Recent announcements of the signing of former Fernandez drivers by Panther and Rahal Letterman should be reason for excitement for IndyCar fans, but on closer inspection these signings have a bittersweet reminder: 2007 looks to have an alarming decrease in car counts.
Consider the math: In 2006, RLR had 3 cars, Panther had 1 and Fernandez Racing had 2. For 2007, those three teams are now two, and those 6 entries are now 4.
For the past year the IRL has postured itself to become the premier representative of open-wheel racing in America, assembling a tight and logical schedule around mostly oval tracks but also several well-known road courses. The schedule was intended to include as many parts of the country as possible while still being based primarily in the Midwest. Nothing wrong with building up the infrastructure for the next few years.
But while the focus in 2006 was on scheduling and to a lesser extent the conversion to ethanol, the league has been losing longtime participants at a stunning rate. As it stands today the Hemelgarn, Fernandez and Cheever teams have all mothballed their IndyCar operations, and the Dreyer & Reinbold team could end up doing so as well. Their reasons are all related to cost and sponsor benefits, and if there is any single thing that needs to be addressed in 2007 by Brian Barnhart and other league officials it is the cost/benefit analysis for remaining teams.
Last year there were 18-20 cars per race and anything less would be embarrassing, especially on the superspeedways. As of this moment there are but 13 cars announced for 2007.
Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing)
Dan Wheldon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing)
Helio Castroneves (Team Penske)
Sam Hornish Jr (Team Penske)
Tony Kanaan (Andretti Green Racing)
Marco Andretti (Andretti Green Racing)
Danica Patrick (Andretti Green Racing)
Dario Franchitti (Andretti Green Racing) *not announced officially
Vitor Meira (Panther Racing)
Kosuke Matsuura (Super Aguri Panther Racing)
Scott Sharp (Rahal Letterman Racing)
Jeff Simmons (Rahal Letterman Racing)
Ed Carpenter (Vision Racing)
Now granted nearly all of the top ten drivers in the series are in those cars, but with so few entries you aren’t holding much more than an IROC race.
Truthfully, there will be more than these as a few other entries are expected. A second Vision entry as well as one from AJ Foyt Enterprises would bring that total to 15. Also, possible returns by D&R and Roth Racing would bump that up further. Foyt has even spoken of adding a second car for his team, which would bring the best case scenario to 18.
Eighteen - that’s the maximum.
Clearly this should be a wake up call for the league to figure a way to reduce the cost of participation, which now sits around $5M per year to field a full season entry. The problem is not that there are too few teams willing to participate in the league, it’s that a multi-million dollar sponsorship isn’t worth it to potential team sponsors. As several team owners have stated, for many events the attendance and television numbers aren’t at a level to justify the investment required.
While I have argued that Champ Car and the IRL are no longer battling for audience shares since the fan bases are different, I won’t deny the two are still competing for investment dollars. The problem of diminishing car counts isn’t just an IRL phenomenon, as Champ Car has similar issues. Just watch one of their parades and you will see only half of the 16 or so cars have sponsorships other than the team owners.
The difference is Champ Car has acknowledged this issue and devised a plan to deal with the problem. As reported before, the CCWS will be offering a chassis/engine rental option to potential investors to reduce the costs of competition. How well this plan works remains to be seen, but it beats just sitting around waiting for a miracle.
So with the 2007 about to begin, now would be the time to put the financial wizards in the IRL together and come up with some creative ideas for the resuscitation of Fernandez, Hemelgarn, Cheever, etc. It doesn’t matter whether that means the IRL starts their own rental program, or partially subsidizes teams without sponsors, or offers to have bake sales, or whatever. To date the only cost-saving innovation I have heard of is a slight reduction in cost for the 2007 Honda engine, but judging by the loss of teams that appears to be little more than spit in a bucket.
As a fan I can see the league has taken great steps in recent years. They have created a logical schedule, they have retained their premier teams and drivers, and they have implemented innovations of safety that will pay dividends for years. They have done this while still keeping the integrity of their incredibly exciting product. But all of those gains will go swirling down the drain if they end up featuring a series of races with just eight Penske, Ganassi and Andretti cars.
On that note, I refer you to Pressdog from last July.
Leaders of the Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series vowed today to match each other's shrinking entry count car-for-car.
The estimated 34,292 race fans who still pay attention to open-wheel racing in America have noticed that car counts for both series have dropped steadily this year. Both Champ Car and the IRL currently field about 18 cars. (Actual numbers fluctuate from day to day based on the work load of bill collectors.) Officials from both series vowed not to fall behind in the de-escalating cart count shrinkage race.
"Were here to compete with the IRL," said Rufus McEnders, Director of 'Competition' for Champ Car. "So if the IRL loses a car, by God we'll lose a car too. No way are we going to let them lose cars faster than us." (MORE)