Analysis: Reduction in teams means increase in partnerships to make 33 for Indy 500

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Racing partnerships make the world go ‘round.

A team doesn’t race without a tire and engine partner, and it doesn’t get to that stage without a primary and a wealth of associate sponsors helping to bankroll the projects.

Yet while partnerships for a team are nothing new, team-to-team partnerships appear to be on the rise this year to help the Verizon IndyCar Series make 33 cars at the Indianapolis 500.

Over the last three years, as the series has shifted from the previous Dallara chassis to the new Dallara DW12, the net car count in terms of total entries and total teams has gone down, which has meant more partnerships from existing teams have arisen to hit the number.

The 2011 Indianapolis 500, for instance, included these teams that have since gone away from full-time competition:

  • Panther Racing (JR Hildebrand, Buddy Rice)
  • Newman/Haas Racing (Oriol Servia, James Hinchcliffe)
  • Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (Davey Hamilton, Justin Wilson, Paul Tracy, Ana Beatriz)
  • Conquest Racing (Pippa Mann, Sebastian Saavedra)
  • HVM Racing (Simona de Silvestro)
  • AFS Racing (Raphael Matos)
  • Dragon Racing (Scott Speed, Ho-Pin Tung, Patrick Carpentier)

Just there, that’s seven teams, and a total of 14 cars that have gone away from the Indianapolis 500 field. Those 14 coupled with the 25 or 26 full-time cars made for a ‘500 field of more than 40 attempting to qualify for the 33-car field.

The evolution after 2011 saw Newman/Haas shutter its operation altogether, Conquest fail to strike an engine lease deal when the new chassis and engine came together, and Dragon, HVM and DRR all get stuck with Lotus for the start of 2012.

Conquest and AFS partnered with Andretti Autosport for partial efforts for both Beatriz and Saavedra, respectively, in 2012. AFS is now with KV Racing for Saavedra’s car this year. But neither Eric Bachelart (Conquest) nor Gary Peterson (AFS) has existed as their own entity since.

HVM was the lone Lotus holdover after the month of May as DRR, Dragon and Bryan Herta Autosport were all able to get out of their contracts. But come the end of the year, HVM as its own entity ended and the Leaders’ Circle points, and Keith Wiggins’ minority ownership stake ventured to, you guessed it, Andretti Autosport for the team’s fourth full-time car for 2013 (EJ Viso then, Carlos Munoz now).

DRR temporarily closed after last year’s Indy 500 – the second team on this list Servia has been a part of where he ran its most recent list – but is now back this year, albeit in partnership mode. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Dragon and Panther withdrew in the offseason, with Dragon’s Leaders’ Circle entry going to Roger Penske’s third car (the Juan Pablo Montoya No. 2 Chevrolet is officially referred to as Penske Motorsports, not Team Penske, by INDYCAR); meanwhile Panther’s equipment is at KV, which also has the AFS partnership, this month of May.

What we have in this year’s 33 are these notable partnerships:

  • No. 2 Penske Motorsports (Team Penske’s car for Juan Pablo Montoya, but with the ex-Dragon Racing chassis, Leaders’ Circle position)
  • No. 11 KVSH Racing (KV mainly, with SH full season partnership, after part-time collaboration between the two in previous years)
  • No. 17 KV/AFS Racing (KV, and Gary Peterson’s AFS Racing group)
  • No. 22 DRR Kingdom Racing (Dreyer & Reinbold, with Davey Hamilton’s Kingdom Racing group, in a technical partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing to provide Sage Karam his debut)
  • No. 33 KV Racing Technology (partnership with Always Evolving Racing, and one that may feature support from TRG-AMR North America)
  • No. 34 Andretti-HVM (partnership with HVM’s Keith Wiggins)
  • No. 68 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (Wink Hartman is team co-owner, and this particular chassis is the Steve Weirich-owned Rotondo Weirich entry for Alex Tagliani)
  • No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports (Hamilton is a minority partner in the group led by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson, which also fields the No. 5 and No. 7 cars)
  • No. 98 BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian (name speaks for itself re: the number of partners)

And we haven’t even gotten to sponsors yet.

But here’s two drivers as examples: rookie Karam’s No. 22 car is likely to be the Comfort Revolution/Big Machine Records/Brantley Gilbert DRR Kingdom Racing with Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Bell’s KVRT entry could be the No. 6 Robert Graham/Royal Purple/Beneteau USA Chevrolet.

With nary a bump attempt in the last two years, and one unlikely at the moment in 2014, we’re left with a worrying prospect longer term about the number of teams within the series: a distinct lack of new blood.

Two years ago, the saga of Michael Shank, of GRAND-AM, trying to pursue a Honda or Chevrolet engine lease was well documented, including by this writer. Shank, who was on a high from winning that year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, did not want a Lotus citing its lack of competitiveness.

It was a new owner to the series, who was not an ex-driver (the series’ newest team owners are Ed Carpenter in 2012, Bryan Herta in 2010 and Sarah Fisher in 2008, along with Buddy Lazier’s family for Indy-only entries beginning last year), who had a chassis and an interest.

But the way the engine rules were written, manufacturers needed to supply up to 40 percent of the field, and Lotus was unable to hit that target. Chevrolet and Honda both went above and beyond to extend their month of May capacity, though it was still to the dismay of Shank and some drivers who sought opportunities to qualify.

Fast-forward two years. Shank’s team never started an IndyCar race, the aforementioned partnerships have come together out of the former small teams and the bigger teams, if anything, have grown.

The Penske (3 cars), Andretti (5 cars) and Ganassi (4 cars, plus the fifth DRR-affiliated entry) will make up 13 of the 33 entries, more than a third of the field. Add in KVRT’s 4 and suddenly that’s more than half spread between four teams – or 17 of the 33.

The reduction in full-season car count, as well, from 26 to 25 to 22 at the last three season-openers, has also meant that the 10 or so Indy-only entries isn’t enough to cover the bases for 33, or provide enough extras for bumping.

Bottom line is we’re at an interesting stage in IndyCar as it relates to the presence of teams, entries and, on another note, crews.

The crews that were available for full-time efforts, plus the Indy one-offs, have also gone down.

Part of the reason for the grind for 33 this year is to find enough crews for the entries. It’s being done, but there are plenty of individuals from the world of sports car racing being brought in to assist.

We’ll see how the series goes forward from here, but we have enough of a trend to see that something will probably need to change to help keep the car count at or above 33 for the month of May. As ever, cost of entry and cost of operation for the ROI and deliverables to partners remain a constant target for teams.

Your heart will start racing with IndyCar’s new “The Future Starts Now” video

Image courtesy IndyCar
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One of the biggest challenges for any motorsport series — whether it’s NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar, Formula One and so many others — is to find ways to attract new fans.

That’s particularly important when attempting to lure young fans, especially the much-coveted millennials (born after 1981) and teenagers.

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