Friday, March 31, 2017

Ending Like a Lamb

I was aggravated on Wednesday and it was all my fault.

Maybe I keep my expectations too high even though I try to be level headed when it comes to the yearly, emotional ride that is the Indianapolis 500. It is the only race, other than maybe Le Mans, where we know when it is going to be the day after it has happened. Every Memorial Day, while reflecting on the race the day before with hamburgers and hot dogs, we circle that Sunday 360-someodd days away.

The rest of the IndyCar schedule fills the void from May to May but once the season ends, whether it is still in the thick of summer night or a pleasant autumn afternoon, eyes turn toward Indianapolis even if a half a dozen races are scheduled before it starting in March.

It is too much time and we need to excite ourselves. We get our hopes up. We believe it is the greatest race in the world therefore this year is going to be the greatest year yet. This year will be the year all the studs come out. All the world champions, NASCAR race winners and sports cars best who say they want to attempt the Indianapolis 500 are going to be there and it will be a monumental day in May that we will be telling our grandchildren about.

That day never comes and we start to realize it this time of year, when spring stretches its leg while winter is heading out the door.

Just take this year. In December, you could have found a way to have 35 or 36 cars entered through additional cars at Andretti, Foyt, Carpenter, Schmidt Peterson, etc. Who knows? Jenson Button is out of a ride. Maybe Honda gets him to Indianapolis. Tony Stewart is retired and though he says he doesn't want to race Indianapolis, maybe he has a change of heart. Maybe this is finally the year Michael Shank Racing gets on the grid. Then the bottom falls out and KV Racing is gone. Now it appears Carpenter might not run an additional car. Townsend Bell might not be back. The list of possible one offs gets a little more depressing each day. Jeff Simmons is in the conversation. Jeff Simmons hasn't raced in nine years. Nobody is getting excited over Gustavo Yacamán unless your name is Gustavo Yacamán.

Where are the days when the Formula One rejects came to IndyCar? IndyCar had a healthy heap of Formula One cast offs on the grid and many became stars. IndyCar was lined with Teo Fabi, Roberto Guerrero, Raul Boesel, Derek Daly and IndyCar was the landing pad for Emerson Fittipaldi's second career. Where is Felipe Nasr? Where is Jean-Éric Vergne? Giedo van der Garde? Lucas di Grassi? What is Charles Pic up to? Other than Nasr and Pic, the answer is paying seats whether it is in Formula E or sports cars. But what about other drivers? Scheduling conflict aside, why couldn't Andretti run both its Formula E drivers Robin Frijns and António Félix da Costa?

Why aren't GP2 drivers in limbo coming to IndyCar or giving the Indianapolis 500 a go? Alex Lynn is diving headfirst into sports cars and kissing single-seaters goodbye. Super Formula has landed the GP2 champion for the second consecutive year with Red Bull development driver Pierre Gasly driving Team Mugen Honda. Where did 2013 GP2 champion Fabio Leimer go? Luca Filippi has tried to be in IndyCar and has had marginal success but nearly five years after trying to break into the series the first time he has only been abled to piece together part-time rides and has never gotten a shot at Indianapolis despite his credentials.

And this hasn't even the mentioned the slew of Road to Indy drivers who always deserve to be a part of the conversation. I wish come May the entry list featured all the names above on top of Matthew Brabham, Jack Harvey, Zach Veach, Dean Stoneman and Stefan Wilson. How doesn't Spencer Pigot have a ride yet? He should have been smart enough to include that in his ECR deal on top of all the road and street course races. Why isn't Rubens Barrichello coming to Indianapolis each May? We would love if Barrichello visited each May.

And maybe this speaks to a larger issue with the Indianapolis 500's relationship with the Verizon IndyCar Series. It is a race that can exist without a series but organized as just another event. The current IndyCar regulations have produced competitive racing and has kept cost down (although it seems by not that much) but the limited chassis and engine lease availability has been a big drag on the series and the Indianapolis 500. Bumping hasn't come on the race track but in the boardroom for the better part of the last five years and I fear it will only get worse come next year.

The universal aero kit is being praised as helping control costs and provides a more level playing field between Chevrolet and Honda but it is going to be another expense for the Indianapolis-only teams such as Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Lazier Partners Racing. Lazier has been notorious the last few years for barely scraping enough pennies together to get to Indianapolis and forcing that team to buy body work for one race is just going to be another punch to the gut.  

While IndyCar tries to decrease costs for full-time teams, it would only help the series to decrease costs for Indianapolis 500-only programs as well. The boat has sailed on allowing the previous generation IndyCar to attempt the Indianapolis 500 but something has to be done. While the universal aero kit is being introduced, perhaps the Honda and Chevrolet aero kits should be grandfathered in to allow little teams to compete without having to open the pocketbook. At the same time, with the introduction of universal aero kit, the hope is a third engine manufacture would be drawn to the series and that what hopefully see an increase in Indianapolis 500 entries. However, it could be argued the current engine regulations are still too constrictive. After all, how many manufactures have a 2.2-litre, twin-turbo V6 just sitting around? I would like to see IndyCar open the engine regulations a bit to allow existing engines to enter the series. Toyota runs a 2.0-litre, turbocharged inline-4 in Super Formula. Why couldn't that be allowed on the IndyCar grid especially if it adds a third manufacture to the series, relieves the pressure on Chevrolet and Honda and increase both full-time and Indianapolis 500 entries?

The Indianapolis 500 never turns out to be as good as it is going to be but when the day comes and the celebration is winding down we forget about the excruciating months leading up to the grand day. The only problem is Indianapolis is a yearly occurrence of marginal disappointment and it is tiring to experience every spring.