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IndyCar Owners Hinting At Depths Of Status Quo

We’re coming off of the best Indianapolis 500 we’ve seen in years. The new Dallara DW12 is incredibly racy on all tracks, providing drivers with passing opportunities. Speaking of “DW,” the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gave the late Dan Wheldon a fantastic tribute on Sunday, with former owner Bryan Herta driving his 500-winning car from last year around the track one more time. The payoff was an 8% increase in TV ratings and plenty of momentum as the series heads into its busiest month of the season.

So why are we looking at status quo?

Multiple sources – including AP writer Jenna Fryer as far back as May 21 and Robin Miller in a radio interview yesterday – are suggesting that, in the wake of Honda’s successful appeal to adjust the turbochargers on its engine, Chevrolet IndyCar owners want IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard out of a job. Bernard has confirmed it in a tweet:

#INDYCAR@indycar it is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired. I have had several owners confirm this. disappointing

Bernard, Fryer, and numerous others have said that the owner is not Roger Penske, arguably the series’ biggest power player and winner of the first four races of the season before Honda received its engine alterations. Rumblings suggest that the culprit could be Tony George, IndyCar founder and current co-owner of Ed Carpenter Racing, though Carpenter, his stepson, has taken to Twitter to vehemently deny the allegations and plead with fans to make 500 winner Dario Franchitti, not Bernard, the story of the week.

Beyond that, the culprit is anyone’s guess. Michael Andretti now promotes two races, Milwaukee and Baltimore, so unless he has a power trip in mind, it doesn’t seem like he would be the culprit. Kevin Kalkhoven used to run the Champ Car World Series before merging it into IndyCar in 2008, and could be unsatisfied with the sport’s direction. John Barnes of Panther Racing was recently fined $20,000 for a tweet critical of the series, but many have suggested that it’s not him.

Sadly, whoever is responsible for the unrest in the IndyCar owners’ community seems to forget how poorly an owner-led series has worked out for American open-wheel racing in the past. The hubris of the former CART series, especially in its ill-fated attempt to launch a rival to the Indianapolis 500, eventually led to its downfall as its biggest teams eventually began to defect to get back to Indianapolis. George, however, created a decade-long rift in the sport that utterly destroyed what had been a feasible rival in popularity to NASCAR and in talent to Formula 1.

The result is a series that struggles to attract attention, merely flirts with stability, and could be completely ruined with one stupid move. Ousting Bernard could prove to be that move.

While Bernard hasn’t been perfect since taking over IndyCar in 2010, the advances seem to greatly outnumber the detriments. He established the ICONIC committee, which led the series to select the car and engine specifications that have performed so well this year. He landed series title sponsor Izod, as well as a host of other partners, and has overseen a car count that has increased every season.

He took a lot of blame for creating the conditions that contributed to Wheldon’s passing in Las Vegas last season, but many factors – not just the ones that Bernard created by establishing a $5 million prize if Wheldon could win the race – contributed to that accident. This year, the chief complaint has been Lotus’ failure to provide a competitive engine, but that has very little to do with Bernard, who had no control over when the company began to build its engines or its sale, which halted development for 45 days as its finances were frozen.

So instead of celebrating Franchitti’s win in the most exciting Indianapolis 500 in years, we’re stuck with psychoanalyzing an ownership group that has lived up to the “psycho” end of the term for decades. Unrest in IndyCar management is an accepted part of fandom these days, and most fans are desensitized to the whining after 12 full seasons of two series whose initial sum was far greater than any of its parts. But that doesn’t make the complaints any less ridiculous – not after all that Bernard has done to help try and turn the series around.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail (perhaps if aforementioned anonymous owner’s team scores a victory this weekend at Detroit) and this will be a non-story by next week. If not, this may be a long year – and IndyCar may have a short future.

– Chris Leone

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Indy Bump Day Produces Heartbreak Of A Different Variety

Photo via IndyCar Media

Bump Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the highest-attrition, most exciting days in motorsports. As cars attempt to fill the 33-slot field for the Indianapolis 500, only the fastest survive, sending slower cars and drivers home with only the thoughts of what could have been.

But this year’s field of 33 won’t feature any of that, thanks to a new engine formula and mid-season brand switches that have overextended the engine departments at both Honda and Chevrolet. Meanwhile, Lotus, left with only two remaining entries, has failed to show any sort of reasonable speed all month, leading Jean Alesi to call the car “unsafe.”

As such, a handful of teams pondered the idea of putting together extra entries, which would likely have had no issues in bumping the Lotus racers from this year’s field. At one point, Roger Penske reportedly said that he had the capability to field five cars, while A.J. Foyt and Sam Schmidt, this year running two cars apiece, have both entered more in the past. In response, the hungry drivers started patrolling the garages; both Jay Howard and Pippa Mann, graduates of the Firestone Indy Lights Series who have struggled to make the full-time jump to the IZOD IndyCar Series, tried to put together deals all month, while former IndyCar competitor Vitor Meira was also seen visiting the Honda camp during the week of practice. Howard, in fact, had a deal with Michael Shank Racing that was abandoned when the team couldn’t acquire a competitive engine, and Shank refused to accept a Lotus.

Sadly, Howard and Mann won’t make qualifying attempts in “Sunday specials” today, due to engine manufacturers pulling out.

Photo via IndyCar Media

Though Mann abandoned her pursuit of a ride before qualifying yesterday, saying that she had a sponsor, car, and engine available until that morning, yesterday’s three qualifying crashes could have affected the pursuit. Chevrolet owner-driver Ed Carpenter, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Oriol Servia (in his first race with Chevrolet power), and Honda’s Bryan Clauson all had various incidents, with at least Clauson’s requiring a new motor for the already stretched thin Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Howard put out a press release saying that his engine manufacturer didn’t abandon plans for a last-minute ride until after Pole Day.

Another part of the reason, likely, is so that Honda and Chevrolet don’t force Lotus out of the series entirely. All three manufacturers are obligated to power as much as 40% of the field in a three-brand setup, and up to 60% if a brand drops out, but neither Chevrolet nor Honda is looking forward to the latter possibility when they’ve already waived the former.

Of course, Bump Day has brought stranger surprises before. In 2005, Felipe Giaffone was pulled out of a mall to qualify a third entry for Foyt and help fill the field. If the Lotuses qualify early in the day, and show speed far off yesterday’s low qualifying pace (Sebastian Saavedra’s four-lap qualifying average of 222.811 miles per hour ranked 24th, making him the final driver to set his time on Saturday), the series will be stuck in a strange position, with a lot of questions to answer.

Is 33 cars “just a number,” as Tony Kanaan said before qualifying, and does that justify starting only 31? Would race director Beaux Barfield allow the Lotuses to start, and then park them if they can’t reach 105% of the race leader’s speed? (Were that rule to apply to qualifying, both Alesi and Simona de Silvestro would have to hit 215 miles per hour, which neither have done all month.) Could Barfield justify leaving the qualifying horsepower boost on the Lotuses for the sake of safety, knowing that neither could contend despite the unfair advantage?

Photo via IndyCar Media

Or, ultimately, would the possibility of starting two cars that run between 10 and 20 miles per hour off the pace be sufficiently worrisome enough to Chevrolet and Honda to make extra engines available? After all, roadblocks cause accidents, and if one of the Lotuses were to cause a melee that eliminated either manufacturer’s top contender from the event, they might be livid.

Starting and parking, like a lower-budget NASCAR team, isn’t an option. The issue isn’t a lack of funding – both Howard and Mann, your presumptive 32nd and 33rd starters, would have had enough money to run the race – but a lack of motor. And neither manufacturer would likely consider pulling in their last-minute entries, lest they alienate the traditionalists at Indianapolis to an incredible extent. (Indianapolis fans don’t take too kindly to failure to provide acceptable parts. Just ask Michelin.)

To the chagrin of many, this Bump Day will likely go without any of the bumping that makes it so entertaining. Instead, race fans will likely have to wait until next year, when a greater surplus of entries will be available. Maybe then, having a sponsor and car at the ready will be enough to make a qualifying attempt at The Greatest Spectacle In Racing. It usually is.

– Chris Leone

Indianapolis 500 Preview: Townsend Bell

Photo credit: Michael Levitt (via IndyCar Media)

#99 BraunAbility Dallara-Honda, Schmidt Pelfrey Motorsports

Born: April 19, 1975

Home: San Francisco, California

2011 RESULTS: For the second consecutive year, Bell partnered with Sam Schmidt Motorsports to run at Indianapolis. He posted an impressive fourth place qualifying run from out of nowhere, but after a lap 158 crash with Ryan Briscoe their day ended early. Bell was listed 26th in the final running order.

CAREER BEST: Schmidt helped put together the Bryan Herta Autosport-run Dallara-Honda that the late Dan Wheldon took to victory lane last year, after taking pole with Alex Tagliani. As for Bell, his best Indy 500 finish came in 2009 with KV Racing Technology, where he finished an unexpected fourth.

OUTLOOK: Townsend Bell is as busy as he’s been in years. After taking a pit reporter job for the NBC Sports Network and a Lotus-backed ride for Alex Job Racing in the American Le Mans Series, he returns to Indianapolis for the sixth time after posting a series of respectable runs. For the third year in a row, Sam Schmidt will hire the American to pilot the #99 car, his Indianapolis-only entry. This year, Bell doesn’t even have to bring the sponsorship; BraunAbility, makers of wheelchair lifts for vehicles, has signed on to back Schmidt, who is himself a quadriplegic after a 2000 accident.

Of all of the drivers who generally make Indianapolis-only runs, Bell has proven over the past few years to be the most consistent. He’s qualified in the top 10 in each of the past two years and in the top 15 on four of five attempts. As for the lone exception, in 2009, he worked his way up from his 24th place qualifying spot to finish fourth. It’ll be no shock if Bell, once again, puts together a decent run at Indianapolis. And it’ll be no shock if, once again, fans of the sport lament that he’s never had the chance to run a full schedule.

– Chris Leone

Indianapolis 500 Preview: Jean Alesi

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#64 Lotus Cars Dallara-Lotus, Fan Force United

Born: June 11, 1964

Home: Avignon, Vaucluse, France

2011 RESULTS: Alesi did not attempt to race at Indianapolis last season, having spent much of the year serving as a brand ambassador for Lotus by demonstrating their Formula 1-inspired T125 track car.

CAREER BEST: Alesi has never started an Indy 500. He has, however, raced in two United States Grands Prix at Indianapolis, with a best finish of seventh in 2001 for Jordan.

OUTLOOK: Alesi, one of Formula 1’s most respected drivers in parts of multiple decades, has transitioned gracefully into a role with Lotus as a sort of motorsports elder statesman, representing the brand in its major expansion into multiple disciplines of racing and helping get amateurs suited to the T125, a track day car built like a slightly less powerful Formula 1 challenger. Lotus has wanted to run Alesi at Indy since they got their IndyCar engine program off the ground, preferably with one of their existing teams.

Originally Alesi had planned to ally with the esteemed Newman/Haas Racing program, on hiatus from IndyCar in 2012, but the program wasn’t up to that organization’s high standards. Instead, Alesi will run for Fan Force United, an Indy Lights program led by early IRL driver Tyce Carlson that finally has a chance to make its IndyCar debut. Alesi will work with Greg Beck, who prepared cars for the 500 on a shoestring budget for years before joining FFU. They’ll face a serious challenge to perform, though; with the weaker Lotus engine and FFU’s inexperience at the top level, they may be a back row team, and their only guarantee to make it into the race likely comes from the 33-car entry list.

– Chris Leone

Indianapolis 500 Preview: Wade Cunningham

Photo credit: IndyCar Media

#41 ECat/ABC Supply Co. Dallara-Honda, A.J. Foyt Enterprises

Born: August 19, 1984

Home: Auckland, New Zealand

2011 RESULTS: Cunningham did not run in last year’s Indianapolis 500, having only secured sponsorship for the Texas doubleheader, Kentucky, and Las Vegas with Sam Schmidt Motorsports and AFS Racing. Bruno Junqueira qualified Foyt’s second car last year, but a last-minute deal with Andretti Autosport landed the DNQ’d Ryan Hunter-Reay in the car for the race, where he finished a disappointing 23rd.

CAREER BEST: In six Indy Lights races at the speedway, Cunningham has scored three victories and two other runner-up finishes.

OUTLOOK: Series experts have recognized Cunningham for years as a driver talented enough to run a full IndyCar schedule, but a lack of sponsorship frequently left the New Zealander feeling like a self-described “rockstar without the music.” After a handful of decent runs last season, however, he may have landed his most competitive ride yet: the second seat at A.J. Foyt Enterprises, driving alongside Mike Conway, who failed to qualify for the race last year.

Foyt took Cunningham’s Indianapolis history into account, but has said that he was more impressed with the young driver’s performance at Kentucky last season when offering him the ride in his second car. There, Cunningham finished a strong seventh place in an AFS Racing car, but if not for getting caught out of the racing groove while trying to pass Scott Dixon with a few laps to go, he had an honest shot at a podium finish. Cunningham has the one thing that can’t be taught – raw speed – on the ovals, and perhaps with the advice of a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, he can score the kind of finish that finally helps him break into the series full-time.

– Chris Leone

Indianapolis 500 Preview: Bryan Clauson

Photo credit: IndyCar Media

#39 Mazda Road to Indy Dallara-Honda, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing

Born: June 15, 1989

Home: Sacramento, California

2011 RESULTS: Clauson finished fifth in last year’s Indy Lights Freedom 100, his debut for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in that series. He had earned the ride by virtue of winning the 2010 USAC National Drivers’ Championship, which afforded him a scholarship presented by IndyCar and sponsored by Mazda.

CAREER BEST: Clauson has never attempted an Indy 500 start before. But by virtue of winning the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship for the second year in a row, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard agreed to modify the prize to a guaranteed ride in a car running at Indianapolis.

OUTLOOK: Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing finally stepped up to the big time this season by running a car full-time for promising rookie Josef Newgarden. They’ll add a second car for this year’s Indianapolis 500 for Clauson, who scored four top fives in six oval events for Sam Schmidt Motorsports during the last Indy Lights season.

Newgarden and Clauson were two of the best oval drivers in last year’s Lights season, and swept the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis, the series’ most prestigious event; Clauson won the pole, while Newgarden won the race. Judging by the speed that both drivers have shown thus far in practice, frequently appearing towards the top of the speed charts, it won’t be a shock if Clauson has something big in the tank. And with plenty of motivation towards a strong run for both driver and team, particularly with the goal of landing sponsorship for the future, Clauson and Fisher alike will have something to prove come race day.

– Chris Leone

Indianapolis 500 Preview: Michel Jourdain

Photo via Michel Jourdain Jr. Twitter

#30 Office Depot Dallara-Honda, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

Born: September 2, 1976

Home: Mexico City, Mexico

2011 RESULTS: RLLR ran two cars in last year’s Indianapolis 500. Jay Howard finished a disappointing 30th when he crashed out after 60 laps, but Bertrand Baguette remained up front, leading 11 laps and fighting for the lead until he had to pit with three laps to go. He finished seventh, a career best. Jourdain, however, hasn’t competed at Indianapolis since 1996.

CAREER BEST: RLLR won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 with Buddy Rice. Jourdain finished 13th in his lone Indy 500 start.

OUTLOOK: Here’s a strange combination. Rather than run Luca Filippi, their rookie driver who had been set to debut at Indianapolis, RLLR will allow Jourdain to make a return to open-wheel racing. Jourdain last competed at Indianapolis in 1996, in American open-wheel (in Champ Car) in 2004, and in any form of open-wheel in 2007 (driving for Mexico in A1GP). But he returns to the sport where he made his name at Indy, bringing with him the Office Depot backing he had while finishing third for Rahal in the 2003 CART standings.

Jourdain may thus be the biggest wild card in the field. Most recently, he’s been running limited rally events after a failed transition to NASCAR in the mid-2000s. RLLR has always built fast racecars, with Baguette’s performance last year and Takuma Sato’s runs this year a testament to that. But it’s hard to predict how a driver who’s spent a decade and a half away from Indianapolis is going to perform. Expect a top 20 finish based on the caliber of the team alone; anything more will be up to how quickly Jourdain finds his groove again.

– Chris Leone

Indianapolis 500 Preview: Ana Beatriz

Photo credit: Michael Levitt (via IndyCar Media)

#25 Ipiranga/Lubrizol Dallara-Chevrolet, Conquest Racing/Andretti Autosport

Born: March 18, 1985

Home: Sao Paulo, Brazil

2011 RESULTS: Beatriz was the slowest driver to make the field last year, but started 32nd due to a driver change at A.J. Foyt Enterprises. In her second consecutive Indy 500 for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, she finished 21st, three laps down.

CAREER BEST: Beatriz has finished 21st in both of her Indy 500 starts, in 2010 and 2011. While her starting spot was better in 2010 (also 21st), she crashed out of that race after 196 laps.

OUTLOOK: Beatriz is a part of one of the few Indy 500-centric programs that will actually have a chance at warming up before the race; her sponsors, all of which are Brazilian-based, will back the Sao Paulo native in her hometown race, which directly precedes Indianapolis on the calendar. In effect, she’s running the same program that she did with Dreyer & Reinbold in 2010, with the hope of the same result the following year: a full-time ride with the team, this time Andretti Autosport.

Andretti will work with Eric Bachelart’s Conquest Racing to field the ride for Beatriz, an interesting combination given Bachelart’s withdrawal from the sport this season. Bachelart currently fields a Nissan-powered LMP2 in the American Le Mans Series, so it isn’t as if his team has been dormant this year, but his team has yet to experience the new DW12. Working with Andretti should alleviate the growing pains, but as both Beatriz and Conquest are used to qualifying late at Indy, don’t be shocked if this car qualifies on Bump Day.

– Chris Leone

Indianapolis 500 Preview: Sebastian Saavedra

Photo credit: Michael Levitt (via IndyCar Media)

#17 Automatic Fire Sprinklers Dallara-Chevrolet, AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport

Born: June 2, 1990

Home: Bogota, Colombia

2011 RESULTS: Saavedra failed to make last year’s running while driving in his first full IndyCar season for Conquest Racing. Conquest owner Eric Bachelart elected not to replace Pippa Mann, his second driver, with Saavedra for the race, as he had replaced Bruno Junqueira with Alex Tagliani in 2009.

CAREER BEST: After backing into a qualifying spot in 2010 for the then-fledgling Bryan Herta Autosport operation, thanks to a pair of untimely withdrawals by faster cars, Saavedra completed 159 of 200 laps before crashing out of the race and finishing 23rd.

OUTLOOK: After an up-and-down IndyCar rookie campaign with Conquest, Saavedra is back in Indy Lights full-time with AFS Racing and Andretti Autosport, a combination that produced two wins and a third place points finish in 2009. Saavedra has already taken his first Lights win of the season at Barber and will continue to be a threat for that championship.

Saavedra will be hungry to redeem himself at Indianapolis after last season’s disappointment, while AFS will be the same after missing last year’s race with Raphael Matos behind the wheel. AFS only qualified for two oval races last season, Kentucky and Las Vegas, with Wade Cunningham behind the wheel for both, while Saavedra generally struggled on the ovals more than road courses last season. This team will have some serious work to do come the month of May, but the familiarity between driver and organization may prove to be a serious asset.

– Chris Leone

Jean Alesi and Fan Force United: Lotus’ Last Hope?

Photo via: Jean Alesi Facebook

Plenty has been made of 47-year-old former Formula 1 star Jean Alesi’s decision to run in this year’s Indianapolis 500. For the most part, it hasn’t been positive.

Those who were paying attention to the early stages of Lotus’ IndyCar engine development knew that the legendary British marque had been planning on running the Frenchman at Indianapolis since last September. But despite his work as Lotus’ top driving instructor for the T125, a $1 million open-wheeler reminiscent of a late Champ Car or lesser F1 racer, most questioned Alesi’s ability to get up to speed in an IndyCar – especially over a decade removed from his last Formula 1 start.

Now, with the systematic crumbling of Lotus’ modest engine program, the brand has lost four of its five full-time entries and two prospective ones from Newman/Haas Racing and Michael Shank Racing. Alesi was due to drive the Newman/Haas entry at Indianapolis, but instead will suit up for Fan Force United, an Indy Lights team with zero career IndyCar starts and no intent on running this year’s 500 until Alesi became available. As such, car and driver are being almost universally written off as a team that wouldn’t even make the race if not for the likelihood of exactly 33 cars trying to qualify.

This is a warning: don’t underestimate them.

It’s true that Alesi has never raced on an oval before. But it’s also true that Alesi has maintained a relatively active driving profile since his exit from F1, racing for Mercedes in the DTM championship from 2002 to 2006. During that time, he scored four race victories and a best finish of fifth in points. But the successes didn’t stop there; in the Speedcar Series, a Middle Eastern-based stock car championship featuring former F1 drivers, Alesi scored four more wins in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, he rejoined Ferrari, his former F1 employer, in the GT2 class in the Le Mans Series, and alongside fellow ex-F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella finished second in points. Only last year did Alesi stop competing full-time, and that was to develop the T125.

As for FFU, they are an Indianapolis-based team bent on breaking into IndyCar after years of Indy Lights competition, and many of those involved are names that die-hard fans of the sport would recognize. One of the team’s owners is Tyce Carlson, a veteran of 29 IRL starts from 1997 to 2002. Also involved is Tim Wardrop, who won the 1997 Indianapolis 500 as Arie Luyendyk’s engineer and helped Luyendyk set one- and four-lap qualifying records in 1996 that stand to this day; Mike Colliver, who served as engineer for Kelley Racing, Hemelgarn Racing, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises in the 2000s; and Greg Beck, who fielded cars at Indy for much of the 1990s and 2000s, and facilitated Billy Boat’s fourth place finish in the 2001 IRL standings.

No, this isn’t the IRL of the late 1990s, in which this team would likely have dominated. That doesn’t mean they should be written off entirely.

In the end, FFU’s success or failure at Indianapolis may prove to be either the final straw for Lotus or a step towards finally finding its footing in IndyCar. Most fans know the story so far: Lotus only scored one top 10 finish in the first four races of the season, a ninth place run by Sebastien Bourdais at Alabama, as only two of its drivers – Oriol Servia in 17th and Bourdais in 20th – managed to stay in the top 20 in points. Servia’s Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team and Alex Tagliani’s Bryan Herta Autosport squad were the first to announce a split, with BHA skipping the series’ trip to Sao Paulo entirely. Meanwhile, Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing squad, with Bourdais and Katherine Legge behind the wheel, has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit and plans to transition to Chevrolets.

Newman/Haas was unsatisfied with the way their Indy program was shaping up, and Shank wouldn’t justify fielding a car with an uncompetitive engine. Besides Alesi and FFU, Lotus is left only with its flagship squad: HVM Racing and Simona de Silvestro, currently 24th in points with three DNFs.

No, it’s not an ideal situation for anybody involved. Lotus would like to have retained more of its teams, while Alesi – who reportedly turned laps of 223 miles per hour at Indianapolis in Dallara’s DW12 simulator – and FFU would probably prefer to have a faster engine. But simply making the race and not embarrassing themselves may be success in and of itself. Just finishing the race should prove to folks that Alesi’s still got the talent. And not producing a back-row dog of a car would go a long way towards helping FFU realize its goal of becoming a full-time IndyCar team someday.

In the end, success may be their only option.