Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Indianapolis 500 Got A Little More Interesting And Can Still Get Even More Interesting

I had originally intended for this post to dismiss the "Garage 34" idea and don't worry, that is to come. But some major news dropped last night of the return of 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1995 CART champion and 1997 World Drivers' champion Jacques Villeneuve to the Indianapolis 500 in 2014, driving a third car for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports and now this post has expanded to more than just "Garage 34" but unified technical regulations and who should play the Carb Day concert and national anthem.

Let's start with the "Garage 34" idea, though.

First, I love the idea of promoting innovation at the Indianapolis 500. Second, I hate the idea of giving it an exemption.

The difference between this and the "Garage 56" entry at Le Mans is the race organizer, Automobile Club of the West (ACO) invite who is to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Fifty-five is the traditional amount of invitations for the 24 Hours of Le Mans but if the ACO wants to invite one more or fifteen more of twenty less then they can. Making the race is entirely different than Indianapolis where has most frequently been the fastest thirty-three cars make the race and that's how it should be.

For a fan base that wants to see bump day return to a little over half a dozen cars fighting for the final spot, expanding the grid even by one entry is the last thing we want to see. Don't get me wrong, we all want to see innovation but not one innovative car on the grid but a handful of cars using hybrids, diesel, ethanol, hydrogen, peanut oil, whatever.

And we want innovative cars to earn their spot in the race like everyone else. Fans love the STP Turbine and Lotus 56, wedge turbines because they were different but also competitive. They were threats to win the race. People don't like the Eagle Aircraft Flyer driven by Ken Hamilton because, although it was innovative, it didn't have a snowball's chance in hell to even make the field.

We don't want one innovative car out there dominating by six laps and we don't want one innovative car out just because it the "Garage 34" entry but is running 25 mph off the pace.

Innovation has to be encourage for all competitors. If Chevrolet wants to run a hybrid, allow them. If Honda wants to run a hybrid, allow them. If Volkswagen wants to enter a turbo-diesel engine that fits into the specifications of the rulebook, why say no? If Ford wants to run their EcoBoost engine package, welcome them with open arms. Don't limit innovation to one entry for one race of the year. Open it to as many as possible over the course of the entire season.

On to Jacques Villeneuve. I think it is great he is returning especially after we all thought the likes of him and Montoya had outgrown IndyCar. It's hard to believe Villeneuve is only going to be 43 years old when May rolls around. He was successful at such a young age but after winning the World Drivers' Championship in 1997, he did nothing for the next decade. He went over ten and a half years between winning races in his career. He won the 1997 Luxembourg Grand Prix (at the Nürburgring) and didn't win another race until he was a third driver for Peugeot at the 2008 Le Mans Series race at Spa-Francorchamps.

In his defense, he moved to BAR when they were entering Formula One and never got another top seat after leaving Williams but Villeneuve could be labelled the Stephon Marbury of motorsports. He had a great career early on but then went around the world doing obscure events such as touring cars in Argentina, the Speedcar Series (a failed stock car series based in the Middle East), Stock Car Brasil as well as cameos in NASCAR races playing the role of Dr. Evil.

(Honest to God Jacques, please grow your hair back. Some people can pull off bald, you can't. I hope Hair Club or Bosley is your sponsor. Quick sidebar: My grandfather always got a kick when Derrike Cope was sponsored by Avacor and because his career went about ten years longer than it should have gone).

But, as happy as I am for Villeneuve returning to run the Indianapolis 500 the likes of Conor Daly, Sage Karam, JR Hildebrand, Luca Filippi, Sam Bird, James Davison, Martin Plowman, Bertrand Baguette and Bryan Clauson need to be getting opportunities in IndyCar. They are the future. Not Villeneuve, not Montoya. Hell even Oriol Servià and Townsend Bell deserves more opportunities despite being closer to 40 years old than 30 years old because they have shown they are quick and can hold a candlestick to anyone else on the IndyCar grid. Eventually these younger drivers are going to have to break through and get opportunities from teams with decent rides.

The good news is this Villeneuve announcement bodes well for getting thirty-three cars for the Indianapolis 500. There is some worry over Panther Racing as they didn't get one of the twenty-one leader circle positions and that is understandable (Update: Also because John Barnes is suing IndyCar, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and the other parties involved in the loss of the National Guard sponsorship). Going back to what I posted last week, the very early, very-very-very-very-optimistic Indianapolis 500 entry list had thirty-five cars on it. I still feel thirty-five cars is very optimistic.

If you have read this blog frequently, you know I think the last generation Dallara chassis should be grandfathered in for the Indianapolis 500 in efforts to increase the entry list and encourage bumping. IndyCar should also look into forming technical alliances with other series such as Super Formula. The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters and Super GT series are running unified technical regulations this season and they are looking to do a combined race in 2015.

Wouldn't IndyCar benefit from that type of partnership? Super Formula is running a brand new Dallara chassis in 2014 and have nineteen cars on their grid. If you are IndyCar, reaching out to Super Formula and seeing if they can come together and run unified technical regulations can't hurt. If it means Honda brings over five or six more cars over for the Indianapolis and inadvertently allows Toyota to return to Indianapolis with a handful of cars and allows for IndyCar to return to Motegi where a combined race could be run between the two series, who would be opposed to that?

Getting a dozen drivers from Japan to attempt to make the race wouldn't be a bad thing, especially if they are bringing Le Mans winners (Loïc Duval and André Lotterer) and former Formula One drivers (Vitantonio Liuzzi, Kazuki Nakijima, Narain Karthikeyan and James Rossiter) as well as drivers who have made a career in Japan (João Paulo de Oliveira, Naoki Yamamoto, Ryō Hirakawa and it could bring Hideki Mutoh back to the Speedway). And for those nervous about drivers coming over with limited oval experience, look at what Tora Takagi, Kosuke Matsuura, Mutoh and Sato have done in the Indianapolis 500. All held their own and all were quick around the Speedway.

Finally, we know Jason Aldean will be doing a concert the Saturday night prior to the Indianapolis 500 at the Speedway. I really don't care about who performs Carb Day but if you are going to have a concert, don't been dragging out some hair band from the 1990s. It may not be the music I normally listen to but go after an acts such as Pharrell Williams or Justin Timberlake. They have talent, will draw people to the track and aren't getting DUIs or dancing like dopes every other day. And to have them stay through out the weekend, pair the Carb Day concert with the honor of singing the national anthem.

I covered a lot in this post and to be fair, here is a recap:

Forget the "Garage 34" nonsense. Encourage innovation from all the manufactures and teams all season long.

It's great to see Jacques Villeneuve return to Indianapolis but more has to be done to allow younger drivers to get seat time.

Want to increase car counts? Once again, consider grandfathering the last-generation Dallara in to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and why not try to form a technical alliance with Super Formula?

For the Carb Day concert and Indianapolis 500 national anthem, give a deserving, talented act such as Pharrell Williams or Justin Timberlake a call because they will balloon the Carb Day attendance to a level that hasn't been seen in years.

Anyway, isn't it great that we are talking about drivers competing in IndyCar and not who should be CEO or on the board of directors? It's refreshing.