With the start of the Verizon IndyCar Series season less than four weeks away, the annual game of Musical Chairs is becoming a lot more serious. Each year there are many deserving drivers left sitting on the sidelines without even a sniff at a full-time ride. This year is no exception.
But along with the long list of hopefuls that carry over from year after year, there is always at least one mainstay driver that is shockingly left without a chair, when the music stops with the dropping of the green flag at the beginning of each season.
The first year for reunification was in 2008, when Paul Tracy found himself the pawn in car-owner Gerry Forsythe’s power-play. He ended up running just one race that season, at Edmonton driving for Tony George, where he finished fourth.
In 2009, it looked like it was going to be Ryan Hunter-Reay, before Tony George and Vision Racing came to his rescue for the first few races of the season before he switched over to AJ Foyt Racing after Texas. His team the previous year, Rahal-Letterman, lost their ethanol sponsorship and were not able to answer the bell for the 2009 season.
For a while in 2010, Hunter-Reay looked like he may be on the sidelines again, but he had money from IZOD and struck a race-to-race deal with Michael Andretti that paid off with a win at Long Beach. Although Hunter-Reay drove every race for Andretti that season, it was always sporadic two to three race packages. Reportedly, Andretti ran Hunter-Reay out of his own pocket for a couple of races that season. It has worked out well for both.
Hunter-Reay is now the lead driver for Andretti Autosport, and he has brought the team an IndyCar championship in 2012 and an Indianapolis 500 victory in 2014. The surprise for the sideline in 2010 ended up being Ed Carpenter. Vision Racing had folded their operation and Ed drove in only a handful of races that season, beginning with the Indianapolis 500.
The following season, it was Graham Rahal and Dan Wheldon on the sidelines at the beginning of the season. Newman/Haas shut down and Rahal drove a few races for Sarah Fisher. Wheldon and John Barnes went through an ugly divorce at the end of the previous season. He surprised everyone in the winter of 2011 by announcing he would run the Indianapolis 500 that year with the fledgling Bryan Herta Autosport.
Along with everyone else, I silently scoffed that this was the beginning of the end of Dan Wheldon’s career. This signing reeked of desperation and would lead to nowhere – or so I thought. As we all know now, Wheldon was fast all month and won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time, in dramatic fashion. He returned to the sidelines afterwards and showed us his skills as a TV analyst. Wheldon parlayed that victory into a return to Andretti Autosport for 2012. Tragically, he was fatally injured in the final race of the 2011 season, driving for Sam Schmidt at Las Vegas.
For 2012, there weren’t many surprises. Former full-timer Sebastian Saavedra didn’t drive until Indianapolis, and Pippa Mann was surprisingly on the sideline for that year’s Indianapolis 500, missing her only “500” between her rookie season and now. She is expected to be in a car in May, but nothing has been announced.
It was Ryan Briscoe who was without a chair or a ride for 2013. He first appeared at Indianapolis, driving for Chip Ganassi; but then drove as a sometimes sub for John Barnes after he unceremoniously kicked JR Hildebrand to the curb after Indianapolis.
Last year, JR Hildebrand was the one that was dressed up with no place to go. He drove at Indianapolis in a second car for Ed Carpenter, where he finished ninth and never drove again. It also appears Hildebrand will be on the sidelines for 2015 as well, along with Ryan Briscoe and Oriol Servia; who I consider the most overlooked and underrated driver in the paddock.
But there is a driver who stands a good chance of sitting on the sidelines when the green flag drops in twenty-seven days – Justin Wilson. If he is, that would be a shame.
Since the end of last season, we kept hearing rumblings that Wilson was about to reap the rewards for dwelling in obscurity for so many years. It appeared that he would be headed to Andretti Autosport to indirectly replace the departed James Hinchcliffe. For the last few weeks, however, it appears that the deal has fallen apart. Andretti has hinted he may even run a fifth car if the circumstances (read: cash) were right. Supposedly Simona de Silvestro is in line for a part-time deal with Andretti Autosport.
In the meantime, it doesn’t appear that Dale Coyne is in a rush to re-sign the driver that has brought his team two of the four victories they have accumulated since 1984, including their very first at Watkins Glen in 2009. Wilson left for Dreyer & Reinbold at the end of that season, but came back to Coyne in 2012 when he won again for Coyne at Texas. Since then, Coyne has seen teammates Mike Conway and Carlos Huertas win races while he has had so-so seasons; the lone exception being 2013 when he finished sixth in the standings. Last year the affable Brit finished a forgettable fifteenth, by bringing home one top-five and two top-tens.
Justin Wilson is not a young man. At age thirty-six, he is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. If he doesn’t get a full-time ride this season, I’m not sure any team will sign a thirty-seven year-old that has been out of the car for a year, for 2016. The inactivity at that age would be the killer, even if it’s only perception.
There are a lot of drivers in this year’s field that may be considered guilty of not paying their dues. Conversely, Justin Wilson has probably paid his dues more than any other driver in the paddock. I consider Wilson’s two wins and two top-ten finishes in points while driving for Dale Coyne to be much more impressive than the eight wins and three top-five seasons that Ryan Briscoe put together while driving for Roger Penske. Dale Coyne is one of the good guys in the paddock, but has a reputation for doing things on the cheap. To say his budget is a fraction of Roger Penske’s is being kind.
Not only is Justin Wilson an excellent driver, he’s even a better person. He has always been one of the most accessible drivers in the paddock. When Susan and I married at IMS the night before Pole Day in 2012, Susan and her girlfriends were roaming the garage area the next day doing whatever middle-aged women do by themselves. They came across Justin Wilson. Susan was the only one that knew who he was, but he posed for several group pictures with all of them. He took time to chat with the ladies and made instant Justin Wilson fans out of each one of them. Susan said when they went back home after the weekend, they all tuned in the next week and pulled for Wilson, simply because he was, by far, the nicest driver that they met that weekend.
I’m not going to pretend to know why the deal fell through at Andretti Autosport for Justin Wilson. It could still be ongoing, as far as I know – but it doesn’t sound like it. Nor will I claim to know anything about the relationship between Coyne and Wilson. I don’t.
Coyne has said he is looking at several drivers and may want to go with younger talent. That’s his right. Younger talent has brought him his last two wins. But, in my opinion, if he wants to have his best chance to win every single time they take the track; I think his best bet is to go for one young gun and then the talent and experience that Justin Wilson brings. Why he wasn’t on several team’s short list for drivers heading into the offseason is beyond me.
So here’s hoping that when the green flag falls in St. Petersburg at the end of this month, that Justin Wilson is somewhere on the grid in a full-time ride. If he is not, that would be a shame.