Monday, March 23, 2015

Musings From the Weekend: Give the Drivers the Love

The first IndyCar race is upon us but there we had to get through another jam-packed weekend of motorsports from around the globe. Endurance racing, bikes and NASCAR kept us occupied but IndyCar is walking up the driveway and about to join the party. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Give the Drivers the Love
IndyCar announced an increase in Leader Circle payouts for the 2015 season. The series will pay $1.25 million to 21 teams this season. Say what you want about Leader Circle but it's not going anywhere in the near future. The teams need it as a base to run a full-time program but maybe the distribution should be changed. From Schmidt Peterson "hiring" James Jakes and Dale Coyne "hiring" Francesco Dracone and the likes of Justin Wilson, Conor Daly and Ryan Briscoe on the sidelines, maybe the team teams shouldn't directly get the money.

IndyCar needs to put an incentive on getting the best quality on the grid full-time. The teams shouldn't just get $1.25 million. The teams need to show that they deserve the $1.25 million by hiring proven talent that will help the series as a whole. The series needs not just talent but drivers that are able to market themselves and engage with fans, the media and could potentially help the series grow. 

Instead of just giving the money to the teams, IndyCar should have Leader Circle spots tied to drivers from the year's previous standings. IndyCar should increase the amount of Leader Circle spots to 24 with 20 reserved for the top 20 in the drivers' championship the year before with the remaining four left for the Indy Lights champion, American drivers interested in joining the series and other top talent from junior formula racing around the globe. If a team hires one of the 20 guaranteed Leader Circle drivers, they will get the $1.25 million in funding. If they hire someone outside of those 20, that hire will be reviewed based on the drivers success in previous seasons and off-track potential for one of the final four spots. 

Of the top twenty from 2014, only three drivers, Wilson, Briscoe and Mikhail Aleshin are not on the entry list for St. Petersburg. Aleshin will run in the European Le Mans season in 2015. To account for the possibility that a driver will leave IndyCar, the series must set a deadline for the drivers to declare if they will be pursuing a full-time IndyCar ride in the following season. If IndyCar is set on ending the season by Labor Day, I would set the deadline on October 31st, giving the drivers two months to make their decision. After that deadline, those who declare they will be pursuing a ride have until the end of the calendar year to announce their program. If they do not announce that program by the end of the year, they lose the Leader Circle spot. 

If any of the 20 drivers declare they will not be pursuing IndyCar for the following year or do not announce their ride by the end of the year, those additional spots will be added to the four spots left for review by IndyCar. If a driver from the top 20 does not announce their program by the end of the year, they can still be considered for a Leader Circle spot but it will not be guaranteed. 

The purpose of this is to prevent the likes of Dracone, a driver who has done nothing in his career and the likes of Jakes, who did nothing in 2014, from just being "hired" while proven veterans and budding stars are ignored. It will also provide incentive for teams to hire veterans and not let them go without a ride. 

Leader Circle funding isn't enough for these teams to get by but it's a nice drop in the bucket. IndyCar should to hire consultants to mediate meeting between teams and sponsors that way the teams don't have to just pluck any old ride buyer whose check has cleared. IndyCar need more sponsors involved in the series and helping facilitate relationships not just between sponsors and the teams but sponsors and the series. 

You are probably asking yourself, "What about Ed Carpenter?" Carpenter and Mike Conway finished 22nd and 23rd in the 2014 championship but the #20 Chevrolet finished eighth in the Entrants' Championship. I have been racking my brain trying to come up with a solution. There could be a rule stating if a team announces a car being shared by drivers the cumulative point totals will be placed in the Drivers' Championship and if it falls in the top 20, it gets a spot. However, that gets messy. What if Mike Conway had decided to pursue another IndyCar team? Why shouldn't he get the Leader Circle spot? After all, he ran double the races of Carpenter. The best scenario I can come up with is Carpenter and whomever he shares the ride with would have to vie for one of the reviewed spots. I don't think this would put Carpenter and CFH Racing endanger of not getting a Leader Circle spot. IndyCar would see the value of having him and that entry on the grid and he would get a spot to be shared, in this case with Luca Filippi. 

IndyCar needs to take more control in whom the teams hire. They need to make sure the best drivers have no problem returning year in and year out. This creates familiarity with a fan base. The series can't afford to have high turnover on the grid. It would be a chance to make Road to Indy drivers a more intriguing hire. Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam are each Indy Lights champions. Along with the scholarship they received, they deserve a Leader Circle spot to help them get their career going. Conor Daly is a Pro Mazda champion, won a race in Indy Lights and has won a handful of races in Europe. Daly is arguably better than every current IndyCar driver in terms of social media usage. IndyCar needs someone with Daly's talent and personality on the grid. 

It would also provide incentive for developing drivers to come to IndyCar. Defending GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer is currently a Lotus F1 test driver. Imagine if IndyCar could have said to him, "Hey, there is a $1.25 million check waiting for you if you get an IndyCar ride." It would is the type of coup that would give IndyCar the chance to pick up the top talent that Formula One is letting slip away. 

Another plus to this renovated Leader Circle program is it allows easier access to new teams wanting to come to IndyCar. Let's say a driver finishes 12th in the championship and has earned a Leader Circle spot and let's say the likes of Carlin or Mike Shank or Wayne Taylor or Extreme Speed Motorsports want to expand to IndyCar. That driver can go to one of those teams and provide them with the $1.25 million base to get going. An additional team running full-time could mean an additional team at the Indianapolis 500 and given the time, that additional team could expand to a two-car program and lead to another car on the grid. 

Instead of giving the teams the money directly, make them earn it. Make the teams hire drivers with the best interest of the series in mind. At the same time, IndyCar must work with the teams to find sponsors that will hopefully create partnerships with the teams and series for years to come. The time of drivers losing rides just because another driver has more money but not necessarily the results needs to change and giving the drivers the safety blanket of $1.25 million for a team if hired is one way in doing so.

Double Dip Dixon
I made a comment before the 12 Hours of Sebring that Scott Dixon could have been the sole championship leader in the IMSA Prototype class after Sebring. Action Express Racing and their dominate trio of Christian Fittipaldi, João Barbosa and Sébastien Bourdais had their own ideas however and kept that from happening but Dixon is still second in the championship with 65 points, just four behind Fittipaldi, Barbosa and Bourdais.

I suggested Ganassi run Dixon for the entire IMSA schedule and have the Kiwi pursue another title. The IndyCar and IMSA schedule has one clash and it's possible to overcome. Dixon will already be at Long Beach and Belle Isle for IndyCar competition, Dixon is free for Laguna Seca and Road America and the IndyCar season ends in August, meaning Dixon would have no conflicts whatsoever for Austin and Petit Le Mans.

There are two weekends that could pose a problem. IndyCar at Fontana and the Watkins Glen 6 Hours fall on the same weekend, however, the IndyCar race at Fontana on Saturday June 27th is at 4:00 p.m. ET and Watkins Glen begins at 10:00 a.m. ET the following days. Unless it rains in Southern California in late-June, Dixon could do both. He could race, leave Fontana at 9:00 p.m. ET and be in Watkins Glen hours before the green flag and then run a stint to close out the six hours.

The other conflict involves two races at two different locations in the same day. IMSA and IndyCar both race on July 12, the former at Mosport, the latter at Milwaukee. However, what makes it possible is Milwaukee's ungodly late start time for a Sunday of 5:00 p.m. ET. Mosport begins just a little after noon that day. Dixon could run an opening stint, do enough to meet the criteria to score points, get out of the car and fly to Milwaukee for the IndyCar race.

IndyCar's nonsensical scheduling has opened the door for Scott Dixon to chase titles both in IndyCar and in Prototypes. Ganassi should scrap the Global Rallycross program and field another Prototype for Dixon with Marino Franchitti drafted in to be his co-driver and allow Dixon to chase history. It won't happen because Ganassi and many within motorsport lack the imagination for this to happen. If only these people realize the possibility and tried to chase down something that may never be accomplished again. 

Competing Nationalities
Last week during the Formula One season opener, I mentioned that Max Verstappen, was born in Belgium but races under the Dutch flag, the nationality of his father, and that I wish countries fought over driver nationalities like they do for soccer players.

In soccer, more and more players could represent multiple countries due to differences in birthplace, parent lineage and so on. Take a look at the U.S. National Team roster for the upcoming friendlies against Denmark and Switzerland. Aron Jóhansson was born in Mobile, Alabama to Icelandic parents. He could have represented either Iceland or the U.S. and choose the U.S. and made the World Cup roster last summer. There are a host of German-Americans on the roster. Fabian Johnson, Alfredo Morales and Danny Williams were born in Germany but fathers were American servicemen. Julian Green was born in Tampa, Florida but moved to Germany with his German mother after his parents separated when he was two years old. Greg Garza, Michael Orozco and Ventura Alvarado were all born in the United States but could also represent Mexico because of their parents. Meanwhile, goalkeeper William Yarbrough was born in Mexico to American parents who are missionaries.

The U.S. isn't the only country with many players that could represent many different countries but it got me thinking why don't we see more of this is motorsports. When I first saw the name Patricio O'Ward, I thought that could be anyone of six nationalities. I thought he could be Italian, Irish, American, Canadian, British, heck even Australian. Turns out the 15-year old O'Ward was born in Monterrey, Mexico but moved to the U.S. when he was six years old and attends Texas Military Institute.  O'Ward will compete in Pro Mazda this year for Team Pelfrey and previously competed in French Formula 4. To me, why couldn't he race under the American flag? What makes him any less American at the age of 15 than Mario Andretti at 15 years old, who had just arrived in the United States?

Would Mario Andretti be Mario Andretti if he raced under the Italian flag is entire career? Would he be as beloved by the fans? Things could have been drastically different had Andretti decided to race as an Italian instead of as an American. He might not have gotten the same opportunities that he ended up getting and who knows if his sons Michael and Jeff and if his grandson Marco would have racing careers if he decided to race as an Italian.

O'Ward isn't the only active driver with the possibility of racing other multiple nationalities. Charlie Kimball was born in the United Kingdom, Scott Dixon was born in Australia to New Zealand parents, Gabby Chaves was born in Colombian but his father is American and Chaves attended high school in Florida. Then you have the Brabham family. The famous, first family of Australian motorsports has international flavor. Matthew Brabham, son of Geoff Brabham was born in Boca Raton, Florida and earned the 2012 Team USA Scholarship to race in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. Matt's cousin, Sam, son of David Brabham was born in Slough, England, races under the Union Jack and is competing for the chance to land a seat in the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year.

As an American, I would love for Matthew Brabham to race under the American flag and for O'Ward to race under the American flag but if they choose not to, they are doing it for themselves. Just because they choose to race under a different nationality doesn't make them bad people or even un-American. I do not envy anyone who has the chance to representation multiple nationalities. It's a difficult decision and I can only support whatever decision a person makes.

Winners From The Weekend
You know about the 12 Hours of Sebring but did you know...

Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Cup race at Fontana. 

Jonathan Rea had a double at the World Superbike round from Thailand. 

Ratthapark Wilairot won the World Supersport race in his homeland. Kenan Sofuoglu finished second while American P.J. Jacobsen finished third. 

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Detroit.

Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis won Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race from Sebring. Greg Liefooghe and Eric Zimmerman won in the ST class. 

Kevin Harvick won the NASCAR Grand National race from Fontana.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar opens their season at St. Petersburg.
All three Road to Indy series and Pirelli World Challenge will also compete at St. Petersburg.
MotoGP begins their 2015 season under the lights at Qatar.
Formula One has their second round of 2015, the Malaysian Grand Prix. 
V8 Superscars makes their trip annual trip to Tasmania and Symmons Plains Raceway.
NASCAR heads to Martinsville. 
Supercross heads to St. Louis.