Editor’s note: the following story is abridged from an article originally appearing in the April issue of
Maybe, just maybe, Indy car racing’s karma is improving. A branch of the sport that endured a dozen years of civil war, failed events, ineffective and/or incompetent leadership and an eerie series of mirroring calamities may have gotten it right after all with last spring’s shotgun reconciliation. For while the resulting 2008 IndyCar Series was painful in many ways to so many, one can scarcely imagine what further havoc the worldwide recession would have wrought had the Indy Racing League and Champ Car waited until now to get their acts together.
How many cars will be on the grid for the first round of 2009?
It’s early yet, but the tea leaves of winter suggest the ICS may be the major American racing series least affected by the economic malaise. As NASCAR, Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series bleed entries, the ICS is looking at relatively – stress relatively – healthy grids for the coming season. Only a fool would expect a direct correlation between attendance for the IRL’s participant meeting in early January and the IndyCar and Firestone Indy Lights grids at the season openers in April. Still, there is reason to believe that, absent additional financial tsunamis, some 22 cars will answer the bell at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
A key reason for that encouraging number can be found in the title name of that season opener. Of course, Honda’s support of the IndyCar Series extends well beyond title sponsorship of the St. Pete, Toronto and Mid-Ohio events. Most obviously, for a set price, Honda leases engines to competitors that are as reliable and equal in performance as humanly possible. Coupled with the ubiquitous Dallara chassis, this creates a level playing field. Sure the Ganassi, Penske and Andretti Green teams can (and do) spend considerable sums in the wind tunnel and on the chassis dyno searching for advantages that virtually guarantee they’ll win the lion’s share of the races and monopolize the sharp end of the ICS championship. But with fixed engine leases and a de facto spec chassis, teams can operate on more or less fixed budgets, with crash damage the only major variable.
How hard has the series been hit by the economic crisis?
It’s no secret that, with a few noteworthy exceptions, team sponsorship in the ICS is more commonly based on business-to-business relationships than consumer brand marketing. For every Peak Anti-Freeze or McDonald’s pitching products and services to loyal and potential customers, there’s a Panasonic supplying OEM equipment to Honda, Target or 7-Eleven allocating primo shelf space to associate sponsors and an Altria entertaining its employees and clients at the Penske hospitality suite. This may have made the ICS less vulnerable to a recession than NASCAR, whose team sponsorships are more directly connected to consumer spending. IndyCar’s partnership with a lone manufacturer, Honda, means its model is as solid as…well, Honda.
But it’s no bed of roses. Says team owner Dale Coyne: “There’s no comparison with previous years. This is bad. Companies are paralyzed from making any move at all, and not just because of the perception of being seen to spend money. This is real – look at headcounts, look at balance sheets, and you see why.
“Sure, there are a few new sponsorship deals appearing here and there, but they’re not the same money they once were, even if the logos are the same size. When you stack that up against the fact that we haven’t cut our costs at all…you get the picture.”
Which of last year’s drivers have shaky futures in the series?
Although the ICS grids figure to lose little in quantity from last year, quality is another issue. Two of last year’s winners – Ryan Hunter-Reay and Justin Wilson – face the prospects of unemployment while legal problems make double Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves’ participation in ’09 open to question. At the time of writing, some of the other worthies scrambling for rides include Darren Manning, Tomas Scheckter, Buddy Rice, Oriol Servia and Paul Tracy.
Castroneves’ problems have afforded Will Power the potential opportunity of a lifetime with Penske, while Raphael Matos, last year’s Indy Lights champion, graduates to the big cars with Luczo Dragon, which embarks on its first full ICS season.
Though both these appointments are worthy, that leaves a lot of top drivers on the sidelines, and that, says Servia, again comes back to the U.S. economy. “Over the years I got used to not having a ride by January, but this year I thought would be different. We had one unified series, I finished top of the transition drivers in ’08, and the series had momentum. IRL is doing a lot of things right.
“But this economic crisis has hit a lot of potential sponsors so hard. KV Racing had prospects of more companies joining than ever before, and then the financial markets dissolved, and money for sponsoring racing teams just disappeared. No one has a budget to be brave with at the moment.”
Whatever the reasons, there’s no denying that the series’ appeal will be diminished if race winners, series veterans, Americans and drivers synonymous with Indy car racing go AWOL between seasons.
So is there a chance we won’t see 33 cars for the 93rd Indianapolis 500?
Apart from last year’s season of reunification, pundits have been predicting sub-33 car fields at Indianapolis every year for the past decade. Somehow, some way – often a subsidy from the IRL – enough cars have materialized to form 11 rows of three come Memorial Day. There’s no shortage of cars, of course, only the money to run them. And whether it’s Rahal Letterman Racing or Hemelgarn Racing putting together an Indy-only budget, or perhaps Ganassi and Penske each running third cars, don’t be surprised if 33 cars take the green flag on May 24.
Longer term, who are going to be the suppliers for the next-gen Indy car?
Last year the Indy Racing League held a series of manufacturer forums to solicit input on the next generation of Indy car engines and chassis, to debut in 2011 – which just happens to be the Centennial Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.
Subsequently there was talk of two or three new manufacturers announcing their intentions, but then came the international economic meltdown….
VW (under the Audi banner) is the most often mentioned possibility, and would explain the marque’s withdrawal from the ALMS. Alfa Romeo was another strong contender, along with rumors that their coupe models would be returning to U.S. showrooms within the next three years. Although this rumor faded, it was reignited when Alfa’s parent company Fiat sought a 35 percent stake in Chrysler in January.
Also now in question is timing. Brian Barnhart, series president of competition and operations, explains: “There are one or two manufacturers still interested who are working on a March/April deadline to serve notice of their intentions [to compete in the ICS], but we’re getting real close now on whether that’s going to be for 2011 or 2012, especially depending on how radical you go with the specifications.
“A V6 is basically an evolution of the current [V8] engine but if we go with an in-line four, the mounting issues as a stressed member makes it a pretty radical step for our cars. And, if we find out in April that we have a player and that’s the direction they want to go, that leaves only 20 months before 2011. That might be cutting it tight.”
Sounds like the engine regulations are pretty open. Is this true? Discussions have narrowed to a two-liter V6 or an in-line four-cylinder. Honda strongly favors the former but has said it’s willing to go the latter route if that’s bait for potential competitors.
One thing is certain: the unit will be turbocharged. Says Barnhart: “The turbo is clearly the way to go if, for no other reason than that it improves the sound of the cars and improves the fans’ experience – which is important. It also gives us a tool to adjust the power of the cars. With the diversity of the circuits we’re running, that’s a nice capability to have, whether you’re running at Texas, Milwaukee or St. Pete.”
And the chassis?
You can take it as read that Dallara will be sole supplier again – and don’t expect a radical departure in the car’s appearance.
“We have an opportunity to make major improvements that most people won’t see,” says Barnhart. “They’ll be improvements for the teams. Right now, we’ve got an oval track car and road raced it. The new car will be a road racing car capable of oval racing, which will save them a ton of money and improve the workability of the car greatly.”
So, there are welcome changes to the IndyCar Series on the distant horizon. But, in this economy, the actual participants in this still downtrodden form of U.S. motorsport can only focus on the here and now and the short-term future.
As Coyne puts it: “These next two seasons are going to be very, very tough. And next year will be worse than this, because potential sponsors will be setting their budgets this summer. There’s no way the economic situation will have improved by then and, even if it did, I don’t think sponsorship of race teams, events or drivers is going to be high up any company’s list of priorities.”