When Is A Starting Field Too Large?
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.