The Near-Extinction Of The Indy-Only Teams
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.