Teams On The Outside Looking In

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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.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “Teams On The Outside Looking In”

  1. I need to look into the Leader’s Circle money situation more thouroghly to understand it’s disbursement because, off hand, I don’t see why Herta, Fisher and Ganassi’s fouth team are left off.

  2. Good morning George,

    Randy explained in Racer Magazine that the recipients promised sponsorship activation in the season and some specific races. Also, he pointed out that money from the last 2 positions (23-24) would be distributed toward the “Best in Class” group after that.

    I would prefer to go to the system that INDYCAR has under the IRL which awarded money based on finishing positions per race. At least you can go back to sponsors and plan for the best and worst with solid numbers. It also promotes competition and not a “welfare” program.

  3. Brian in NY Says:

    I can understand the confusion on the Leaders program by many and why some people would want their team to be awarded the money over another team. If you look at F1 they have a program that pays out based on the finishing position of the top ten teams. If your Red Bull you received between 50 and 70 million and if you were HRT you got nothing. IndyCar program is similar in the fact that it’s trying to award the top teams that competed in each race. The issue this year I think was because you had several teams withdraw that would have otherwise earned those spots. I think it was smart that Randy didn’t just give the money to the next two teams in line because the fact is they didn’t earn it.

    Ganassi is really the only owner that had any legit reason to gripe. He fielded a fourth driver for each race that was fully funded. The fact that he might be the only guy that didn’t need the money might have weighted in the decision. Ed Carpenter was going to be one of the teams because lets be honest his family owns the league. Dragon Racing makes sense because they are going to field two teams full time with both drivers having their own unique qualities. Lady Katherine will help offset the Danica factor and Seb is a four time champion. Also, if Jay really can market IndyCar out of their west coast shop then this would be a good thing for the sport.

    As for the other teams, they have either shown that they are not willing to compete full time, have no track record, or are a pay to play team that is looking to make a few bucks. I understand Herta won Indy, but he only ran a couple of other races after that. Shank has no history, Bobby’s team is a pay to play, and Conquest was the same. I know everybody loves Mrs. Fisher but she almost folded a couple of months ago and was at best a part time team the last couple of years. Who’s to say they wouldn’t take the money and do the same thing again. Either way, Randy wasn’t going to make everybody happy. Next year if teams fold that earned the money maybe IndyCar should just keep it and avoid this problem.

  4. I believe deciding who would get the last two positions was based who which teams seemed most likely to be strong partners in promoting INDYCAR throughout this season.
    Of course, no one can be sure what the future holds, but INDYCAR is now focused on building a better series that connects to new fans and sponsors, so memories of the past did not come into play.
    Those teams on the outside can actually earn more money by winning a race (outside of the 500) than teams in the program.
    They still have a very good opportunity to prove themselves and produce a good financial bottom line.

  5. I get the idea of it–just awarding prize money would mean Ganassi and Penske get all the money instead of most of it. And I get that R. Bernard wants owners to help promote–activate, whatever–the series. So I’m okay with it, and it makes for a great conspiracy theory that Ed and Penske got the cash.

    It does seem odd that Sarah Fisher–with the Hartman money, Joe Newgarten and building a big, new headquarters next to Dallara in Speedway, hasn’t done enough to qualify.

  6. I think we do know why those two teams were chosen.

    I recall Randy mentioning in an interview somewhere (Racer, Speed or TSO) that Dragon was chosen because Jay Penske committed several million ad impressions from excess inventory at websites he owns towards the promotion of IndyCar.

    Ed Carpenter has a sponsor, Fuzzy’s that is commited to a sizeable ad campaign that features activation around IndyCar. In both these cases, the LC $ are essentially going into tangible commitments towards exposure for the League.

    For the other teams the LC money was essentially going to be spent closing the funding gap to get the car on the grid for the year. Other than what those teams could muster via personal endorsement to existing fans there was little more in the way of value those teams could offer the series for promotion.

    I think some good people and teams missed out, but In a series that has 27 comitted entrants, more cars on the grid is not as high a priority as spreading the word about the series is.

  7. Steve Wittich Says:

    Hard decision to make for Randy. I like the idea of rewarding teams that help the series promote itself of the track BUT it should be balanced with performance on the track. Dragon has not shown that hey can be anything but a back marker. They added Seb who can make a back marker in to a mid-packer but also have Legge who will likely be fighting Carpenter for the last spot in the points standings. Ed is a great guy but to think that he will finish anywhere above 25th in points with the current schedule is hard to imagine. Perceptions are important and to reward two teams that have no history of success and don’t have any real prospects for success sends an interesting signal.

  8. I can appreciate that this was a difficult decision.

    I think perhaps the primary problem with this system was designating at what number to limit the LC cash, with the benefit of hindsight showing there were more (and better) entries for 2012 than possibly planned or expected.

    Regardless, I would think a winning team (much as the PGA system) from a previous season should also be an automatic qualifier for the LC cash. If that entry fails to answer the bell for the next season, then it could be up for grabs.

    I would hate to have a reigning winner not be able to defend their race because of not gaining the LC cash, although I suspect this would rarely be the case anyway.

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