Welcome to the RACER Mailbag. Questions for any of RACER’s writers can be sent to email@example.com. Due to the high volume of questions received, we can’t guarantee that every letter will be published, but we’ll answer as many as we can. Published questions may be edited for length and clarity. Questions received after 3pm ET each Monday will appear the following week.
Q: One of the greatest problems with IndyCar (and motorsport in general) is ensuring that rides go to those with the most talent, instead of the most wealthy or well-connected. Indy Lights does a fine job getting drivers the required experience and into contact with teams, but the scholarship money meant to help the careers of the most talented seems to provide only very limited help.
Looking at the last five champions, Kyle Kaiser only got five races, Linus Lundqvist is unlikely to find a ride next year, Oliver Askew got one of the few pre-funded rides but is now left with nothing, and Kyle Kirkwood was only saved by ROKiT after getting passed over for Devlin DeFrancesco. Pato O’Ward is the only one that truly benefited from the scholarship by turning seven races with Carlin into a ride with McLaren.
So why doesn’t IndyCar take some money to create a team of people whose job is to help upcoming drivers find business connections? A group of people that function somewhere in between career counselors and agents to help drivers connect and create relationships with sponsors, which may provide more than just a few races worth of support. Is this unfeasible, or is IndyCar a poor investment that businesses have no interest in, unless a family member is the beneficiary?
MARSHALL PRUETT: The problem you raise is what’s also known as the underlying foundation of our favorite sport. Pick the series — Formula 1, NASCAR, IMSA, IndyCar, and so on — and there are drivers who pay for the privilege of competing. I can’t think of a single series where all of the drivers are paid by the teams (drivers paying teams and getting a paycheck back from that money doesn’t count).
So what we have here is perfectly normal. I don’t love that this is the way things are, but it’s nothing new. We don’t have enough money coming in from sponsors, TV profits, or any other area to allow our teams to go and hire the best available talent in the same way NFL, NBA, or MLB teams do with their huge piles of cash.
Of the 10 full-time IndyCar teams that will be on next year’s grid, seven have at least one entry that’s either partially or fully paid by a driver bringing money from a sponsor, personal investor, manufacturer, or family funding/profits from family-owned business. That’s 70 percent, for those keeping score at home. Andretti Autosport choosing Devlin DeFrancesco over Kyle Kirkwood isn’t a case of the 2021 Indy Lights champ being passed over; it’s perfect reflection of what the No. 29 Honda entry required to stay on track and, ultimately, to keep the Andretti team afloat.
The Indy Lights advancement prize, which has been reduced to a joke by Penske Entertainment, is/was meant to help the champions get a start, not to solve their long-term funding needs or guarantee them a long career in the sport. Supreme talent, along with that $1.2 million prize, was never going to be ignored, and dating back to 2014 when Andersen Promotions implemented the advancement prize, every single one of its Indy Lights champions graduated to IndyCar and all have driven for multiple IndyCar teams, barring Kaiser, who was on the softer end of the supreme talent spectrum.
I don’t disagree that the establishment of a new department within IndyCar to help Lights champions and other strong talent to acquire the sponsorship needed to race in the series would be a good thing, but there’s two realities we need to consider first: When it comes to IndyCar, Penske Entertainment has shown no interest in chasing sponsors for any entity other than Penske Entertainment. And secondly, if we look to the big cut in the advancement prize for Lundqvist and Penske Entertainment’s shifting of that cut to paying prize money to its teams, it has sent a clear message that it places a greater priority on its teams than its drivers. It won’t spend the money to give its first Lights champion a head start in IndyCar, but would spend money on establishing a new department to find money to give its new champions a head start… That’s a heck of a Catch 22.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about attracting engine manufacturers to IndyCar and some fans are under the impression that newer and more relatable technology is needed. Even though hybrid or electric energies are often marked as the obvious answer, I’ve notice that in Japan, Super Formula (I believe Super GT might also be on board with this as well) is working on a carbon-neutral formula. At first I thought this was strictly for the engine formulas, but it turns out it also includes how the tires and chassis are made. In short, Super Formula is trying to make as many aspects of their cars as carbon neutral as possible.
Since Firestone is already making a more environmentally friendly tire and hybrid motors are already on the way, wouldn’t a carbon neutral idea be a good direction for IndyCar? With talks of a new chassis possibly years away, maybe IndyCar can also try to make them as carbon neutral as possible as well. In this way the series would look innovative and different without changing too much, and at the same time maybe bring in some manufacturers/sponsors that might find these ideas attractive.
Do you think it would work? Thanks!
Tom Yang, Milwaukee, WI
MP: Are we talking about Super Formula planting a bunch of trees to offset any resources — electricity or otherwise — to manufacture carbon fiber tubs, weld and machine metal suspensions, and whatnot, or some other manufacturing process that’s carbon neutral? Admittedly, I’ve never associated the creation of race cars as something that lives anywhere near the serious generation of pollution or a drain on resources that places stress on the environment.
My guess is this is a well-intended marketing initiative, and if that’s what it takes for a racing series to think about its impact on the planet, that’s not a bad thing. I’d also bet that it won’t be long before we see the rest of the world’s major racing series — ones that don’t have a carbon-neutral plan — get in on the game.
IndyCar is moving to a carbon-neutral-ish fuel next year with new series partner Shell. We saw Team Penske use a B.E.V. (battery electric vehicle) tractor to haul one of its transporters to Portland (and I believe Laguna Seca, as well) to close the season, but with our electric infrastructure largely supported by the mining and burning of coal to then charge B.E.V.s, it’s hard to claim full carbon neutrality…
I’m sure there are other IndyCar/Indy 500-related initiatives I’m forgetting, and as a whole, I can’t see the downside of doing more in this area to appeal to sponsors and manufacturers who won’t do business with a series unless there’s an environmentally-friendly plan in place. I’m also sure that once such a thing becomes a frontline IndyCar initiative, we’ll have another topic where IndyCar’s younger and older fan bases can find something to argue about.