Monday, July 8, 2024

Musings From the Weekend: What Should Be Done With Dale Coyne Racing?

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

Lewis Hamilton completed a poetic victory at the British Grand Prix in Silverstone, the 104th of his career. The weather cooperated in Chicago until the Cup race decided to get started, and then Mother Nature started raining on the parade for a second consecutive year. Supercars caught some attention in Townsville. MotoGP is heading into its summer break after the championship swung on multiple occasions over two days in Germany. Apparently, European Le Mans Series races are no longer streamed live on YouTube in the United States. Didn't matter anyway because a technical infraction changed the winner after the fact. IndyCar had its hybrid system debut at Mid-Ohio, and Patricio O'Ward put himself in the history book as the first hybrid winner, but there is something deeper I want to discuss.

What Should Be Done With Dale Coyne Racing?
In a sense, this was an anniversary weekend for Dale Coyne Racing at Mid-Ohio. 

Dale Coyne Racing made its first IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio in 1984. For 40 years, Coyne has been the symbol of perseverance in American open-wheel racing. Never the biggest team, never having strong sponsor or manufacturer support, Coyne has managed to remain in competition for the better part of 40 years. 

There have been low points and high. Coyne didn't win a race until its 25th year. It basically did not compete at all during the 2001 and 2002 seasons. It has led the championship after four races, four more than anyone could have anticipated 20 years ago. Coyne has partnered with the likes of Walter Payton, Jimmy Vasser and Rick Ware. It has been the springboard for a few careers while also being the home to a few forgotten one-offs. 

This weekend, DCR gave another driver his debut. Toby Sowery drove the #51 Honda, becoming the fourth driver this season to make his IndyCar debut with the Coyne organization. Sowery was a winner in Indy Lights and was third in the 2019 championship. Lacking an abundance of funding, Sowery piecemealed part-time Indy Lights seasons in 2021 and 2023. This past year he started dabbling in sports cars. 

With Dale Coyne Racing lacking full-time drivers in 2024, the door opened for Sowery to make his debut this weekend at Mid-Ohio and, as the team has been doing for the better part of 40 years, another driver gets to say he raced in IndyCar thanks to Coyne. 

It is wonderful to see new drivers get opportunities in IndyCar. Many drivers are interested in IndyCar at this moment. The problem is there are only 27 seats. With three-dozen drivers hanging around at any time, nine drivers will be on the sidelines. It is nice to see new faces get their shot, but how much can really be achieved in one race?

Sowery did not make his debut after a wealth of testing and adjusting to the car. He came in cold turkey, the same way Luca Ghiotto dropped in the car having never tested an IndyCar nor seeing Barber Motorsports Park before arriving for practice that Friday afternoon. Colin Braun at least had a brief test with the team before running St. Petersburg. Sowery did impress with a 13th-place finish, matching DCR’s best result of 2024. However, Sowery’s future with the team has nothing to do with what he does on-track but with the money he can find off-track. Coyne isn’t hiring anyone. 

These drivers get to say they have raced in IndyCar, but are these weekends really going to lead to something greater? Are they really fair to the driver? They are already set behind the eight-ball to begin with then add running with Dale Coyne Racing and it is not a recipe for success. 

We can look over Dale Coyne Racing's track record and see a number of successful drivers that made their debut with the team as a one-off. That strategy is out-dated in 2024. 

The grid is closer than it has ever been and with equipment virtually bulletproof, no driver is going to stand out with a conservative run, able to take lesser equipment and get an outstanding finish. A slow car is a slow car more than ever at this time. Engines do not detonate on a regular basis. Waste gates aren't crapping out in five entries in each race. Mechanical attrition is extinct. The 22nd-fastest car isn't going to finish seventh though four laps down with a slow and steady approach. It is going to maybe finish 17th because a few cars are going to have issues. 

We know Dale Coyne Racing can be a competitive team. It wasn't that long ago Sébastien Bourdais won the season opener and finished second in the second round. Dale Coyne Racing had the fastest car at the start of Indianapolis 500 qualifying in 2017. It was a brief moment when DCR poured its resources into getting the most out of its ability. The championship was always going to be a stretch, but it was a top ten contender. 

Over the last seven years, DCR has slowly reverted to its old ways. It is costly to be competitive. The partnership with VasserSullivan deteriorated, engineers leave like Oakland A's prospects, the team doesn't secure its own funding and relies on what a driver brings. They are only as good as the drivers' ability whose checks they accept. 

For every promising David Malukas, there is Sting Ray Robb who will struggle to crack the top twenty. When they cannot find full-time money, it is pinching pennies from the pockets of anyone who would like to take a spin, hence why the team has run seven different drivers through the first nine races in 2024. 

This is not the strategy to be competitive, nor is this the answer for a driver hoping for a break. Coyne is doing all it can to remain on the grid, but at a time when IndyCar is on the verge of a charter system where 25 entries will have guaranteed spots on the grid, the bar must be higher. 

The charter system isn't going to raise the funding for all the teams to a level where it will ease their concerns. The charter system is going to be "Leader Circle +"... maybe. We have no clue how the evolution from "Leader Circle" to "Charter System" will see a financial gain for the teams. This could simply end up being a re-branding and turning de facto to de jure. 

If that is the case, Dale Coyne Racing will likely continue operating as it how been, and that isn't for the greater good of IndyCar. If IndyCar is guaranteeing entries into every race then every team must attempt to compete at its highest level. Rotating seven drivers through two cars over nine races isn't it. Waiting until late-January, six weeks before the season opener, is not when the team should be testing for the first time with drivers it is still not committed to for the season. 

It has the legacy, but should Dale Coyne Racing be included in the Charter System, especially when it appears there could be 29 full-time entries for the 2025 season and IndyCar is talking about limiting the grid to 27 cars for all races outside of the Indianapolis 500?

Prema Racing, a stalwart in the European junior series that has produced Formula Two and Formula Three champions, has already announced it plans on entering two cars in the 2025 IndyCar season. We don't know what Prema's lineup will look like, Logan Sargeant has been heavily rumored to be a driver and that is a discussion for a later date, but in terms of commitment, Prema sounds more serious than Coyne at this time. 

Why should Prema be the team fighting to qualify for the two available positions when it has made a greater commitment to IndyCar than Dale Coyne Racing? In terms of investment, Prema should be awarded at least one charter, if not two, over Coyne. 

Coyne has been around for 40 years, but which organization will be raising IndyCar's profile in the year 2025 and beyond? 

The charter decision should be greater than racing because charters in their nature about more than racing. It is about business. The teams are looking for value beyond what they do on the racetrack. What team is going to give you the most beyond the racetrack? We know how Coyne operates. We know the limitations. The modus operandi will not change in year 41. IndyCar needs a change. It shouldn't be afraid to drop its smallest team for one that has more ambition and will bring more to the table.

That is harsh. That is business.

There should at least be an ultimatum. Perhaps Coyne should not be entirely cut out, but it should not be gifted two charters when it has only really fielded one full-time driver this season. It should get one charter and at least one should be for Prema. Coyne is clearly not a team capable of fielding two competitive entries. If it had one to focus on, Coyne could hopeful produce a car that could at least push for the top ten, something we know it is capable of when it puts in the effort. 

IndyCar's goal of the charter system should be to maximize the competition and ability of all its entrants. That is the very least the series can ask for in exchange for guaranteed entry. In that case, Dale Coyne Racing should be given less for the best of everyone.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Lewis Hamilton and Patricio O'Ward, but did you know...

Francesco Bagnaia won MotoGP's German Grand Prix, his fourth consecutive victory, after Jorge Martín fell from the lead with two laps remaining. Jorge Martín won the sprint race. Fermín Aldeguer won the Moto2 race, his second victory of the season. David Alonso won the Moto3 race, his sixth victory of the season. Héctor Garzó swept the MotoE races.

Alex Bowman won the NASCAR Cup race from Chicago. Shane van Gisbergen won the Grand National Series race, his third victory of the season.

René Rast and Nicki Thiim split the DTM races from the Norisring.

The #14 AO by TF Oreca-Gibson of Louis Delétraz, Robert Kubica and Jonny Edgar won the 4 Hours of Imola after the #65 Panis Racing Oreca-Gibson was penalized for speeding under a full course yellow. The #11 Eurointernational Ligier-Nissan of Matthew Bell and Adam Ali won in LMP3. The #85 Iron Dames Porsche of Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting won in GT3.

Cam Waters and Matthew Payne split the Supercars races from Townsville.

Caio Collet won the Indy Lights race from Mid-Ohio, his first career victory. Nikita Johnson swept the USF Pro 2000 races. Max Taylor (race one and three) and Evagoras Papasavvas (race two) split the U.S. F2000 races.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli (sprint) and Isack Hadjar (feature) split the Formula Two races from Silverstone. Arvid Lindblad swept the Formula Three races.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar has a doubleheader in Iowa, including a Saturday night race.
NASCAR will be at Pocono. 
The FIA World Endurance Championship returns to Interlagos.
IMSA sends LMP2, GTD Pro and GTD to Mosport.
World Superbike is at Donington Park.