Friday, April 14, 2017

Indianapolis 500 Entry List Update: April 2017

Long Beach seems to be when the pendulum swings in the right direction on Indianapolis 500 seats being announced and this year was no different as three drivers confirmed their programs for the month of May over the weekend... and then Fernando Alonso stole the show midweek.

With Easter, the final major holiday before Memorial Day, on the horizon how is the Indianapolis 500 entry list shaping up with about a month until the track opens for action?

We know about the 21 full-time entries, the 13 Hondas represented by four from Andretti Autosport, four from Ganassi, two from Dale Coyne Racing and two from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with one from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and the eight Chevrolets, four of which belong to Team Penske with two from A.J. Foyt Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing each. 

Juan Pablo Montoya has long been the 22nd entry and he will attempt not only the Indianapolis 500 in the #22 Chevrolet for Team Penske but the Grand Prix of Indianapolis as well. Oriol Servià was confirmed in a second Rahal Letterman Lanigan entry over the winter and he will also run the Belle Isle doubleheader. Sage Karam returns for the third time in four years with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Just prior to the start of the IndyCar season Jay Howard was announced in the #77 Tony Stewart Foundation Honda with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and between St. Petersburg and Long Beach Pippa Mann confirmed her return with Dale Coyne Racing. 

On Friday of the Long Beach weekend, Zach Veach announced he would drive the #40 Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Racing as the Ohioan will make his first attempt at the race after three seasons in Indy Lights, where he logged six career victories. On race morning at Long Beach, Andretti Autosport confirmed twice Indy Lights vice-champion Jack Harvey would run the #50 Honda for the team in partnership with Michael Shank Racing. Harvey won six times in Indy Lights, including the 2015 Freedom 100. Harvey spent all of 2016 on the sidelines as he tried to put together an IndyCar program. Monday saw the third entry announced in four days as Gabby Chaves will drive the #88 Chevrolet for Harding Racing, a team that will be making its debut in May. Harding Racing is owned by Mike Harding of Harding Group, an asphalt paving company and will be run by former IndyCar team owner Larry Curry. The team has a technical alliance with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. 

That is 29 confirmed driver and team combinations with Juncos Racing having confirmed it will at least enter one car for the race with a driver to be determined. A second entry was not ruled out for Juncos Racing.

On Wednesday, Fernando Alonso kicked the door in and got everyone's attention. The Spaniard is coming to Indianapolis and skipping Monaco with McLaren partnering with Andretti Autosport. That is the 18th Honda entry. They have got to tap out at that point. I am not sure where a 19th entry could come from. Honda probably doesn't want to run a 19th engine program but money talks and if someone throws enough money on the table it would materialize but I don't think Ganassi, Coyne, RLLR and SPM are opening their pocketbooks any time soon for another Indianapolis 500 entry.

As for Alonso, talk about the best kept secret since Nigel Mansell coming to CART? Or reunification? Either way, nobody saw this coming but we are all glad it did and timing played a key part. The McLaren is crap in Formula One but Alonso is getting the most out of it and has been stellar. However, at best Alonso is going to finish seventh this year in a race and scoring ten points for the entire season would be immaculate. The title isn't realistic. Alonso wants to run Indianapolis. McLaren needs something positive and April 12th was the greatest day of the year for McLaren as it made us forget about its disastrous Formula One program.

On top of Alonso's perpetual state this Formula One season, this Honda engine program was already set up for the Andretti-Shank partnership with Stefan Wilson slated to be the driver, however Wilson stepped aside to allow Alonso to attempt the race.

Alonso coming to Indianapolis doesn't signal a rising tide for IndyCar. This doesn't mean we are going to see Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen are all attempting the Indianapolis 500 in the coming years. This doesn't mean Alonso is going to be attempting the Indianapolis 500 for the next few years. This could be a one-and-done for the Spaniard. This doesn't mean the Indianapolis 500 rating is going to shoot through the roof and the IndyCar ratings across the board is going to triple. None of that is going to happen and if you want to know how Fernando Alonso running this year's Indianapolis 500 benefits IndyCar in the long-term, it doesn't but this is for now. The Indianapolis 500 got people's attention on April 12th. That probably never happened even in the hey days.

There likely is no long-term gain even if Alonso wins the race. Any long-term gain will have to come with the series capitalizing on having an international star and making sure the race is easily viewable for the common fans in Spain, the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe as well as seeing how positive this announcement was and doing all it can to repeat it in the years to come. 

Now that Honda will field an 18th entry, where do the additional Chevrolet entries come from? After that one guaranteed Juncos Racing entry, it is getting harder to fill the grid as we have 13 Chevrolet entries with it assumed Juncos Racing will be a Chevrolet team. Buddy Lazier's father Bob said the family was once again pursuing an Indianapolis 500 entry and Lazier Partners Racing has been a Chevrolet team since its inception in 2013 with no signs of that changing. Even with the return of the Laziers, getting that 33rd entry is still an uphill battle. 

Like the Honda teams, all but one full-time Chevrolet team has confirmed an additional entry for May. Ed Carpenter Racing is the lone exception and it appears the team does not have the resources to field an additional car this year. Maybe Foyt could run a fourth car. That is a team that doesn't shy away from fielding additional cars at Indianapolis but I don't know if the team has the resources. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's hands likely are full with Harding Racing. Maybe another new entry could enter. Jimmy Vasser and former KVSH Racing partner James Sullivan are reportedly still interested in fielding an IndyCar. Maybe some type of mega-collaboration with Vasser, Sullivan and Juncos or Carlin could get a car on the grid but that is a stretch.

I think Juncos Racing running a second car seems most likely to fill that 33rd entry. Kyle Kaiser has been linked to one of Juncos' seats and the team has said it wants a veteran with IndyCar experience and experience at the Speedway. 

While getting 33 entries is going to be tough, IndyCar always finds a way to get there and I don't see that changing in 2017. The bright side is it appears there will be at least two new teams at Indianapolis with Juncos and Harding but how likely is it for both those teams to become serious IndyCar teams? Lazier Partners Racing has been here since 2013 and has made zero progress from the bottom. The good news for Juncos is it has depth in the Road to Indy system and has roots in the ground with its own shop in Speedway, Indiana but Harding is another story. We don't see many successful businesses like asphalt paving services end up running race teams in this modern-era of motorsports. Harding is setting itself up for success by partnering with D&R, a team that has remained competitive despite running as an Indianapolis one-off since 2014.

Aside from Juncos and Harding, Michael Shank Racing is finally going to be at Indianapolis but it isn't going to be solely a Michael Shank Racing program and that is another hurdle IndyCar has to clear. With engine lease, chassis and crew members being so limited teams can't just enter Indianapolis and do it themselves. Everything it seems has to be done in partnership with somebody already inside IndyCar and the series has to work to get away from and make possible for the likes of Shank or Wayne Taylor Racing or even a NASCAR team to enter Indianapolis without needing crutches to get through the door.

On top of the teams, there are plenty of drivers on the outside who want to attempt Indianapolis and won't even get to turn a wheel. I know many are lauding Stefan Wilson for his noble decision to allow Alonso to attempt Indianapolis but first, let's not act like he is giving up a seat on a row boat and getting back on the sinking Titanic. It is a very nice gesture and it is unfortunate that Wilson likely won't be driving a car at Indianapolis. I want Indianapolis to be a place where Alonso and Wilson can both be on track trying to make the race as well as Townsend Bell, Dean Stoneman, Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, Luca Filippi, James Davison, Ryan Briscoe, Katherine Legge and other drivers from the world of sports cars, NASCAR and even USAC. The current climate doesn't allow the amount of seats to meet the demand and it is excruciating when you consider the talent on the sidelines. 

Another minor negative this year besides the struggle of getting 33 entries is the lack of teams entering the Grand Prix of Indianapolis as well as the Indianapolis 500. Montoya is the only additional entry for that race while Servià plans to run Belle Isle but since its inception the Grand Prix of Indianapolis has drawn a few additional cars each year. Every Grand Prix of Indianapolis has had 25 entries. I don't want to say 25 is to the Grand Prix of Indianapolis what 33 is to the Indianapolis 500 but I would hope the combination of the two races both being on network television would help teams get sponsorship to do the additional race. 

Despite the struggle for 33 entries and the lack of additional entries for the road course race, it is promising to have at least 30 entries confirmed about a month before the first practice session for the Indianapolis 500 and to have two new teams entering the series. I know the last few paragraphs are negative but I am really excited for this May and IndyCar's future. There are things that need to be worked on, we all know that, but it doesn't come in a snap. Let's enjoy this period of happiness and maybe this is just the start of more glorious things.