Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Indycar Silly Season in Full Swing

Since the 2010 Indycar season ended October 2nd at Miami, news about the series has been swirling, and it's not just driver changes that are making this silly season one of the wackiest in recent memory. At a time when it could be argued that any Indycar publicity is good publicity, announcements made and rumors surfacing since the season finale have been alternately shocking and exhilarating for Indycar followers. The biggest driver news comes from Andretti Autosport, where Tony Kanaan was released from his contract due to the withdrawal of sponsor 7-Eleven from the team. Paired with that announcement was the news that Andretti had inked Ryan Hunter-Reay to a new two year deal. Seen in this photo having a conversation before pre-race introductions at Kentucky Speedway this season, one wonders what TK and RHR were discussing. Setup information? Post-season plans? I doubt they were talking about contracts.
On the one hand, I am very happy for Ryan to have some job security, if there is such a thing in Indycars these days. On the other hand, Tony has been the ultimate team player with Andretti and deserves a top ride in the series for 2011. Since Penske seems set, the best prospects would seem to be either Ganassi, where he almost went a few years ago, or KV Racing. I think he could help KV the most and serve as a mentor to young gun Viso and newcomer Sato who suffered through a miserable 2010 season with crashes and DNF's. If only two seats are available for KV next year and Tony takes one, then Viso is probably the odd man out since Sato has backing from his homeland that should keep him in the ride. With Lotus announcing recently it will partner with KV in an increased technological role in upcoming season, this team could be on the rise and Tony is just the guy to take them to the top. Tony is also likely to be the most fit driver in the paddock next year as he takes on the moniker of the "World's Fastest Triathlete" and competes in that grueling sport to get ready physically.
Speaking of Ganassi, a three car team for 2011 is not out of the question with the recent story of General Motors coming back to Indycars in 2012 as an engine supplier. While the Chipster claims he knows nothing about this possibility, he is not one to show his cards prematurely. No announcement has been made about GM's plans but reports are one may come soon, perhaps even this week. Having Kanaan on hand for 2011 to help prepare for GM's return to Indycars the next year makes a ton of sense for Ganassi who would then have a three-headed monster with Dario, Dixie and TK fighting it out with the Penske trio of Helio, Briscoe and Power week after week. That would be a sight to see. In the end, I think Andretti is the loser in this particular version of musical chairs with their primary setup guy out and now having to rely on Danica, RHR and Marco to get the team's cars into the top five on a regular basis. Even though Danica and TK had a wonderful dice at Miami, they had on-track issues elsewhere and it is clear to me that Andretti had to go with those who had financial backing. Rest assured he was not going to give up son Marco to another team. If Andretti can win races in 2011, I think it will be Hunter-Reay that shows them how, but I still think they will end up whiffing ethanol fumes from the Penske and Ganassi boys.
Sandwiched between the Kanaan and GM announcements was the surprising news from Edmonton that the scheduled 2011 race had been cancelled over cost issues associated with paving the airport course. That is going to be a tough blow for guys like Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani who rely on the annual Canadian swing for their sponsor support. It's really a shame for Canadian fans who have supported Edmonton very nicely in the race's short tenure. The worst part of the deal is the gap that now leaves in the Indycar schedule, although other Canadian alternatives are being explored. A photographer friend of mine suggested that Michigan be slotted into the Edmonton space and my response was they should run 500 miles while they are at it, like they used to. With Michigan an ISC track, that option probably isn't there for 2011 but if GM is truly coming back to Indycars, racing at either Michigan or Belle Isle in Detroit will almost surely be back on the Indycar schedule of the future to be close to GM's home base.
Indycar has also announced financial support for the USAC National Driver's champ to get a shot in Firestone Indy Lights for 2011. A $300,000 prize will be awarded by Indycar to that driver to help them fund at least a partial season ride. It's a fantastic gesture although I have to say it sounds like deja vu all over again with comments accompanying the announcement that indicate Indycar's desire to tap into USAC's traditional midget, sprints and Silver Crown open wheel series for future driver talent to have a shot at running the Indy 500. Lord knows there's plenty of talent running USAC events - just look at NASCAR and how many drivers have followed Tony Stewart to the taxicab circuit. How this effort will match up with the "Road to Indy" series (Star Mazda and US F2000) is anyone's guess right now, but a ladder system of some kind is essential.
Unfortunately, a ladder system for Indycars is stymied by a lack of competive rides in the IZOD series. Tony Kanaan's future is the domino that will set the others falling, and even with Dan Wheldon likely leaving Panther, new drivers have few options once they rise to Indy Lights and show they have race winning potential. This season's crop of Indy Lights drivers is loaded with talented shoes like James Davison, James Hinchcliffe, Pippa Mann and others. Where do they go to keep climbing the ladder? I look forward to the 2011 season for the answers.
While I am working on my 2011 travel and race photography schedule, if there are teams, sponsors or drivers out there who need an experienced motorsports photographer to help promote their efforts next year, then look no further. My recent work with American Motor Journal has been very rewarding and although Indycars are where my heart is, I would like to expand my race coverage to include more personal engagements in Indycars, Grand-Am, American LeMans, USAC and other series. If it moves, I can shoot it and I always bring back pictures. That's what I do.
Finally, USAC driver Shane Hmiel is no longer undergoing treatment at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis and will be continuing his rehabilitation near the Hmiel home in North Carolina. The news about Shane recently has continued to get better and I hope he is able to make a full recovery, even if he doesn't race again.

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