The Ever-Changing Driver Lineup
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.