With Team Penske having its four cars locked in for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the onus now falls on Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport to publicly confirm the drivers for their fourth.
Recently, the fourth at CGR is drawing a lot of attention, and it’s been a shift from what had been discussed and projected roughly 11-12 months ago.
At Houston last year, Ganassi made the move to acquire Tony Kanaan, a savvy move that gave the veteran a chance to join the championship team and one more opportunity for the then-38-year-old Brazilian to contend for more wins and titles.
He was meant to be in the fourth car, the No. 8 NTT Data/TNT Energy Drink entry, alongside Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Charlie Kimball – for what would have been a four-car “super team” this year.
Plans changed. Franchitti had his devastating and career-ending accident at Houston, and Ganassi would have an opening once more.
It was highly coveted. Ganassi told this writer at the time, in a conference call, about who he’d pick:
“We’ve always taken the best driver available at the time. That rule, we learned from a great mentor to our guys, Morris Nunn, who used to say that. Morris always said, ‘You need to take the best driver available and don’t think of anything else.’ That’ll be our first procedure to go through. Do you go with a proven talent or young, up-and-comer? That’s the question we’re dealing with now.”
So while the opportunity was there to bring in a young gun – a Sage Karam, Conor Daly, Sam Bird or “pick your other young, talented, guy who deserves a chance but doesn’t bring much cash here” – Ganassi decided to go with Ryan Briscoe in the No. 8, and move Kanaan to the No. 10.
While not the most flashy decision, Briscoe made a lot of sense for Ganassi in a transition year considering Franchitti’s enforced retirement.
You knew Briscoe could be counted on to be dependable, clean, bring the car home in one piece, experiment with setups and more frequently than not hassle the drivers in the Target cars.
So by the end of this year, Briscoe easily ticked four of those five boxes, and really the only area you could critique was that his pace was not fully on par with the Target pairing of Dixon and Kanaan, Kanaan in particular having been a star the second half of the season in the 10 car.
Still, all signs were pointing to Briscoe continuing in the No. 8 for a second season in 2015. Crucially, he’d been under the impression he was on a multiyear deal, and some reports written at the time of signing said the same.
Karam still was able to enter the Ganassi fold, having been signed as a development driver earlier this year. In limited opportunities, he showed flashes of brilliance – both in his Indianapolis 500 debut, where he could have easily captured rookie-of-the-year honors (and I argued, should have), and additionally in his handful of TUDOR Championship starts, most notably at Sebring.
Reports have now come out in the last month or so that Ganassi is planning a change, and Karam could enter into the No. 8 seat.
Ganassi managing director Mike Hull told me at Road Atlanta this weekend, “We’ll have four cars, but really we’re still sorting out budget on the fourth. That’s the holdup at the moment.”
I can’t help but feel this is a dilemma caused by several factors.
For one, the prominence of the super teams – Penske, Ganassi and Andretti are projected to have 12 cars, potentially more than half the field on their own next year – has limited traditional opportunities for young drivers to break into the sport as they used to.
The days of the Dreyer & Reinbolds (Karam’s Indy 500 team), Conquest Racing, HVM or other smaller teams fielding single cars have gone away. Economies of scale are all the rage, and the best business model, and single-car teams are quickly becoming an endangered species.
Alas, when drivers get to the gates of IndyCar, they either need to gather a budget to join one of the remaining squads or hope they’re fortunate enough to latch onto a major team and join in their development program. The latter is where Karam sits with Ganassi and where Matthew Brabham and Zach Veach are for Andretti, as it stands.
Second, if Briscoe was told he had a multiyear deal and under the impression it would be continuing for 2015 regardless, it would be unfortunate to see the rug get pulled out from under him in this fashion. Say what you will about Ryan – he’s not a world-beater and he made a key mistake during his best shot at a title in 2009 – but in a field of 22-24 cars you’d still rate him as one of the 10 best.
He was left high and dry by Team Penske at the end of 2012 despite efforts to continue, got a reprieve, and now could be left in the same position two years later.
In an ideal world, you’d have Karam run with DRR or similar for a full 2015 season, which means more crew would have work and Karam could compete with Briscoe head-to-head to see who gets the Ganassi seat in 2016.
As it stands now, Karam may get the nod for 2015, and Briscoe could be left out. I love seeing new talent break into the sport – it’s one of my favorite parts of my job.
But I can’t help but feel the way that this is playing out, someone will be on the short end of the stick either way.