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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

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 1

This is the first post of a five-part series predicting the 25 biggest storylines of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season. We’ll be addressing some of the top assumptions coming into the year, and either reaffirming them as fact or dismissing them as fiction. Today, we’ll count down stories 25-21. Enjoy!

Photo credit: Ned Leone

25. Ed Carpenter Racing is simply the second coming of Vision Racing.

FACT: This time around, Tony George didn’t simply buy the assets of a folded team like Kelley Racing and turn it into an outfit to keep Carpenter in the series. This is Carpenter’s team, and he hired the perfect person to run it: Derrick Walker, the longtime CART owner, who was responsible for launching Will Power’s career and turning Gil de Ferran into a contender. While Carpenter is still lacking in speed on road and street courses, he’s surrounded himself with the right people to make him faster.

24. Taking a few seasons off won’t impact Bobby Rahal’s team as it returns to full-time competition.

FACT: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing usually put up solid performances in its limited IndyCar appearances over the past few years, nearly stealing last year’s Indianapolis 500 win with Bertrand Baguette, so returning to two full-time cars should be a cinch. Because they’ve moved back up to full-time competition, they were able to select from a better (and better-funded) pool of drivers. Lead driver Takuma Sato showed his typical speed and improved consistency last year, while Luca Filippi will be an intriguing young prospect once he starts his season at Indianapolis.

23. The NBC Sports Network will be a major step up from Versus, its predecessor.

FACT: If you’ve watched any of NBCSN’s coverage of any sport since the rebranding, you can tell that the broadcasts are going to look and feel professional. Everything from NHL hockey, its lead property, to niche sports like the Dakar Rally and Red Bull Crashed Ice have been covered with skill and care. With NBCSN also committing to air all Indy Lights races this year, expect an extra level of attention to detail in 2012.

22. Simona de Silvestro will finally have a breakout year in 2012.

FICTION: Despite de Silvestro’s HVM Racing employers being the lead Lotus team this year, Sebring testing may have been an indicator of where they’re going to be in the points. There’s simply so much talent in the series right now that the top of the standings is going to be crowded, and breaking out may take an other-worldly performance. While de Silvestro has the raw talent, she hasn’t had the luck in her IndyCar career. If Lotus is as far behind as some think they are, that might not change.

21. Chevrolet will outperform Honda consistently in its return to the sport.

FACT: Honda has Chip Ganassi, but Chevrolet has two advantages on its side: a more experienced engine builder and a deeper lineup. Chevrolet once worked with engine builder Ilmor to create the Chevy Indy V8, which won 64 of 78 CART races from 1987 to 1991; after years of building the old Honda engines, the two companies have reunited to produce the new turbocharged V6s. And while Honda has secured the always strong Ganassi squad, Chevrolet has more teams in winning contention under its belt, with Roger Penske, Michael Andretti, Jimmy Vasser, and John Barnes among the owners who will sport the bowtie this year.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Ed Carpenter

Photo credit: Paul Henman (CC-BY-NC-SA)

#20 Fuzzy’s Premium Vodka Dallara-Chevrolet, Ed Carpenter Racing

Born: March 3, 1981

Home: Indianapolis, Indiana

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: After coming desperately close to winning at Kentucky two years in a row, Carpenter finally managed to turn the trick in 2011, edging eventual series champion Dario Franchitti by .0098 of a second to take his maiden IndyCar victory. He finished 26th in points while running a limited schedule for Sarah Fisher Racing.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Never particularly well-respected for his skills at turning both left and right, Carpenter competed on three circuits that fit that bill in 2011: Mid-Ohio, Infineon, and the streets of Baltimore. He failed to finish better than 20th in any of those events.

SEASON OUTLOOK: In an environment where many race teams are scaling back or shutting down entirely, Carpenter and stepfather/IRL founder Tony George have taken the bold step of starting an entirely new team for 2012. No, this isn’t a reformation of the mediocre Vision Racing outfit where Carpenter spent six average years; this new team will operate out of the Walker Racing shops and employ Michael Cannon as its engineer. The talent of the people working for ECR will be on par with some of the top teams in the sport.

That being said, it’s up to Carpenter to make that talent gel, both on the track and off. Kentucky won’t return to the schedule this year, taking away his one guaranteed podium finish, and with a shrinking oval schedule, his strongest traits as a driver will be limited. Carpenter will have to utilize the talent he’s assembled behind the scenes to help him improve on the road and street circuits. On paper, this team has top-15 quality; if Carpenter makes serious strides away from the ovals, and we know he’s working at it, this could be the surprise top-10 team that happens nearly every year.

– Chris Leone