Let’s take a first crack of the New Year at the state of the IZOD IndyCar Series, which – as usual – has challenges.
NASCAR, despite some attendance problems because of the state of the U.S. economy, remains almost as popular as ever (their TV numbers were back up last year after a drop the previous three). The addition of Danica Patrick to the driver lineup will also give that series a boost, for sure.
And Formula One will attract renewed interest this season (as if it needed it) because of a significant shakeup in the driver lineup. Many of the teams behind the Big Three (Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren) have made cockpit changes already and chances are there will be more before the season opens in March.
IndyCar, though: now that’s another story.
A schedule for 2012 was issued just before Christmas but it listed only 15 races, down from 18 scheduled in 2011. CEO Randy Bernard said he expected to add another race "soon" and was working on a 17th.
This sort of thing is not helpful at all when it comes to teams or drivers trying to sell sponsorship. And then there’s the added problem that two of the 15 races announced are, to be brutally frank, on shaky ground.
The first is the Baltimore Grand Prix, which was a highly successful Labour Day weekend IndyCar/American Le Mans Series double-header in 2011 but whose contract with the promoter was terminated by the city of Baltimore last Friday.
It seems the organizing company owes the city $1.5 million – a sum it failed to pay on time. As a result, the 2012 race is officially off unless a new promoter – approved by the city – can be found.
Kaliope Parthemos, the deputy mayor for economic development, told the Baltimore Sun that finding a new promoter will be Job 1 but the circle of people with the degree of expertise required is small and "we will only be having discussions with that group of people."
One of that "group of people" will undoubtedly be the duo of Kevin Savoree and Kim Green, who promote the Honda Indy Toronto, the St. Petersburg Grand Prix and the IndyCar and ALMS races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which they own.
Whether Savoree and Green would agree to take over Baltimore is an interesting prospect but it could spread them pretty thin – unless, of course, they made a deal to hand over promotion of one of their other properties in order to more fully concentrate on Baltimore.
At end of day, of course, it’s possible – possible – that nobody will step forward to promote Baltimore and the race could be lost.
And then there’s Detroit. Remember that the Penske Organization has cancelled races there previously (2009, 2010) when the expected advertising and other economic support fizzled because of the Michigan economy.
There is a growing sense of doom that Detroit city is in so much financial trouble that in order to keep itself going (it doesn’t police, or collect garbage, or turn on street lights in large parts of the city as it is), it will have to declare bankruptcy.
If that happens, it could combine with other factors to negatively impact the race on Belle Isle, currently scheduled for June 3.
So two of the 15 races are "iffy."
It’s when you look past the races themselves, and at the racers and racing teams, that things get really kind of serious.
As of today (Jan. 2), I count 20 cars/drivers as either definite or pretty definite to start the season at St. Pete on March 25. They are:
– Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball at Chip Ganassi Racing.
– Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe at Team Penske.
– Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay at Andretti Autosport.
– Tony Kanaan, E.J. Viso and Katherine Legge (I think . . . there will be a third driver, though) at KV Racing.
– Ho Pin Tung at Dragon Racing.
– Josef Newgarden at Sarah Fisher.
– Ed Carpenter at Ed Carpenter Racing.
– Takuma Sato at Rahal-Letterman.
– Mike Conway at A.J. Foyt.
– Simon Pagenaud at Sam Schmidt.
– Simona De Silvestro at HVM Racing.
– J.R. Hildebrand at Panther Racing.
Considering that the IndyCar Series had an average of 28-29 cars at most races in 2011, a drop of eight to nine cars is pretty significant.
Yes, there will undoubtedly be some additions – I’ll guess at a few in a moment – but the fact that it’s January already, a new car and new engines are being introduced to a series that starts in March, and that there are still only 20 confirmed cars (and one or two of them might not make the swing into Canada in July) is not terribly encouraging.
Having said that, here are a few very possibles:
– Oriol Servia to partner Hildebrand at Panther. Servia has money to pay for a seat; Panther would like him to mentor Hildebrand, a potential superstar.
– Ana Beatriz could take her money to Sam Schmidt’s team to run alongside Pagenaud.
– Vitor Meira and his cash could land at Rahal-Letterman.
– Or, Meira and Beatriz could buy rides at either Dryer & Reinbold or Dale Coyne – both of which have always entered cars in the past but haven’t announced anything for 2012. (It is not safe to assume anything – particularly when a long-established team like Newman-Haas Racing is now officially out of the series.)
You will note that there are several notable names missing from the lists above – James Hinchcliffe, Justin Wilson, Sebastien Bourdais, Alex Tagliani and Paul Tracy.
All have been linked to teams but nothing has been announced – primarily because, with the exception of Tracy, the drivers don’t have money to pay for rides, or else their pride and reputations (Wilson, Bourdais) won’t let them.
Hinchcliffe is the big mystery. He’s young, handsome, articulate, sophisticated, silly (when he has to be), talented, winner of the top rookie title – everything you have to be to be successful in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
When Newman-Haas dropped out in December, leaving "Hinch" and Servia rideless, it was expected that "the Mayor" would be snapped up within days. The betting was that he was Tailor-made for the Go-Daddy seat at Andretti but it hasn’t happened, despite predictions of an announcement "any day now."
"Tag" could be in line for a seat at Brian Herta Autosport but that might wind up being an Indianapolis-only or limited schedule arrangement.
And Tracy, who’s told the world he has $2 million in sponsorship and can’t understand why nobody has taken it, and him, continues to hope for a full-season ride with which to to say farewell to his fans.
One of the problems might be that $2 million isn’t enough.
I have a friend who knows of what he speaks. He’s been in the Indy car business. So I put it to him:
"How much money would you need to put a one-car Indy car team together properly and how long would it take to do it?
And this is what he said:
"$6.5 million and 48 hours. As soon as you have the money, everything else just falls into place."
So the money would appear to be the problem. And where have we heard that before?