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Conquest Racing, RuSPORT, Newman/Haas Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing are no longer active full-time participants in the championship, and none has completed an IndyCar season in full since DRR in 2012.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

IndyCar’s ‘Phoenix’ flying into 2023 season: Romain Grosjean enjoying the pilot’s life

IndyCar Romain Grosjean pilot
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The IndyCar driver known as “The Phoenix” already has taken flight before the 2023 season, and newly licensed pilot Romain Grosjean also got a head start on the opener.

Fulfilling a dream several years in the making, the Andretti Autosport plunged into aviation training over the offseason. Since beginning with online studying last August, Grosjean quickly progressed to earning his licenses for multiengine planes and instrument ratings while completing 115 hours of flight time.

He has landed twice at Albert Whitted Airport, whose primary runway also doubles as the front straightaway on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course.

“Just to land on the start-finish line, that was pretty cool,” Grosjean said during IndyCar Preseason Content Days ahead of the Feb. 2-3 test at The Thermal Club. “The air traffic control guy was like, “Yeah, left on Acre Five, turn, and then back. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the last corner of the racetrack, I’ll take it and go back to the pit lane. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true.’ So it was quite funny.”

Grosjean, 36, said he had wanted to become a pilot since he was 30 but was discouraged by Europe’s complicated and time-consuming licensing process (“to go to ground school twice a week, and with our life, it’s impossible”). He was inspired again last year by (now former) teammate Alexander Rossi, who flew to some 2022 races after earning his license a couple of years ago.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” said Grosjean, who had grown “bored of waiting in the airports.”

He plans to fly to nearly all the races this year (“if the weather is good enough, I’ll be flying”) and jokes about being “commercial by the end of the year, so then I can take Roger (Penske). Roger can pay me to fly him around to races if things go bad with racing.”

Grosjean’s social media has been filled with posts about his new hobby, which afforded him the opportunity recently to take his wife to Key West for lunch from their home in the Miami area.

The trip took 37 minutes there and 41 minutes on return and highlighted why Grosjean loves flying: “Freedom. Freedom to go anywhere you want, anytime you want. It’s the beauty of it. We can go to the Bahamas for a day if we want to. Anywhere. I think that’s just great to know that you can do whatever you want.”

It’s reminiscent of the cross-country trip across the Midwest in an RV that Grosjean took with his family during the summer of his 2021 rookie season.

“There’s one thing that I told my kids, and I told my friend about America, and for me, that’s the biggest difference between Europe and here, is here everything is possible,” said Grosjean (whose “Phoenix” nickname was derived from a brush with death in his final Formula One start). “If you have the wish, if you give yourself the possibility of doing it, everything is possible. It is different in Europe. Much more boundaries on the way. Much more steps that you need to do in a certain order. But if you want to be extraordinary (in the United States), if you want to do something different, you don’t need to do those steps because you can work through.

“Yeah, I like doing things, and when I do them, I like doing them well. But here I think just the opportunity of driving the RV, flying planes, for my kids to do whatever they want to do, we love that here. Yeah, it’s been the best discovery for us.”

The Swiss-born Frenchman already has flown himself to a race this year, jetting up the Florida coast for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut last month. It was his debut as a Lamborghini factory driver, and his new deal will continue with the Twelve Hours of Sebring and possibly the Petit Le Mans while he also helps develop the automaker’s new hybrid prototype (LMDh) for next year.

Grosjean finished a disappointing 13th in the 2022 points standings with one podium for Andretti in his first full IndyCar season. The team showed improvement at Thermal, and Grosjean (who was fourth fastest on Day 1) said IndyCar will remain his priority in 2024.

But he hopes the IndyCar schedule will afford racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races and perhaps his longest plane flight yet — a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed like that we get the weekend off from IndyCar,” said Grosjean, noting that 10 IndyCar drivers were in the Rolex 24. “I think it would make a lot of sense. I think for both series it’s amazing. If we can get Le Mans, it’s also amazing because it’s just cool.

“I remember Mario flying across the Atlantic doing Monaco and the Indy 500, and those guys, they were racing everywhere, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1. They were doing the races in opening of the Formula 1 race, and I think that’s very cool for us. So yeah, looking forward to the project. There’s going to be a lot of development coming on. By the time we finish the IndyCar season, the LMDh will be here in the States, and that’s when I’m going to spend a lot of time on it.”