Do The Big Teams Win Too Much?

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More than ever, it seems that there is such a strong sentiment against a Penske or Ganassi car winning a race in the Verizon IndyCar Series, that some say it is turning people away from the series in general.

I can understand the hatred against one team or the other or even both, but why would that make anyone say they want to stop watching due to the dominance of these two teams – especially this season? Out of the ten races that have been run so far this season; there have been seven different winners among six different teams. Josef Newgarden and CFH Racing now have as many wins as Chip Ganassi Racing.

Do people not remember the 2009 season, when all but one race was won by either a Penske or Ganassi car? Dale Coyne and Justin Wilson broke up the “red car” party at Watkins Glen. Otherwise, it would have been a clean sweep between those two teams – and that was back when there were only two full-time drivers for Penske and Ganassi each.

My question is – do dynasties help or hurt the sport of auto racing?

In all honesty, I don’t know the answer to the question. I’m also probably not the best person to even comment on this, since I’m an admitted long-time fan of Team Penske.

Being a fan of one of those teams makes it interesting, because you want to beat the other team. I’ve been in a quandary the last couple of years, because I’m a big Tony Kanaan fan but not a Ganassi fan. I don’t hate Chip Ganassi Racing. I never have. But in a head-to-head competition against Penske, I’ll pull for the Penske driver almost every time. Kanaan’s presence on Ganassi’s team has changed my stance somewhat.

I notice that these fans that are clamoring for Penske and Ganassi to lose every weekend don’t seem to have the same disdain for Andretti Autosport. Perhaps it’s because they have such an erratic history of being up and down since Michael Andretti bought Team Green and moved them over from CART in 2003. They have won four championships and three Indianapolis 500’s in that time, but they have also experienced some dismal seasons as well – like the one they are currently going through.

But if you are not a fan of either Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing, does that make IndyCar unwatchable? Penske and Ganassi cars have won five of the ten races this season. That means underdog teams have won the other five. To me, that’s a pretty good ratio.

I understand the argument for parity, but if a different team or driver won every week – does that dilute the product? If every team has one or two wins at the end of the season, does that mean that there is a deep and talented field or that races are so easy to win that anyone can do it?

Not everything in other sports translates that well to motorsports, but in this case – I think it does. Has it hurt the NFL that the New England Patriots have appeared in six of the past fourteen Super Bowls? How about when they won three Super Bowls in four seasons in the 2000’s? Colts fans didn’t like it, but the NFL did not seem to suffer a decline in ratings. For the decade of the seventies, practically all of the Super Bowls were won by three teams – the Dolphins, Cowboys and Steelers, with the Colts and Raiders thrown in for good measure. Both of these periods saw unprecedented growth for the NFL. I don’t recall many Jets fans saying football had gotten boring.

There is an argument that the dynasty of the New York Yankees and their twenty-seven World Series championships made baseball the National Pastime for decades. Although they still lay claim to that tagline, most would argue that football passed up baseball for that honor a long time ago.

Horse Racing was starving for a horse that won it all and finally got a Triple Crown winner for the first time in thirty-eight years. No one celebrates if three different horses win each leg of the Triple Crown. It’s parity, but it’s boring.

As I said, I get it if you root for the underdog. I was ecstatic to see Josef Newgarden and CFH Racing win. Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher taking on the big boys at Penske and Ganassi is an appealing story. If they win a few more times, it’ll be hard to call it an upset or to refer to them as underdogs.

CFH Racing is trying to do what all teams should be doing – trying to improve. If you are a fan of a second or third tier team, you should be expecting that team to do all it can to improve – not just make the grid and survive. Some teams will take the occasional step backwards. That’s understandable. In past years, it’s happened to Penske and Ganassi. The late nineties were nightmarish years for Marlboro Team Penske. The mid-2000’s were almost as bad for Ganassi. It’s happening now for Andretti.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing seems to have found their way out of their recent doldrums. Honda’s performance and James Hinchcliffe’s injury aside – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is having a decent season. I’d say Bryan Herta Autosport is probably pleased with their season, given the fact they have a very small budget and a rookie driver. KV Racing is having their typical up and down season. Sébastien Bourdais has been fast, but his rookie teammate Stefan Coletti has been all over the place – literally. I’d also say that Dale Coyne Racing and AJ Foyt Enterprises have been rthe biggest disappointments this season. Coyne has an excuse in his revolving door of drivers. The Foyt team has two good drivers, but they just can’t seem to get out of their own way.

Graham Rahal needs to win a race for Honda in dry weather. He has consistently been the fastest Honda all season. Either his new attitude has improved his performance, or his improved performance has given him a new attitude. Whatever the case, it’s a welcomed sight and I’d like to see him and his team rewarded with an earned victory – not a fluky one in the rain. Why? Because I’ve seen them improve. That’s what all teams should be doing.

I have no problem with Penske and Ganassi winning their share of the races. They are not lucking into them. They have worked the hardest and yes – they’ve spent a lot of money. But money doesn’t buy championships. Over the past couple of decades, I’ve seen owners richer than any current ones, spend money and underachieve. Bruce McCaw, John Menard and Kevin Kalkhoven all have or had more money than they could spend, yet their dreams all came up just a little short. McCaw won a few races. Menard won a couple of IRL championships, but no "500′. Kalkhoven won the 2013 Indianapolis 500, but hasn’t even sniffed a championship. They all had some measure of success, but not anything even close to Penske or Ganassi.

Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi are at the top of their game, not because they spent the most money – but because they worked harder and prepared better than anyone else. Over the past couple of years, I was fortunate enough to stand behind the Penske pits on two occasions during races – at Barber in 2013 and at NOLA this past April. I was able to witness, firsthand, the attention to detail that Roger Penske brings to his team. I got to see him direct small things like where to put a case of bottled water and a more proper way to line up a row of scooters – all while the race was going on, albeit under yellow.

People claim that Roger Penske is always in pursuit of the unfair advantage. In my opinion, his unfair advantage is in how prepared he and his teams show up at the race track each week. Their secret weapon is Roger Penske himself, and the way he approaches every aspect of his life – in the boardroom and at the track.

So personally, I don’t have a huge problem watching Penske or Ganassi win most of the time. Don’t fault them, fault the teams that don’t try to improve to be just like them. It’s easy to explain away mediocrity. It’s a lot tougher to sell it and even harder to get past it.

So, please tell me…are Penske and Ganassi ruining the Verizon IndyCar Series and making the races unwatchable by winning the majority of the races; or should the lesser teams try harder to narrow the gap and catch them, like CFH, Rahal and Schmidt are doing?

George Phillips

Please Note: This weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series gets its first weekend off since Easter. Since it is also Father’s Day weekend, I am going to take a short break from here as well. I will not have a post here this Friday June 19th, nor Monday June 22nd. I will return here next Wednesday, June 24th. I wish all the fathers out there, including myself, a very Happy Father’s Day this Sunday. Please check back next Wednesday and enjoy the racing break. – GP

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27 Responses to “Do The Big Teams Win Too Much?”

  1. Spot on as usual, George! Love the comparisons with other sports, they really strengthen your point and should give the “disgruntled” food for thought.

    By the way, next year you and Susan might want to try to get up here for the Vintage races, it was so incredible to see all those cars out there and the Unser’s driving theirs! I think you two would really love it!

    Have a safe and happy Father’s Day, George and all of you fathers out there. Wish I could join you all, but I have no children (that I know of, heh, heh!)….

  2. The thought that comes to mind for me is fans are fickle. If you are not a long time fan of IndyCar racing, you might not be aware that these two dominant teams have gone through some difficult times as well and without the two of them would we even have this sport?

  3. I agree with George. Penske has always shown how to operate a winning program by beginning with doing the little things like sweeping out the garage area and keeping the pit area clean. I teach my son that and give the “Penske Way” as an example. As for Andretti, they work as hard as anyone as does Schmidt, but figuring out the Honda package is tough. Rahal is running the best of the Honda’s but hasn’t won. By the way, Foyt is close at times and have had a few good runs.

    Ok, after that ramble, I have no problem with the two big teams. The smaller teams are working pretty hard and it is showing.

  4. I would argue that baseball is being hurt big time by the “rich” teams that have begun to dominate (among other things). Football did not suffer this problem because they were willing to accept revenue sharing many years ago.

    A problem in Indycar is the rich teams versus all the rest. This is a problem but I don’t know that there is a solution. I would continue to watch Indycar if one or two teams dominate, but I don’t have to like it. Luckily, this is not quite happening yet, and if Honda can get their act together, it may not.

    I don’t share the high opinion of Mr. Penske that a lot of others do. I believe he has done as much damage to Indycar as he has done good. It was his goal to “de-emphasize” Indy that led to years of turmoil. In fact, his fingerprints go all the way back to the break with USAC in 1979. And Mr. Ganassi was often right there with him. That is why I can never support a driver of either team, and why I hated to see one of my favorites, Tony Kanaan, go to Ganassi.

  5. jhall14 Says:

    My issues with Penske/Ganassi are this, and more so Penske, why no newly hired American drivers? Ganassi hired Karam but has a tight rope on him due to wrecked cars. Does he forget how many cars Dixon tore up when he was hired? Yes he has Kimball, but I have always felt that was such a great deal, monies were used to fund other cars in the past. Charlie has blossomed into a very fine racer who has proved he can win anywhere. Penske’s last American was Mears? Not sure about that, but seems correct.

    I would like to see some of these smaller teams go after Penske/Ganassi sales people, the people who find sponsorship. That may be the way to go. But I also understand they are selling there on track performance.

    So I leave you with this, I am old school and played back in the day in the IHSAA basketball tournament when it was a tournament. We played New Castle, with Kent Benson, and there starting 5 were 6’11”..6’9”..6’5” front line and 2, 6’2″ guards, 1st game of the sectional. Our team got blown out. Our team was ranked as high as 18th in the state that year. I will always pull for the underdog, remember Milan in 54, Butler vs Duke, It is just in my blood, and a lot more fun to root against the big boys and cheer for the underdogs.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      I like your last sentence here. It’s usually just more fun to cheer for an underdog. Speaking as someone from Frankfort, Indiana, lord knows I have never lacked the opportunity of cheering for an underdog. LOL

    • Just to clarify your first point; since hiring Mears in 1978, Penske did hire several American drivers including Al Unser, Al Unser, Jr., Danny Sullivan and Sam Hornish. Those are just the ones that won the 500 and the championship. There were others (like Kevin Cogan) that were hired, that had little or no success and were gone soon. – GP

    • billytheskink Says:

      Penske’s last American driver was Sam Hornish Jr. With Al Unser Jr. being employed between Hornish and Mears (and Danny Sullivan). Alex Barron drove 2 races for Penske in 1999.

      The last American to drive one of Ganassi’s Target cars was Jaques Lazier in 2005, the last to run a full season was Jimmy Vasser in 2000 (unless we’re counting Jeff Ward’s 2002 IRL campaign).

      • Brian McKay Says:

        2005 onward, Ganassi has contracted to race in IndyCar Americans Graham Rahal, Charlie Kimball, and Sage Karam. So what if Franchitti and Dixon were already occupying cars that were sponsored by Target?
        Incidentally, Ganassi pays American citizens to race his cars in other race series.

        • billytheskink Says:

          And kudos to Chip for that. Also, I forgot to mention Memo Gidley’s partial season with Ganassi in 2001.

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    I am just happy that Roger, Chip, and MIchael are interested enough and willing to put their (earned) money into open wheel racing.

    Teams consistantly at the top of almost any sport are there because they do the little things consistantly well. Of course, having the money to hire enough people to take care of all those details helps. When I go by the Penske haulers at the Milwaukee Mile the haulers are spotless and his team scooters are lined up in such a straight line that it appears a surveyor was involved.

    Would Josef Newgarden’s Toronto win be such a feel good story if he had been racing for Mr. Penske?

    I can’t help but wonder if those unfortunate few who are frequently whining about some facet of the series being boring are mostly bored with themselves and their own lives.

    Sponsors and drivers with talent are attracted to well run and well funded organizations. The underdogs have to work harder and develop talent. If they do those two things consistantly and long enough, eventually they become one of the top teams. What naturally follows is that some folks will then find them boring.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I do think the big teams win “too much”, but I don’t blame anybody for that (well, except Honda this year). We wouldn’t have underdogs if some teams weren’t significantly better than others.

    Striking a balance between unpredictability and dominance is the key I think, having folks win often enough to generate attention and become stars. Of course, I also think that Indycar has largely achieved this over the past few years and the sport has continued to struggle, so what do I know?

  8. These teams make up about 1/3 of the grid now. We should be praising the two teams. We wouldn’t have a race to watch without them.

  9. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I have no issue with RHR or CGR… My only thought is, if this is a spec. series and it is, then aero and powerplant performance homologation must be equitable…

  10. jhall14 Says:

    Thanks for the corrections from everyone. I enjoy this Blog for the varied opinions. As billytheskink said in his 2nd paragraphat striking a balance, that is the key. So why did we need Aerokits? I just hope the positives the series evokes continue to come, and Aerokits brought their own positives. There are some great points stated in this Blog, keep it up GP.

  11. Yannick Says:

    Thanks George for bringing up the topic of the “Big Three” teams and the “Red Cars” a/k/a the Big Two.

    In fact, I’m surprised that, with the experience and resources they have, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have not won more races this year, in the 1st year of the new aerokit cars.

    My guess is they are still going to win some races this season, and deservedly so, as you have said, they are working really hard to win the championship.

    Yet, having a driver from a non-Big Three team winning is always a feelgood story, also for me.

    This has been a wonderful season so far, from a fan’s perspective, but with a few notable exceptions which have been far from that. The obvious first one is the severity of James Hinchcliffe’s accident, and it’s really amazing to see him up on his feet and doing better so soon during his recovery process. The 2nd one is the surprisingly bad weather which a lot of the events have had. I know I don’t need to name them here because you know what I’m talking about, and that a lot of this has got to do with scheduling. And the 3rd negative is the sad fact that the Honda aero kit is currently lacking, so that my two favourite teams were only helped by rain to win 2 of the races. Of course, I want to see them win on merit.

    This is a good season. May it continue to be just that. Here’s to safe driving everywhere.

  12. In my opinion Penske and Ganassi do win too much. Penske and Ganassi have won every pole and led almost every practice session this year. In related news, I haven’t watched any practice or qualifying since Indy. I don’t find the drivers compelling at all. Indycar is tons of fun when others are winning (especially Newgarden or Hinch) but I found both Indy and Texas almost unwatchable. Not just because a Penske or Ganassi won, but because no one else had a chance. If I wanted that, I’d watch Formula One or Le Mans. Spoiler alert, I’ve watched almost literally no F1 this year, and my 24 Hours of Le Mans interest died when the Nissmo starting getting passed by LMP2 cars.

    I’m not sure a stick and ball comparison is the same. A lot of people do hate the Yankee’s/Patriots ect. There are a couple more differences between that and racing/Penske/Ganassi. The Yankees and similar teams often represent the biggest media markets so they get the most fans. Hypothetically if Penkse represented New York and Ganassi Chicago in the same way then perhaps their winning would not be as harmful to Indycar. Related to this is the fact that teams like the Patriot’s are more likely to be televised around the country rather than just in local markets so more people can be fans of them than say the Panthers. On top of that with some notable exceptions (Lions…) every single team in the NHL/NBA/MLB/NFL will win at least one game this year. Fans of various Indycar drivers cannot say that.

    As for dominance in the Olympics or Kentucky derby, those are also very different situations. For Olympic athlete’s their success is tied into national pride so they naturally are going to be more popular the more they win. They also tend to have a personal story or personality that makes people care about them rather than being Scott Dixon or Simon Pagenaud. Things like the Kentucky Derby are interesting to people who don’t bet for about five minutes a year, so American Pharaoh gives people something to cheer about.

    I think Penske and Ganassi dominance would not be as bad if they had more compelling drivers. I have at times cheered for Montoya, Power, Kanaan and Helio, but to me none of them are as interesting as Rahal/Newgarden/Hinch/Simona/Ed or even Hawksworth or Wilson. A similar issue is Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR. Very few people find him compelling. In other forms of racing the most interesting drivers and the drivers who win the most are more related. Valentino Rossi, Marquez, Lewis Hamilton, and Vettel are both the best and most interesting drivers in F1/MotoGP. At least in NASCAR you’ve got Dale Junior at Hendrick with Danica and Stewart on a semi-Hendrick team. If we had Newgarden/hinch/Danica/Simona on Penske and Ganassi’s teams it is possible their domination wouldn’t be as bad.

    But to me, I watch racing to be excited and entertained. I want it to be unpredictable. I want to see interesting and likeable drivers win. So yes, I think Penske and Ganassi win too much, and that it’s not helping grow Indycar. If mainstream America was going to care about Scott Dixon it would have happened long ago.

    I haven’t enjoyed this season as much as any of the seasons from 2011-2014. The fact is half the field has not shot of winning due to the weakness of the Honda and Penske and Ganassi have a much bigger edge on the field than is healthy. They haven’t won as many races as predicted but this is largely due to rain. Outside of Barber the Penske and Ganassi car’s have only been beaten during races with rain in them. That’s kept us from the horror of only 1 win outside of Penske and Ganassi, but the fact that Hinch/Munoz/Bourdais have won this year doesn’t mean there’s parity. We’ve just been unbelievably lucky with the rain. My hope is AA returns to form and CFH becomes a major team so we have 4+ (along with Rahal continuing) really strong teams plus potential good efforts out of KV.

    And no… my interest in parity and excitement is not compensating for a lack of fun/happiness/excitement in my personal life. Thank’s for your concern.

    • “On top of that with some notable exceptions (Lions…) every single team in the NHL/NBA/MLB/NFL will win at least one game this year. Fans of various Indycar drivers cannot say that.”

      If there were only 16 total NHL/NBA/MLB/NFL games in any given season and if all 30+ teams were on the field at once in those 16 games, there would be many, many, many teams whose fans would go “winless” for the season. Fans of non-top level racing teams often have to gauge “success” on terms other than “race wins” (like, say, for instance, top-5s or beating other teams in points). ‘Twas ever thus in racing.

  13. madtad1 Says:

    Coming back to one of the points made here by several people, it’s not just the money that Penske and Ganassi have. If that was the case, Kevin Kalkovin, a billionaire, would have the most successful team in the paddock if he wanted. It is their attention to detail.

    From what I have been told by people on both teams, not a day goes by that they don’t practice pit stops. Even when they are back home in their garages between races. And, when they practice pit stops, they also have occasional failure drills, i.e. dropped the wheel nut, gun failure, etc. That’s why those teams have consistently fast pit stops and rarely screw the pooch.

    The tire changers for Penske usually are carrying 2 – 4 spare wheel nuts on a belt when they they go over the wall, just in case. Not a lot of other teams spend time practicing pit stops at all, much less daily, which shows in their performances at the track. Again, it’s the little things that add up.

  14. IndyCar racing is like everything else in life. If you work hard, and are prepared for anything, you will enjoy more success.

    As you said, George, preparation and attention to detail are everything.

    I don’t share anyone’s fascination with American drivers. I could not care in the least where a winning driver is from. In fact, my favorite drivers come from just about anyplace EXCEPT the US.

    I have no problem whatsoever with Penske and Ganassi winning. They are the teams who work the hardest, and they darn well deserve it.

  15. Here’s a flip-side to the whole “Dominance” argument aka the “Do The Big Teams Win Too Much” complaint: If things were the other way, if other teams achieved wins regularly and Penske along with Ganassi were no different from anybody else, there’s the chance results would be perceived not as the effect of winning teams working harder, nor of the talent of the drivers, but merely of the fact that Indycar is basically a spec series with the single chassis and only two choices for power and aero.

    In other words, I’d say that parity wouldn’t be perceived as such by people bent on critique. It would instead be seen as the dictatorship of the rules limiting opportunity to differentiate and succeed on the basis of talent and hard work. Wins would possibly be seen as chance and random occurrence. In the end, parity wouldn’t necessarily eliminate this complaint from the landscape as much as it would just drive the dissatisfied element to argue from a different angle.

    Now I’m not saying perceptions like that would be correct. Nor would I argue that they’d be fair. On the contrary, I’d call that critique bull-puckey and vigorously oppose it. But my point is that there’s no Sweet Spot in what the series achieves that’ll make criticism go away. There’s no Promised Land in terms of series actions, team performance, driver profile, TV exposure, and/or monetary profit that will satisfy the entirety of the commentariat. There’s no magic bullet here. There never has been, and there simply won’t ever be one. Detractors will always be present. The only question remaining is whether the series will be true to what they aim for – good racing – and whether the fans will also identify the good elements of the series and use that to contextualize the criticisms and reach balanced judgement about what they’re seeing.

    • Oh, for the record: I’m not saying that the “Do Big Teams Win Too Much” argument is devoid of validity. Yes, it has the potential to be if it’s used just as a rhetorical wrecking ball. But there’s good faith critique and there’s bad faith critique, and this argument can be used either way. There’s of course legitimate concern that large team domination has the potential to mire other teams in mediocrity by being black holes of talent, resources, and pure money, sucking away many opportunities for other teams to improve themselves. But there’s also lashing out without the context of driver talent or Chip’s and Roger’s experience and incredible dedication to organizational detail and achievement. That’s part of the equation too. Separating the legitimate from what’s meant merely to injure is difficult. But my point in the above post was never to invalidate the Dominance critique. Rather, it was to merely point out that there’s a segment of the commentariat who’ll criticize no matter what. And that’s all I was saying.

      • “There’s no Promised Land in terms of series actions, team performance, driver profile, TV exposure, and/or monetary profit that will satisfy the entirety of the commentariat. There’s no magic bullet here. There never has been, and there simply won’t ever be one. Detractors will always be present.”

        Bingo.

  16. Ron Ford Says:

    Just as I was beginning to miss Letterman, Donald Trump announces he is running for President saying “If I can drive the Indy500 pace car, I can be President.”

  17. The parity of the 5/10 races won by non Penske or Ganassi cars is a false parity.

    Discount all races that are manipulated by Indycar’s inability to clean a yellow in a reasonable amount of time and the idiotic closure of the pits for incidents that are nowhere near pit lane.

    Great, you passed a Ganassi and Penske driver because you were lucky enough to pit just before a yellow and you got to drive by the entire field. Great, you never even stopped and ran lean for 25 laps of caution in a swamp… you “won” the race.

    Who cares that you never managed to pass one of the faster cars and barely only 10% of your laps under green were faster than five of the Penske and Ganassi cars? Apparently the 5 million people who watched or attended the 500 care.

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