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Conquest Racing, RuSPORT, Newman/Haas Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing are no longer active full-time participants in the championship, and none has completed an IndyCar season in full since DRR in 2012.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