Friday, August 15, 2014

What's The Rush?

One and Done. Matthew Brabham is looking toward IndyCar for 2015
Twenty years old and looking for a promotion. Just as if he was a junior in college looking for an prime internship to set up a career, Matthew Brabham is eager to move up to the Verizon IndyCar Series. As Marshall Pruett of writes, the American driver feels prepared for North America's top open-wheel division.

My question is what's the rush? Each year we seem to have majority of the Indy Lights grid (granted the grid only feature eight full-time drivers) looking toward IndyCar for the following year. At twenty years old, there is no reason to rush into the next level, especially when great success at such a young age is an anomaly

If you look to other sports, spending a little time developing, whether it be in a minor league or on the bench has shown to be beneficial. Aaron Rodgers sat on the bench for three years before become the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers in 2008. Josh Hamilton was the #1 overall pick in the 1999 MLB Draft by Tampa Bay but years of substance abuse and the sequential recovery prevented Hamilton from making his Major League debut until eight years later aged 26. Tim Thomas bounced around European leagues and didn't make his NHL debut until 28 and wasn't a full-time starting goaltender until four years later. Kyle Beckerman didn't become a regular with the United States Men's National Team until the age of 28 and made his World Cup debut this past June at the age of 32. 

Brabham's could still have a lengthy career in IndyCar if he spent another three or four years in Lights but it's not financially realistic to spend a few seasons developing. It's difficult enough getting a sponsor for IndyCar let alone getting a sponsor that will stick around in Indy Lights for multiple years where races are shown tape-delayed and get no coverage outside of that. A driver has to make the jump in hopes of keeping their career going. A driver can't plan to spend three or four years preparing for a top division otherwise they will drain there funding before they even get a chance to live out there dream. 

The next question for Brabham is what rides are we sure will be open next year? Name one current team and driver combination that you look at and know without certainty won't be together come 2015? There are twenty-two full-time cars and we would all be lucky if that number were to grow. Every single car team would love to add a second but barring hitting oil or the lottery, Carpenter, Foyt, Herta, Fisher Hartman and Rahal Letterman Lanigan will all be fielding solo entries. And don't expect any new or returning teams. Dreyer & Reinbold will be an Indianapolis one-off if they appear at all in 2015. Same for Lazier Partners Racing. Fan Force United reportedly will have Stefan Wilson on the 2015 IndyCar grid but I will believe it when it happens. 

The lack of available seats and likelihood of not winning the 2014 Indy Lights championship will make Brabham's road to IndyCar difficult. Over the next three to four years, seats will eventually open up. Tony Kanaan is turning 40 this New Year's Eve. Hélio Castroneves is 39. Juan Pablo Montoya is 38. Takuma Sato is 37. Justin Wilson is 36. Sébastien Bourdais is 35. Brabham won't necessarily land those seats but hopefully we will see the likes of Josef Newgarden, Sage Karam, Jack Hawksworth, JR Hildebrand and James Davison filtering into those rides, opening up opportunities for the likes of Brabham, Gabby Chaves, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey, Luiz Razia, Spencer Pigot and Scott Hargrove in the years to come. 

I think there is a disconnect in American open-wheel racing between IndyCar teams and the drivers in the pipeline, developing their skills to one day compete at that level. For example, we have seen Roger Penske give a kid like Ryan Blaney or Parker Kligerman a chance to develop in NASCAR but when was the last time we have seen him take someone from the American open-wheel ladder under his wing? Until Chip Ganassi hired Sage Karam as a development driver, his last development driver was Alex Lloyd and Lloyd ultimately started zero IndyCar races for Ganassi. To be fair, this isn't true for all IndyCar teams. Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson have brought up many young drivers.

The same way the FIA hosts a Formula One Young Drivers' test, IndyCar should do the same with Road to Indy drivers. Each team and each car they field in the Verizon IndyCar Series would give a Road to Indy driver a taste of what they are climbing towards. Guarantee the top six from each Road to Indy series a spot in the test with 4-5 wild card spots filling the field. It would be an equivalent of a combine for the NFL, NHL or NBA Draft. Host a two-day test at a road course and a two-day test at an oval to give these young drivers a taste of what they hope to one day be experiencing every time they go to a track. 

The IndyCar season ends in three weeks at Fontana and the Indy Lights season ends in a fortnight at Sonoma. Come September, the five month game of musical chairs will begin and Brabham along with many others will be hoping to be in a seat when the music stops, whether they are ready for it or not.