DiZinno: The dilemma for Justin Wilson and others, is teams as much as budget


A tweet from Justin Wilson’s younger brother Stefan – himself a young talent continuing to push for that one, big opportunity in IndyCar – this morning hinted that his older, shorter but still towering brother is closer to being off the Verizon IndyCar Series grid than on it for 2015.

“Sad to hear that JW might not get a ride in IndyCar this year. 1 of the most talented in series & plays huge part in push for driver safety,” Stefan Wilson wrote. “It’s certainly a shame. Hoping something happens in the coming weeks. Will be biting my nails, and probably also my tongue at times.”

Even saying that much casts a light on the budgetary constraints needed to get into an IndyCar in 2015, but it leaves out one glaring weakness INDYCAR (the sanctioning body, not the series) needs to look to correct for 2016 and beyond.

It is a dwindling number of teams and available spots for drivers to make the grid.

In Justin Wilson’s case, the one team he’s been with the last three years – Dale Coyne Racing – is the one team left standing from the entirety of his 11-year career in IndyCar to this point.

Conquest Racing, RuSPORT, Newman/Haas Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing are no longer active full-time participants in the championship, and none has completed an IndyCar season in full since DRR in 2012.

That’s four teams gone right there and three others, Dragon Racing, Panther Racing and HVM Racing, have dropped out as their own entity in the last three years, either in terms of shifting to other series or ceasing operations altogether.

Michael Shank Racing, who Wilson frequently drove for in sports cars and together they won the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, sought to enter IndyCar in 2012 but couldn’t finalize an engine lease deal. Shank sold his chassis before he ever had the chance to race it.

Between those eight teams, that’s at least nine to 12 seats that have faded from the IndyCar grid the last few years.

Team numbers ebb and flow, but the point is for Wilson, as well a number of others – Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani, JR Hildebrand or pick your “was-in-IndyCar-and-now-isn’t driver here” – there are now fewer places to land on the grid.

The IndyCar Series is down to to 10 full-time teams expected for 2015. Three of those teams (Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske, Andretti Autosport) will have anywhere from 11 to 13 cars on the grid on their own, leaving even fewer opportunities for others.

As recently as 2010, Wilson’s first year with DRR, there were 24 to 27 cars, and a full 15 teams.

In some respects INDYCAR is lucky to still have that many teams – it’s going to be the same as Formula 1 has, and not too far behind NASCAR Sprint Cup. INDYCAR doles out payments to most of its teams via the Leaders Circle program, to help keep them on the grid.

Still, the last three new full-time teams to enter IndyCar have only entered in the last seven years. Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter formed two of them, and they have since merged for this year to form CFH Racing. Bryan Herta (2012 first full season, same as Carpenter’s) is the only other new entrant in that time period.

This lack of new blood from the ownership standpoint is one of the key areas IndyCar needs to seek to address, and it is doing so in part thanks to new designs and manufacturer involvement starting this year.

While the aero kits for 2015 might be perceived as a bandaid rather than an outright salvation fix, they do provide the active manufacturers another area of development.

More hands-on ability to put their stamp on the product is a good thing, and ideally the first generation of aero kits this year leads to more development in further years. More manufacturer money in the championship also could, in theory, mean more willingness to provide further engine leases.

The second element to note is how the new Dallara IL15 Indy Lights car has increased interest in team ownership in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. Although only 12 cars have been testing throughout the winter, the target of 15 has been set to start the year and north of 20 for 2016, which includes new team owners.

Two teams – Carlin Racing and 8Star Motorsports – have entered Indy Lights, and if you’ve followed other championships the last few years, you know the caliber of these organizations. Carlin’s preparation and outfit is renowned in Europe; 8Star has starred in sports car racing on these shores.

Additionally, Antonio Ferrari’s Eurointernational team has expressed interest in returning to America earlier this year – ideally his plans come to fruition.

Increase the number of teams and you invariably increase the number of available seats. Find a capable marketing person or persons capable up finding sponsors or generating valuable B2B deals, and the requirement for a driver to bring millions to a seat won’t be as necessary, and a driver of Wilson’s or similar caliber can be hired.

This ties it back to “Bad Ass” – who through no fault of his own is in a dilemma this offseason. He’s got great talent, near universal paddock and industry-wide respect, a keen eye on safety, as younger brother Stefan mentioned, and is genuinely one of the nicest people in the series.

If IndyCar can somehow find a way to recapture the lost teams, then perhaps we wouldn’t be writing about the talent sidelined as a result of faded opportunities.

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The red flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500