, when up to 38 cars tried to make races, and “pre-qualifying” sessions had to be held to determine who would actually make the proper 26 car field-maybe hopefully someday it will be-but it’s not there yet. Therefore, I don’t see the reasoning behind this arbitrary car count rule.

  15. I like this rule. It will help to have less, better funded entries, since sponsors will focus on less cars. It will give more stability to the field.

  16. […] When Is A Starting Field Too Large? from Oilpressure […]

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