A serious concern this year in IndyCar is car count. Recently, IndyCar announced that there were 21 entrants in its Leader Circle Program. These are essentially the cars you will see at every event. This is down from 22 in 2013 and would actually be down 2 but for the inclusion of the Penske #2 car (Montoya) as a result of a “partnership with Dragon Racing” – whatever that means. There has been much speculation about how many cars will make up the regular fields but it appears we should see between 23 and 25 cars per event (except Indy 500), about the same as last year. What about the Indy 500? Needless to say, not having a full field of 33 would be a major blow. I don’t think we’ll see that happen. There will always be a backup car or 2 to fill the field, essentially “start and park” cars that can’t maintain minimum speed and are there to collect last place money. In its heyday Indy could boast 90 plus entries. I really don’t understand all the manipulation of qualifying procedure if everyone in the garage is going to make the race and starting position is almost irrelevant. Actually this new procedure will ratchet things down a notch. On Saturday all the top teams are going to put in solid, safe times early in the day. Since the pole won’t be settled until Sunday they will sit around until late on Saturday and anybody who thinks they have a chance for the pole on Sunday will go out late to see if they can get in the fast group. The only teams pushing the envelope will be those who are marginal, that is assuming there are more than 33 cars. If you’re not racing for the pole, starting position is irrelevant considering the current yellow flag and restart rules. Nobody is going to risk missing the show by crashing on Saturday to just start closer to the front. The fact that the race awards double points is only going to make teams even more cautious.
Consider the 1980 500, the late Gary Bettenhausen had been all but written off as an Indy car driver. A horrible sprint car accident in 1974 at Syracuse left him with almost no use of his left arm. In the ensuing years he regained some strength and found success in sprints and dirt cars. In 1980 Sherman Armstrong gave him an opportunity in the form of a 4 year old Wildcat chassis powered by a DGS Offy. Both the engine and chassis were genuine dinosaurs. Gary had to assemble his own crew and made the race in 32nd position by sheer luck since last 3 hours of bump day were rained out. On race day he advised his wife and kids to be ready to leave as soon as this “shitbox” blows up to beat the traffic home. Gary had to use velcro to attach his left hand to the steering wheel to maintain his grip. When the race was over he was third and might very well have been second if he were not low on fuel as a result of the team’s lack of radios causing pit stop confusion. It remains possibly the greatest drive in the history of the 500. I had the privilege of witnessing this and many other unique and heroic efforts at the 500. If you want to read about this race in Gary’s own words I strongly recommend an article by John B. Heimann which appeared in the MAR/APR 2009 issue of Vintage Motorsport Magazine.
What does Gary Bettenhausen’s 1980 race have to do with car counts in 2014. This race effort only happened because the were many more than 33 cars entered in the 1980 Indy 500. There were new ground effects cars and old crapwagons; there were multiple chassis and engine manufacturers. Most of all there were people like Sherman Armstrong and Gary Bettenhausen who believed that it took more than a box of spec parts and a wheelbarrow full of money to succeed. That dream is over. What else does this have to do with IndyCar in 2014? Experiences like this were the reason the Speedway drew 100,000 plus on Pole Day and filled every seat year after year on race day. Indy was about cars and engines and drivers and dreams. Those dreams are also over.
So what can be done in the short term to regenerate the enthusiasm. Here is my proposal. For the “Triple Crown” (Indy, Pocono and California) events open up eligibility to the older Dallara IR-05 chassis with an engine formula which would allow less expensive racing and stock block engines. We might see a Ford ECO Boost or a Mazda Sky Activ diesel, who knows. According to reports the Speedway is considering a “Garage 34” (similar to the LeMans Garage 56) allowing an innovative experimental non-spec car into the field. Allowing existing, available non-spec cars with updates and innovative power plants makes much more sense. There are plenty of old IR-05s around gathering dust and plenty of tuners who would love to have a crack at Indy. What would this accomplish? If nothing else it would keep the back-markers honest by forcing them to up their game. Further, it would inject the life blood of new, eager, innovative minds into the IndyCar series. It would give young unfunded drivers seat time and exposure. But most of all it would put people back in the seats. Would any of these cars make the races? Could they be competitive? Who knows, but lots of people would be there to find out.
©2014 William L. Rottner