Monday, July 6, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: Where Do Indianapolis 500 Entrants Stand?

Scott Dixon already has a hand on the Astor Cup and the IndyCar season is only two races old. NASCAR ran two races at Indianapolis, one on the oval and one on the road course. Of course, it would not be a NASCAR weekend without a weather delay. IMSA was in Daytona for Independence Day weekend for the first time since 2010 and, surprise! It rained! The Formula One season finally started and for the first time since 1966 the season opened with a European round. Every driver either got a penalty or suffered a mechanical failure in Austria and Formula One will do it all over again from Austria in six days. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Where Do Indianapolis 500 Entrants Stand?
Typically, once the Grand Prix of Indianapolis has concluded, we are a few days away from Indianapolis 500 practice beginning. We know all the entries, from the likely front-runners to the bubble candidates, and we have a sense of how things will play out to decide the field of 33.

This year is different, and we are still over a month away from practice beginning. Between now and the first time the 2.5-mile oval opens for practice, there will be five more races, including doubleheaders at Road America and Iowa. Mid-Ohio will be the final race before practice opens for the 104th Indianapolis 500.

This year's race is two-and-a-half months after the original date. The world has significantly changed since March 1 and it will continue to change until August 23.

With the covid-19 pandemic, millions of people are out of work and companies from many different industries have taken massive hits, from lockdowns and restrictions implemented over the last four months. With many Indianapolis 500 entries dependent on one-off sponsorship deals worth upwards of a million dollars, these conditions make it difficult to attract the necessary funding.

When the lockdown started in March, we had 32 entries on paper, which is great, but how many of those entries will still be able to make it to August? How many of entries that were tightening loose ends have completely unraveled? How many are coming up empty?

Let's reset where we are:

All 26 entries that were at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis this weekend will likely be back in August when Indianapolis 500 practice begins.

The 11 Chevrolets, from the three Penske entries to Sage Karam's Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entry, and the two-car teams of Ed Carpenter Racing, A.J. Foyt Racing and Arrow McLaren SP and the one Carlin entry, will be there.

Honda had 15 cars this past weekend and Andretti Autosport led the way with six cars, ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing's three cars and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's three cars with the additional of the Citrone-Buhl Autosport car that Spencer Pigot drove. Dale Coyne Racing's two cars will be there and Meyer Shank Racing will be there.

Adding to those 26 entries, A.J. Foyt Racing will have an extra car for Tony Kanaan. Ed Carpenter Racing will have Conor Daly in an additional car. Fernando Alonso fills a third car for AMSP. Hélio Castroneves will be back with Team Penske and that gets us to 30 entries.

On the Honda side, there are no additional entries out there. Every Honda that plans to be at the Indianapolis 500 in August was at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. That doesn't mean we couldn't see additional entries from Honda. I think one or two could be out there, but those remain unknown at this time.

The two entries not accounted for are DragonSpeed and the second Carlin entry. Carlin planned to run two cars for the entire season, but because of the pandemic, the sponsor-less car has not appeared at the first two races. That is not a good sign. To add insult to injury, Felipe Nasr, who was entered in the #31 Carlin Chevrolet for St. Petersburg, tested positive for covid-19 ahead of the IMSA round at Daytona. Nasr was not at the Daytona, did not go to the track and is now recovering in Miami.

There is plenty of time for Nasr to recover, but health comes first, and Nasr isn't going to rush back. Nasr's main focus is IMSA. Currently, there are no conflicts between Nasr's IMSA calendar and the Indianapolis 500, but should there be some shuffling, he will likely have to put off any "500" attempt to 2021. Then there are finances. The money that was there for St. Petersburg could be gone and, without Nasr, Carlin could be left struggling to fill a seat.

DragonSpeed has many balls hanging in the air. The team has IMSA and European Le Mans Series entries to secure and DragonSpeed has crew members based in the United Kingdom. Visa issues kept DragonSpeed from competing in a handful of more races in 2019. Currently, none of the ELMS rounds conflict with Indianapolis, but the hurdles standing in DragonSpeed's way are not motorsports related. Travel restrictions because of the pandemic will not be any easier come August and it has to cast some doubt over DragonSpeed's involvement, though the team plans on being there.

The one new entry that emerged during the pandemic is Top Gun Racing, though that team has been on the fence. Last week, team co-owner Gray Trout posted on social media the team would focus on putting the entry together for 2021. Days later, Trout reversed that decision and said the team planned to be at the 104th Indianapolis 500 and also be at the Harvest Grand Prix at Indianapolis in October and the St. Petersburg season finale.

RC Enerson is the intended driver for the Top Gun Racing entry. The team has not purchased a chassis, nor does it have an engine deal.

If Carlin, DragonSpeed and Top Gun all pull through, we will have 33 entries. If Dale Coyne Racing can put together a third car, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing field a second car and Juncos Racing return, we could see 36 cars this year. I think 36 entries is a stretch, but 34 or 35 entries appear likely, if everything goes right.

With how everything has gone in 2020, do not be surprised if there is a struggle to get to 33 entries.

Carlin does not have a sponsor for that second car. DragonSpeed is spread across the Atlantic. Top Gun Racing doesn't really exist. There is no guarantee Dreyer & Reinbold will get the funding to field J.R. Hildebrand again. Juncos Racing barely pieced together an entry last year and Juncos Racing has been silent about 2020. If there was ever a year for Dale Coyne Racing not to run a third car, it is this year. Outside of Coyne, all the other Honda teams are at capacity.

This is a different year. It remains murky what drivers are out there with money. It is hard to imagine a driver coming out of nowhere to put together an Indianapolis 500 program. It seems whatever seats are filled will be with the same contingent of drivers we see on a yearly basis, Oriol Servià, Kyle Kaiser, James Davison, Pippa Mann, Gabby Chaves; perhaps, Sébastien Bourdais becomes an option.

We find ourselves in limbo. We could have another stunning qualifying weekend and could see a few teams go home but we could also see teams not materialize and just be thankful that 33 was reached.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Scott Dixon but did you know...

Valterri Bottas won the Austrian Grand Prix.

Callum Ilott and Felipe Drugovich split the Formula Two races from Austria. Oscar Piastri and Liam Lawson split the Formula Three race.

Kevin Harvick won the Brickyard 400, his fourth victory of the season. Chase Briscoe won the Grand National Series race on the IMS road course, his fifth victory of the season.

The #55 Mazda of Harry Tincknell and Jonathan Bomarito won the IMSA race from Daytona. The #3 Corvette of Antonio García and Jordan Taylor won in the GTLM class. The #14 Lexus of Jack Hawksworth and Aaron Telitz won in the GTD class.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar has a doubleheader from Road America.
Formula One remains in Austria for the Styrian Grand Prix.
NASCAR has a handful of races at Kentucky across the three series.
SRO GT America has its second round of 2020 at Virginia International Raceway.