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

7 Comments

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Conquest Racing, RuSPORT, Newman/Haas Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing are no longer active full-time participants in the championship, and none has completed an IndyCar season in full since DRR in 2012.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

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

Leave a comment

Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).