The Near-Extinction Of The Indy-Only Teams

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When the news came that Kurt Busch had been confirmed in a fifth car for Andretti Autosport in this year’s Indianapolis 500; it was good news for a lot of reasons. He will become the fourth driver in history to do “The Double” – attempting to run in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, NC on the same day.

First of all, the confirmation came only two races into the NASCAR season. That leaves two and a half months to build up the hype – and yes there will be and should be hype. This is not a driver with IndyCar experience doing “the double”, like John Andretti, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon before him. This is a NASCAR driver with no previous IndyCar experience. Other than Stanton Barrett a few years ago, this is the first time I can remember this happening since my childhood, when the likes of Donnie Allison, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and LeeRoy Yarbrough raced at the Indianapolis 500.

The two races were on different days back then. The most successful was Donnie Allison, who won the 1970 World 600 (as it was called then), then placed fourth in the Indianapolis 500 six days later. The following year, Allison placed sixth at Indianapolis. In 1999, Tony Stewart finished ninth at Indianapolis and that same night placed fourth in Charlotte. He is the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles on the same day.

Busch is no chump trying to make a name for himself. He is a former NASCAR champion. As far as I know, this will be the first Indianapolis 500 to have former champions from NASCAR, CART, IndyCar and Formula One in the same race. Plus, there is the added bonus of possibly having six former Indianapolis 500 champions in the same race – the most since six raced in the 2006 race.

Not only is Busch a former NASCAR champion, who is currently driving for a top team in NASCAR; he will also have a top ride for the Indianapolis 500. He won’t be filling the field with a lower-level team, he’ll be with one of the best teams in the business. This is a golden opportunity for IndyCar, NASCAR, Fox and ESPN to really make a splash – if they will seize that opportunity and promote it relentlessly.

But what is possibly the biggest reason to celebrate this? It adds another car to what I think could be a very low car-count for the Indianapolis 500. I don’t think it’s time to panic, but I think there will be a real struggle to put thirty-three cars in this year’s Indianapolis 500.

When pressed about the threat of not having thirty-three cars to start the race in the middle part of the last decade, Tony George glibly replied “It’s just a number”. No it’s not. It’s as much a tradition as drinking milk and Back Home Again in Indiana. 1947 is the most recent year in which the field had less than thirty-three cars. The starting grid that year had only thirty, due to the ASPAR boycott from early in the month – but that’s another story for another day. Prior to that, the 1941 race started only thirty-one cars, due to a pre-race morning fire in the garage area that left George Barringer’s car unable to start. Sam Hanks had been injured the day before the race and was forced to withdraw.

You have to go all the way back to 1928 – eighty-six years ago – that there were less than thirty-three cars to qualify. In 1928, there just weren’t enough cars that showed up.  It had gotten to the point that if you didn’t have a Miller, you had little hope of winning and Millers were incredibly expensive ($15,000 in 1928 dollars for a Miller Front-Drive). Even in the boom year of 1928, there just weren’t that many car-owners that could afford it. That was the reason for the Junk Formula – not the depression.  Eddie Rickenbacker announced the new formula in April of 1929, 6 months before the stock market crash.  He wanted to get more cars on the track that people could afford (sound familiar?).

Over the last ten years or so, there have been several years that it looked as if there would not be thirty-three cars – but somehow, they always emerged. This year, I’m not so sure they will make it. Right now, I count twenty-three confirmed driver-car combinations for this year’s race. It is a very good assumption that Buddy Lazier will be back, although it is not confirmed. Bryan Herta Autosport has yet to confirm their driver, so adding Lazier and the BHA car –that’s twenty-five. Throw in a second car at Dale Coyne and that’s twenty-six.

Beyond that, we get into territory that is not so certain. Most think there will be a second car at Rahal Letterman Lanigan. It’ll probably happen, but there is some question to it. Likewise for a third car at KVSH and/or Dale Coyne. Then there are the question marks regarding Panther Racing. Dreyer & Reinbold is wishful, but nothing definite. Then we start thinking that maybe Ed Carpenter or Sarah Fisher might each come up with a second car, or AJ Foyt could run a third car. After all, there is the crowd-funded car that is trying to scrounge up donations to run for Sarah’s team. As nice of an idea that is, I’m not sure it’ll ever get off the ground – much less onto the track.

This is the third year for the DW-12. There should be enough of them floating around by now, so what is the problem? Well, for one thing – too much hope (and pressure) is being placed on the existing teams. Andretti Autosport is now committed to five cars for this year’s race. Chip Ganassi is already on the hook for four – might he run another? Between Penske, Ganassi and Andretti; those three teams already account for more than a third of the field.

Twenty years ago, there were sixteen cars that failed to make the 1994 Indianapolis 500. Of the teams that had cars that qualified – five were one-off teams; meaning that they only ran at the Indianapolis 500 and not the rest of the CART schedule. Those five qualifying teams were Hemelgarn Racing, Team Menard, Beck Motorsports, ProFormance Racing and Pagan Racing. There were also five more “Indy only” teams that did not qualify – McCormack Motorsports, Riley & Scott, Greenfield Racing, Leader Card and Arizona Motorsports. That was ten teams that focused strictly on the Indianapolis 500. This year, there is probably one – Lazier Partners Racing. I’m not real clear on what Dragon Racing’s involvement will be in this year’s 500. They are listed as the co-entrant on Juan Montoya’s No.2 entry with Team Penske.

Other than those two somewhat uncertain teams, there are no Indy-only teams. That’s been a disturbing trend for a while. Last year, Buddy Lazier’s team was the only one. One year earlier, there was the curious Fan Force United entry with Jean Alesi. Of course, in 2011 – an Indy-only team won the whole thing, when Dan Wheldon won for Bryan Herta Autosport in their first foray into IndyCar. That was that year’s only one-off effort. In 2010, there was Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which had yet to make the move to IndyCar at that time.

2008 was the last time there was more than one Indy-only team. That year, there was Hemelgarn, Curb/Agajanian and Sarah Fisher’s fledgling team at the time, which actually ended up running two more times that season.

Over the last twenty years, the Indy-only team has followed the path of the powdered-wig. In 1994, there were ten; 2004 featured six and 2014 may have one, possibly two. What has happened to the John Menards, the Greg Becks, the Mike Curbs and the Ron Hemelgarns of the world? Aside from John Menard, these are not ultra-wealthy men. They just loved racing and the Indianapolis 500. Paul Diatlovich has mortgaged his home, I don’t know how many times, just to put a car onto the grid of the Indianapolis 500. Where has that racing spirit gone?

It used to be that most of the series regulars didn’t add to their efforts, when it came to Indianapolis. Penske, Ganassi, Newman/Haas, Galles or Rahal would rarely, if ever, increase the size of their stable when it came to the Month of May. The large field came from one-offs who came together each May to focus on one race and one race only.

I was always somewhat amazed how some of these teams could justify purchasing a new car for one race. Some of the teams had older equipment, but some had the latest model Lola or Reynard that was available.

Much has been made about the revamped qualifying method that has yet to be unveiled. The whole idea is to make Sunday more exciting because Bump Day has become so dull. I have news for you; in 1994, when sixteen cars failed to make the race – Bump Day wasn’t dull. Nor was it dull the following year when both Team Penske cars failed to make the race. This year, they would make the race just by showing up. If they really want to make Bump Day exciting, make it possible and feasible for forty-five cars to be entered in order to battle for thirty-three positions. Suddenly Bump Day is offering more drama than Pole Day.

I’m very happy that Kurt Busch is joining the field this year. That along with the arrival of Montoya and Villeneuve has the potential to bring a lot of new eyes from race fans of other series that normally would not be watching. But wouldn’t it be a lot more intriguing if the three of them actually had to fight and scrap to make the race as opposed to showing up?

I don’t pretend to know the answer on how to reverse this trend of the near-extinction of Indy-only teams, but fans and the series should not have to look to the existing teams to spend even more than they already do, just to prop up the field at the Indianapolis 500. It is up to the powers-that-be within IndyCar and IMS to come up with a solution to bring the private business men and women back to the Indianapolis 500.

George Phillips

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19 Responses to “The Near-Extinction Of The Indy-Only Teams”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    One thing is for certain, the current economic climate does not lend itself well to any racing sponsorship endeavor. That coupled with what appears to be static interest in the league itself (but not mine), little being done by the so called management at IMS, and that is at least the beginning of the answer to the question…

  2. Yannick Says:

    Wasn’t it in 1996 when the Indy-only teams were forced to contest a full season (if only one of just 5 races) if they wanted to be on the grid for the Indy 500? So many things changed that year, the decrease in number of Indy-only teams is just one of them.
    Some of those teams, like Hemelgarn, did quite well for a few years until they faded away quietly. Would they have been able to continue if they remained Indy-only teams? I guess not, since during its final years, Hemelgarn ran as an Indy-only team again and had to quit anyway.

    These days, it’s like the Indy-only option is either for teams that are cash-strapped or for teams that are entering the series. Rahal kept his team alive this way, Bryan Herta entered the sport this way, Tyler Tadevic tried to keep his PCM team alive this way but in the end, they went under in a heartbreaking bump day drama.

    Here’s hoping that the D&R and Panther teams can run at least as Indy-only programs this year and return full time next year. This series has lost too many teams lately, whilst the big teams keep adding more and more cars. A team having 4 cars should be the exception, not the rule. Of course, everybody wants to run for Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, so if the sponsor pays enough, these teams will add a car, not just at Indy.

    But the one team with the longest history (amongst all full season teams) of lining up additional cars for Indy is Foyt, isn’t it? The others are just following Foyt’s proven business model these days.

    Oh, and from my decidedly European perspective on Indy, the addition of former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch to the Indy 500 for this year just means that my favourite team Andretti Autosport is running its 5th entry again, this time with a driver of considerable oval experience. And that’s good for the team. But can he beat the regulars? We shall see.

    However, why hasn’t anybody hired AJ Allmendinger yet? He was pretty impressive last year.

  3. Bad economy (still) and no Tobacco money paying for everything.

    • dzgroundedeffects Says:

      That tobacco/oil/beer money was more substantial than I ever realized.

    • Bad economy? Not for the banks or entertainment companies or car companies. It maybe a bad economy for some of us, but check out the 2013 revenues of the Fortune 500 companies. A couple examples of nice profits–Exxon/Mobil 406 billion, Chevron 216 billion, Indy’s own Eli Lilly 23 billion not to mention Apple which topped them all. There’s money out there, it’s just not “trickling down” to Indycar.

      • Yep. Only the people and companies on the government “dole” seem to be prospering today. And of course with other people’s money.

  4. Just a small correction, George: according to Dave Lewandowski Tony Stewart finished sixth at Indianapolis that year and third at Charlotte, not fourth & fourth….

  5. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    I think the only primary incentives I’ve ever seen for one-off Indycar teams are;
    1. the lure of a big payday
    2. the chance to parlay a great finish into more money for other bits of the season.
    3. The prestige of being the Indy 500 winner (and potential income boost).

    Since the prize money hasn’t nearly kept up with the cost to go racing, what prize money there is gets spread much more evenly, leaving less reward for the risk. Also the incentivised Leaders Circle money rewards full-season teams, again keeping money away from the one-offs.

    I can understand the reasoning behind the Leaders Circle, I just think it takes a significant bit of drama out of the sport and that, combined with lesser prize money, creates an environment that is simply too harsh for potential one-offs.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I was under the impression that the Leader’s Circle prize money structure was not in effect for the 500, and that all entries were on equal footing when it comes to the prize money made available for qualifying and finishing. This is not the case?

      • dzgroundedeffects Says:

        That is correct, but it is also money that could be used to expand racing purses (including Indy) instead of provide ($21-22 million) in subsidies to full-season teams, in my opinion.

        Also with the highly limited vehicle specs, there is no chance of pooling resources (other than cash) to get a car for ‘the show’. IF previous gens of Dallarae-IR chassis were still allowed, w their NA V8 plants, it’s also more conceivable a team might scrape together a one-off for Indy. Clearly the league and IMS doesn’t want that.

  6. The lack of one-off team entries is and has been for years an indication of deeper problems that have yet to be resolved within this spec series when consideration is given to the INDY 500..

    On the other hand…..Then consider the drive what you brought era?

    If Indy desires Bump Day forage, why not just establish INDY 500 only competition rules (perhaps no computerization ?) which will allow drive what you bring entries so long as said entries meet current safety requirements?

    All it would take is an agreement at 16th & Georgetown to return the INDY 500 to the INDY 500………. :o)

  7. SkipinSC Says:

    At some point, IMS/IndyCar is going to have to open up the rule book and allow some latitude when it comes to what vehicles are going to race in the 500. What has become of all the pre-DW12 chassis? There has to be someone somewhere who has a whole back yard full of very expensive planters….If memory serves, the 1 and 4 lap qualifying records at Indy are NOT held by a DW-12; rather they are held by 1996 vintage cars, as is the fastest recorded lap in the race. Almost 20 years later, we’re still not close to those speeds.

    Look, I get that safety is an issue. No one wants to see another 1973. But, the fact is, in an effort to bring safety to the forefront, IMS and IRL/IndyCar legislated all of the speed out of the cars, and THEN slammed the door on the older rides, essentially WIPING OUT the investments of the owners of those cars. I don’t remember the particular engine and chassis combination that Arie Luyendyk ran in ’96, but my guess is, if you pulled it out of mothballs today, it would still run fast. Or, ask Eddie Cheever who turned a 236+ lap in the race that year. Hell, at that rate of speed, he’d probably lap the field in today’s cars.

    George’s hero and mine, A. J. Foyt, once said, “This isn’t badminton, it’s AUTO RACING.” First guy to run 500 miles wins. Look at all the things that have been given up to achieve the goals of safety and STILL you end the career of a champion driver last year on a STREET CIRCUIT. Speed isn’t the ONLY answer to all the problems facing IndyCar racing, but even Mark Miles thinks we should be building back toward record speeds. Bring back the apron, open the rules, and may the best man/car win. Because the truth of the matter is, if SOMETHING doesn’t change, there may not BE an IndyCar series in the not too distant future.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    There are a lot of factors; inability to run old chassis, sponsorship struggles, less exposure for qualifying than in the past, high cost-to-prize money ratio, the decline in success of one-car teams. But I think far-and-away the hurdle for Indy-only entries are the engine manufacturers.

    Some of this manufacturer-related trouble is on Indycar, as not only have old chassis been legislated out of the field, so too have old engines (what is to become of Honda’s single turbo motors?). Unbadged engines are still disallowed as well.
    However, whether for cost or pride, the manufacturers themselves have not been inclined to make engines abundant, especially in the last two years. They have also been quite transparent in their desire to supply multicar teams whenever possible, while most Indy-Only entries have been one-car teams since John Menard left.

    I believe both Lazier and D&R have chassis, and I would expect both to be at Indy if they can get an engine lease. If Jay Penske still has a car, I would surprised if he did not show up with a Chevy engine lease. I do expect 33 starters at Indy, but no bumping. If there are grid spots simply for the taking, someone will find a way to fill them.

  9. when talking about Indy one-offs of the not-too-distant past, or when bringing up the doubles, don’t forget Jonathan Byrd. from 85-90, he had one-off entries for Rich Vogler (in partnership with Leader Card Racing, Alex Morales/Johnny Capels, Hemelgarn, the Machinists Union team, and Arciero Racing). 91 brought one-off entries for Stan Fox, Gordon Johncock, and Buddy Lazier (all in partnership with Hemelgarn). 92 was another one-off for Stan Fox, along with an attempt to field an entry for Pancho Carter (ended against the wall, again with Hemelgarn). for the first double in 94, Andretti was a one-off at Indy in partnership with Foyt. 95 was a one-off at Indy for Davy Jones (in partnership with Dick Simon). 2001 was essentially a one-off for Jaques Lazier (in partnership with Team Xtreme), though it also ended up including the races at Texas and Pikes Peak. in 2005, myself and my brother, in Jonathan Byrd-like tradition, did a one-off entry with Panther for Buddy Lazier, which turned into a 5 race deal (Indy, Nashville, Michigan, Kentucky, Chicago).

    the one-offs will return, but are likely to do so only in partnership with existing teams. once Indy is in the bloodstream, it’s a lifelong infection. :-)

  10. It’s about the prize money I think. If it was a hugefungus prize to win Indy, more high rollers might be interested in the gamble. I think at least enough money to win to fund a whole year in IndyCar.

  11. The more the merrier right?

  12. Chris Lukens Says:

    I think the primary bar to one-off Indy teams is the lack of engines. As long as Indycar allows the engine manufactures to pick who the “choosen ones” are, there will be no more true one-off attempts at Indy.

    Besides, the current crop of team owners want it this way. They don’t want any interlopers coming in and mucking up their club racing series.

  13. I do not care as much about Indy one off teams or not; in fact I think the one off teams have an incredibly small shot at winning and so I don’t think about them as much. BUT, 33 is important and I really like seeing our regular teams grow into 4-6 car efforts. I also enjoy joint teams with a one off partnering with a major team. IF Indycar doesn’t get to 33 then that would be a horrific sign for the future and success of Indycar.

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