Monday, June 6, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: The Other Road to Indy

IndyCar missed the rain twice. NASCAR was drenched twice and the Cup race will take place later this afternoon. There was a first time winner in DTM at the Lausitzring. American manufactures protected their house. The MotoGP weekend in Barcelona was marred by the death of Moto2 rider Luis Salom. Matt Mingay's serious accident in the Stadium Super Truck race hung over the weekend at Belle Isle. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

The Other Road to Indy
Rico Abreu is one-seventh of a way to an Indianapolis 500 seat. He is one-fifth of a way to a Freedom 100 seat next year. You are probably cynical and thinking how is a full-time NASCAR Truck Series driver on his way to racing in the two largest open-wheel races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway? Abreu won the first leg of the Jonathan Byrd's Indy Challenge at Kokomo Speedway last night after the Saturday night's race at Lawrenceburg Speedway was cancelled due to rain.

Jonathan Byrd's has sponsored Bryan Clauson the last two years at the Indianapolis 500 and this year has been and will be on Conor Daly's car for the entire 2016 season. The restaurant located in Greenwood, Indiana has stepped up and made a deal with Dale Coyne Racing that doesn't make any sense on paper but it has given Daly a great opportunity in IndyCar and Jonathan Byrd's is trying to link IndyCar with USAC.

The seven-race Jonathan Byrd's Indy Challenge will award a ride in next year's Freedom 100 if a driver wins five of the seven races. If a driver wins six of seven races, they will be awarded with a full slate of Indy Lights oval races in 2017 and sweeping the challenge will get a driver the full slate of Indy Lights oval races next year and an entry to the 102nd Indianapolis 500 in 2018.

Abreu won the first leg and the remaining races are the Belleville Midget Nationals on August 6th; a midget race at Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Pennsylvania on August 17th; the "Louis Vermeil Classic" at Calistoga Speedway in California on September 4th; the "4-Crown Nationals" at Eldora Raceway on September 24th; the "Gold Ground Midget Nationals" at Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Illinois on October 8th with "Turkey Night Grand Prix" at Ventura Raceway on November 24th closing out the challenge.

IndyCar tried this before. Former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard is the reason Bryan Clauson has started three Indianapolis 500s. Clauson's success in USAC also has something to do with it but that success would have been ignored had it not been for Bernard opening the door. While Clauson hasn't left anyone with their jaws on the floor, how much can you expect out of a driver given one shot a year with no testing? For any driver to succeed, whether they went the Road to Indy route or are from USAC, they need to be given a longer leash than a handful of races. USAC drivers are behind the eight ball when it comes to road and street circuits but who is to say they couldn't learn and end up succeeding? A.J. Foyt started out on dirt tracks and then went on to win at Le Mans and even Silverstone. Jack Brabham started out as a midget driver and ended up being a three-time World Champion. USAC drivers aren't inept but they need to be given time and patience to learn.

The current drivers in the Road to Indy system, American and international drivers, aren't any more known than the USAC drivers, who are constantly looked down upon. Indy Lights drivers aren't national stars that are highly touted like prospects for the NFL or NBA draft. They are all nobodies. Niches of niches spending more money than they have trying to turn a dream into a living and hoping one day to be a name on the national stage even if it's only for 15 minutes.

IndyCar has nothing to lose by creating an avenue to its top series for drivers that have previously overlooked. Linking with USAC would get young drivers more interested in IndyCar especially if championships carried prizes to the next rung. Young dirt track drivers from Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa and all across the United States would know there is a pipeline leading them to IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. It would become something for drivers to shoot for and IndyCar should want more drivers to see IndyCar as a destination, regardless of their background.

There have been 31 American drivers that have participated in a Road to Indy series this season. The talent pool should expand to include the dozens of USAC drivers competing every weekend under the lights of local short tracks across the United States. It would bring the series back in contact with the roots of motorsports for many in this country and the series might drawn people to races that previously felt alienated and disconnected from the premier North American open-wheel series.

However, there are two problems with the Jonathan Byrd's Indy Challenge. One, it shouldn't take completing a daunting task for USAC drivers to be noticed. The opportunity should not require overcoming 100-1 odds. Clauson got his opportunity in Indy Lights and IndyCar by winning the USAC National Championship three consecutive years from 2010-2012. Winning seven specific races is crazy expectation. The Indy Lights champion gets the scholarship to IndyCar. The scholarship isn't awarded to the driver who wins seven arbitrary races. The second problem is Abreu likely won't compete in five of the seven races let alone win five of them. Four of the remaining six challenge races conflict with Abreu's Truck schedule. If Jonathan Byrd's is lucky, another driver wins five of the remaining six races but I wouldn't bank on it.

I appreciate Jonathan Byrd's making an effort to provide a path to IndyCar for drivers ignored by current car owners but this effort will likely go down as another disappointing attempt to show USAC drivers can still be competitive in American open-wheel racing.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about S├ębastien Bourdais and Will Power but did you know...

Valentino Rossi won MotoGP's Catalan Grand Prix. Johann Zarco was victorious in Moto2. Jorge Navarro ended Brad Binder's Moto3 winning streak at three consecutive races.

The #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP of Ricky and Jordan Taylor won the IMSA race from Belle Isle. The #8 Starworks Oreca of Renger van der Zande and Alex Popow won in PC. Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating won GTD in the #33 Dodge Viper.

Kyle Larson won the rain-shortened Grand National race, first time the series raced at Pocono.

Miguel Molina won the Saturday DTM race at Lausitzring and Lucas Auer scored his first career victory on Sunday.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar starts its second half of the season on Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway.
Formula One crosses the Atlantic to Montreal.
NASCAR will be at Michigan.
World Rally will be in Sardinia.
The World Touring Car Championship heads to Moscow Raceway.