Teams On The Outside Looking In
Last week, we learned which teams in the IZOD IndyCar Series would receive the coveted Leader’s Circle money for the 2012 season. Let me say first off, that I don’t even pretend to understand the inner-workings of the Leader Circle program that essentially awards the top-twenty entrants from the previous season. Nor can I explain the differences (if there are any) between the Leader Circle and TEAM programs. Perhaps they are interchangeable names. Maybe one name replaced the other. I really don’t know. I’ve read last week’s announcement called both, so I really don’t know. For consistency’s sake, I’ll call it the Leader’s Circle program throughout this rambling diatribe.
The Leader’s Circle program itself is somewhat nebulous to me. It seems about as easy to explain as baseball’s infield fly rule. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can clearly explain that one to me either. Essentially, the Leader’s Circle program is a way for INDYCAR to give financial aid (to the tune of $1.16 million) to the more consistent teams in the series. Last season, there were twenty-two recipients to the Leader’s Circle funding. This season, that number has been trimmed down to twenty. There are some other factors that went into consideration, but the two slots that remained open were for the two cars that were run by Newman/Haas that finished fourth and thirteenth – both easily qualifying for top-twenty status.
There was one more slot opened by the fact that Andretti Autosport had not confirmed a fourth car respectively, which would have qualified. Therefore, HVM moved up to take the final spot based on last year’s points.
Rather than going to the next two cars that are committed to running the full schedule in 2012 (which would have gone to Chip Ganassi’s Charlie Kimball team, and either Dreyer & Reinbold or Conquest for which neither team is fully committed), the series decided to open up the competition for teams to bid in the way of a presentation to the series. The winners? Ed Carpenter Racing and one of the two Dragon Racing entries (probably Bourdais).
Those on the outside looking in are the aforementioned Charlie Kimball entry for Ganassi along with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Conquest Racing, a second Dale Coyne car, a second Dragon Racing entry, MSR-Indy – the sister team that just won the Rolex and Bryan Herta Autosport – the team that won last year’s Indianapolis 500. Needless to say, there were some in that group that were not happy with the announcement and said so – most notably, Chip Ganassi, Michael Shank and Bryan Herta. Eric Bachelart of Conquest racing voiced his displeasure as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that when you have several teams vying for two spots – there are several that will be left standing without a chair. The easy solution is to perform on-track and make it into the top-twenty in points. Charlie Kimball and Eric Bachelart’s team had every chance to perform and didn’t. Kimball had a forgettable rookie campaign and Bachelart’s main driver, Sebastian Saavedra, failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Saavedra regressed all season and was replaced by two other drivers near the end of the season who could do nothing either. It showed with a twenty-fourth place finish in the season’s totals for the No. 34 car. In my eyes, neither Ganassi nor Bachelart have any room to complain.
Among those owners that I do think have a legitimate gripe are Bryan Herta, Sarah Fisher, Bobby Rahal and Michael Shank. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing was the highest placing part-time team that started at least three races in the IZOD IndyCar Series last season and won the last completed race of the season. Bryan Herta Autosport competed in two races last season, winning one – the Indianapolis 500. The other was the ill-fated Las Vegas race, which was cancelled with no points awarded.
Although Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan had been relegated to part-time status since 2009, they came within a yellow-flag of winning the Indianapolis 500 last year. It is a team that won the Indianapolis 500 in 2004 and a CART championship in 1992. Michael Shank is starting a new team from scratch. He has proven what he can do in other series and was worth a strong look.
We are not privy to what went on the team’s presentations, nor do I know who said presentations were made to or who made the final decisions. I have nothing against Ed Carpenter. In fact, he has always been a favorite underdog of mine to root for. But other than having Derrick Walker and a regional sponsor, what did he have to offer the series that some of those on the outside did not?
It has been long-established that I am a big fan of Roger Penske and his famous racing team. Likewise, I have nothing against his son, Jay, who is the owner of Dragon Racing. But what could he promise the decision-makers that Herta, Fisher, Rahal and Shank could not? The performance of his No 8 car last season was dreadful to say the least. Things certainly look to be on the upswing at Dragon, but enough to justify including one of his teams in the Leader’s Circle program?
Skeptics are saying that it’s not what these teams could deliver, but what their famous relatives brought to the table. I don’t believe any of that for many reasons that I don’t wish to go into here. Suffice it to say that INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard is too smart to allow those factors to play into this decision.
I have an idea that we’ll never learn what went into the decisions on who got the Leader’s Circle money and who didn’t. It’s probably really none of our business as fans, but I’m hoping that it was explained to the teams how decisions were made. But based on the reactions of many of those on the outside looking in, they got no such explanation. Congratulations to Ed Carpenter and Jay Penske. To those that lost out for this season – I guess they just need to prove themselves on the track.