A Long-Time Debate In Racing
One of the longest running debates in racing is whether or not it is better to have a good part-time ride or a full-time ride with a so-so team. The other night on Trackside, this subject came up indirectly when they were discussing what I brought up here on Monday – the few remaining options for Justin Wilson.
It’s rare when I don’t agree with Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee. I respect their opinions and they are both extremely level-headed when it comes to the Verizon IndyCar Series. Having said that, I completely disagreed with what they said on Monday night. They both thought that if Wilson were given the choice between a part-time ride with Andretti Autosport and a full-time ride with Dale Coyne Racing, they thought that the full-time ride with Coyne would be the better choice.
Of course, this is completely hypothetical. As far as I know, Wilson has no offers from either team at the moment. I can see the point that Curt and Kevin were making, but I disagree. Justin Wilson has driven two stints with Dale Coyne that total up to four seasons. In those four seasons, he has had season points finishes of ninth, fifteenth, sixth and fifteenth respectively. Those same years in the Indianapolis 500 produced finishes of twenty-third, seventh, fifth and twenty-second.
Dale Coyne is one of the good guys in the paddock. There is no mistaking that. But there is also no getting around the fact that his team has produced four wins in open-wheel racing since 1984. Dale Coyne runs a no-frills operation. Quite honestly, it’s a wonder he has squeezed four wins and other decent finishes out of the budget he has.
But at thirty-six, time is running out for Wilson. I’m thinking that if he is ever faced with a choice to run a few races with Michael Andretti including the Indianapolis 500, or a full-time deal with Coyne – he should take the part-time deal.
In 1978, Rick Mears was offered a handful of races to run for Roger Penske to fill-in for Mario Andretti who was pursuing (and would win) a Formula One championship for Lotus. Penske promised him six races including the Indianapolis 500. He ended up driving in eleven of the eighteen races on the schedule that year. More importantly, Mears qualified on the front row of his very first Indianapolis 500 and shared Rookie of the Year honors in 1978 with Larry Rice.
Mears reasoned that a part-time ride with Roger Penske was better than a full-time ride with most other teams. The following year, Mears was on-board full-time with Penske. He won the first of his four Indianapolis 500 wins in 1979, and also won the season championship. Mears drove for Team Penske through 1992. In that time, he won the Indianapolis 500 four times, won the pole a record six times and won three season championships. I’d say that part-time ride worked out pretty well for Rick Mears.
Am I comparing Justin Wilson to Rick Mears? No, but it is certainly something to think about. Some will argue that I’m comparing apples to oranges. Mears was at the beginning of his driving career when faced with that choice. Wilson could at least be seeing retirement from this point in his career.
Another difference is that Team Penske is not a possibility for Wilson, like it was for Mears. But Penske in 1978 had only won the Indianapolis 500 once, but was coming off their first USAC Championship in 1977 with Tom Sneva. After a ten year presence, they had become the class of the field.
With four season championships and three Indianapolis 500 wins in twelve seasons of competition, Michael Andretti has a more impressive record than Penske had when Mears had his part-time offer. His team, along with Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing are the three that are heavy favorites to win every single race – including the Indianapolis 500. Since 2000, the Indianapolis 500 has been won by one of those teams all but three years – 2004 (Rahal-Letterman), 2011 (Bryan Herta Autosport) and 2013 (KV Racing). I’d say the odds are good that one of those three teams will win it again this year.
This will ruffle some feathers, but winning the Indianapolis 500 is the most important thing that can happen to an IndyCar driver. My money says that Scott Dixon were to retire today – twenty years from now, he would be known much more for his one Indianapolis 500 win in 2008, than his three IndyCar titles.
Road racing purists hate to admit it, but it is the biggest race in the world. It’s why there is a series. When CART lost the Indianapolis 500 from their schedule, it took a few years but my interest in CART eventually waned. Even a watered-down Indianapolis 500 with unheard of drivers from the IRL held my attention more than a series with better drivers, but no month of May.
I’ve been going to the Indianapolis 500 since 1965. Whether it’s USAC, CART or the Verizon IndyCar Series that is filling the field – that is what I follow. I don’t think I’m alone in my thinking and I imagine most of the drivers feel that way too. The window for Justin Wilson’s opportunities to win the Indianapolis 500 is closing. With Dale Coyne Racing, he was never a real threat. At Andretti Autosport, he would be an immediate contender.
Although it has not been confirmed, it is widely believed that Simona de Silvestro will be joining Andretti Autosport on a part-time basis. I don’t know if that is for the Indianapolis 500 or not. Since I don’t really think Simona likes running ovals – especially one as treacherous as Indianapolis, it might be a good opportunity for Wilson.
I’m not saying that Wilson needs to resign himself to the fact that he has now reached a point in his career that part-time is all that he can hope for. But premium seats are tough to come by in this series. If he’s given a chance to win the biggest race in the world in a part-time ride, it may be more meaningful than riding around mid-pack in a full-time ride.
There is no easy answer for the part-time or full-time debate in racing. Rick Mears certainly thought the part-time route was the way to go, and it worked out. Others may think differently when presented with their own unique set of circumstances. I stress once again that Justin Wilson has not faced this decision to my knowledge. But if he ever is – it would be interesting to see what he chooses.