Does Size Really Matter?

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First of all, get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about race teams, not whatever entered your filthy mind when you read the title of this post. This past weekend, David Malsher of Motorsport.com wrote a very interesting article on an interview he had with Trevor Carlin, whose team entered the NTT IndyCar Series two seasons ago.

We always think of Robin Miller and Marshall Pruett as the go-to sources for anything that has to do with IndyCar, but I think that Malsher is one of the most underrated IndyCar writers out there. If you are not reading his stuff – you should be.

In this particular article, Carlin is afraid that if the Big Three keep growing, it will squeeze the little guy out. He predicts that if that happens, you will essentially have three mega-teams competing for race wins and the IndyCar crown. While I’m sure he was over-dramatizing the situation in order to make a point, it may not be as crazy as it sounds.

He is concerned that with Andretti Autosport expanding to five cars next year, and Ganassi expanding to three – it’ll be tough for a smaller team to crack the Top-Fifteen in any given race. I’m not sure I am completely buying what Carlin is selling, but he makes a few good and interesting points in the article.

But the thing is…I’m not convinced that over-expansion is the way to go. In my opinion, bigger is not always better and there is such a thing as too big.

During the CART days of the early 1990s, single-car teams could still win races and championships. Derrick Walker came within a half-a-car-length of winning the 1992 Indianapolis 500 and won the 500-miler at Michigan later that year. Hall/VDS won at Surfer’s Paradise as a one-car team in 1991. Bobby Rahal won the 1992 championship as the owner-driver of a single-car effort. Scott Goodyear won at Michigan for the second time in three years, while driving for Kenny Bernstein’s Budweiser King Racing in another single-car effort.

But the maximum size for a team was generally two cars. I never remember Newman/Haas ever running more than two cars in their entire existence. Ganassi was always a two-car fulltime team until 2001, when they made room for Scott Dixon when Pac West closed their doors. I’d say that move worked out for them.

Roger Penske doesn’t like for his team to be too big. For decades, it was rare for The Captain to run three fulltime cars. The first year he did it was in 1981, when he ran cars for Bobby Unser, Rick Mears and Bill Alsup. He scaled back down for two cars the following year and didn’t do it again until 1985, when he ran Danny Sullivan and Al Unser fulltime and Rick Mears on a partial schedule, as he recuperated from the severe foot, ankle and leg injuries he sustained at Sanair in the fall of 1984. The next year, he was back down to Mears and Sullivan fulltime, with Al Unser in a handful of races.

In 1990, Penske expanded the team to three fulltime cars for one year, in order to make room for Emerson Fittipaldi. The following season, it was back down to two as Danny Sullivan was not invited back at the end of his contract. It was a similar situation in 1994, when another expansion took place at Marlboro Team Penske in order to accommodate Al Unser, Jr.; but the following year it was back down to Fittipaldi and Little Al, as Paul Tracy was farmed out to Newman/Haas for a season. From that point, Team Penske operated under the two-car model for over a decade.

When the career of Helio Castroneves was in jeopardy due to his tax evasion trial that started in the fall of 2008, Roger Penske enlisted the services of the unemployed Will Power as a potential fill-in. Power tested throughout the offseason with Penske, but his fill-in role lasted a total of one race; since Helio was acquitted the Friday leading into the Long Beach race – the second race of the season. But Penske took note of Power’s ability and kept a part-time car for him for a few races.

2010 started the regular three-car era for Team Penske. Power, Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe all enjoyed fulltime status at one of the best teams in the business. When Briscoe was not brought back in 2013, they momentarily ran only two full-time cars, but went back to three in 2014 – when Juan Montoya made his return to IndyCar for the first time since 2000.

In 2015, they did the unthinkable for The Captain – they expanded to a four-car effort to make room for Simon Pagenaud. They ran four cars for two seasons, before Montoya was shipped off to Penske’s sports car team and they contracted down to three. Penske and Tom Cindric have both stated that they would prefer to not run four full-time cars for the foreseeable future. Since 2017, Penske has scaled back to three cars and that seems to be their comfort zone.

In 2011, Ganassi expanded from two to four cars, with the newer cars being part of a satellite team. While one of those cars had several occupants, Charlie Kimball was the one constant in the other car. During that time frame, Chip Ganassi Racing won three championships – one with Dario Franchitti and the other with Dixon – so I’d say that four cars didn’t seem to be much of a distraction. Nevertheless, Ganassi pared back down to two cars for 2018 and 2019. For 2020, they will expand to three cars with the addition of Marcus Ericsson.

But when it comes to running multiple fulltime cars, Michael Andretti is the master. But has it really served Andretti Autosport well?

Since Michael Andretti bought Team Green from Barry Green for the 2003 season, when they only ran three fulltime cars, they have run less than four fulltime cars only one other season – 2012, when they ran three fulltime cars for James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Is it a coincidence that that season was the last year an Andretti Autosport car won the IndyCar championship?

Andretti cars won two championships in 2004 and 2005, when they were part of just a handful of teams that used Honda engines. After Honda became the sole engine provider in 2006, Andretti Autosport only won one more championship in the 2000s – when Franchitti won it in 2007. When they scaled back to three cars for 2012, Hunter-Reay won the championship with Chevy power. By 2013, Andretti was back to four drivers and they are still searching for their first championship since 2012.

If four is good, is five better? We are about to find out. I understand that Colton Herta and Harding Steinbrenner Racing were essentially satellite teams of Andretti Autosport. But next season, all five teams will be under one roof. Will that improve the situation over what they had in 2019, or will it be worse?

Personally, I think Andretti Autosport is spreading themselves too thin. But I can promise you this – many teams will be watching for various reasons. Teams like Penske and Ganassi will be watching to see how this works out. If Andretti Autosport takes the Top-Three spots in the championship in 2020, you can bet they will be copying the Andretti model shortly thereafter. If Andretti Autosport becomes an absolute train-wreck next season, that will be duly noted by their rivals also.

The Trevor Carlins and Dale Coynes of the paddock will also watch with great interest. They don’t want five and seven car teams to become the norm. Trevor Carlin stated in the David Malsher article that one thing that appealed to him about IndyCar was that there is always the chance for an underdog to get a big result. If that trend continues, Carlin said “…we would probably just pack up our bags and leave.”

This not-so-veiled threat puts IndyCar in a tough spot. They are not in a position to limit teams to a certain number of cars. With car-count down to twenty-two or twenty-three cars per race, we need every car we can get on the grid – no matter who owns it. But I can see Carlin’s point. If you are going against mega-teams with five cars or more, what are your chances when you are under-funded and your driver-lineup is unstable throughout the year? After a while, you get tired of qualifying on the back row every weekend and being a perennial backmarker – or even worse, a punchline.

Andretti Autosport may or may not succeed carrying five cars. Some say that in all actuality, it was a five-car team this past year. If that’s true, would you call the season a success? Their top driver faded in the last few races and finished third in points. Their only championship driver in their lineup failed to win a race this past season and finished eighth in points. Their other two drivers, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach, finished sixteenth and eighteenth in points respectively. Their “satellite” driver, Colton Herta, won two races and finished seventh in points.

All three of the Big Three had drivers in contention for the championship going into the last race. If you count Herta as part of the Big Three, which most people do, you have to go all the way to ninth in points to find a driver from outside the Big Three – and that would be Takuma Sato, driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. That fact alone sort of bolsters Trevor Carlin’s point.

The 2020 season is still almost five months away, and there are already several interesting storylines. Trevor Carlin just gave us another one to watch. I’ll admit I had never really given much thought about how expansion by the Big Three had the potential to crush the smaller teams. Now that he has brought it to our attention, the fortunes of Andretti Autosport as a five-car team will be another interesting tidbit to watch as the 2020 season unfolds.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Does Size Really Matter?”

  1. Possibly limiting may work. Imagine what would happen in F1 if Mercedes, who have enough money to cover the debt of small countries, were allowed more cars? Them and/or Ferrari running 4 or more cars would kill the sport stone dead. IndyCar still has that ‘small guy magic’ of lesser teams competing. It’s one of it’s attractions. Don’t spoil it…

  2. While he seems to be a great kid, I’m sure Veach will be out of Andretti after his sponsor money expires this year and they’ll be back to four drivers.

    But let’s be honest, looking back at the last several years it seems like Penske is going to continue to sweep all of the important trophies so I’m not sure any of this matters. I’m a Team Penske fan but I’m growing a bit weary of their domination and even though I really like all three of his drivers I find it difficult to root for any of them right now because it feels like rooting for the Yankees.

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I’m glad Penske is in the series but I openly cheer against all three of the drivers. I’m very tired of their dominance.

  4. Shyam R Cherupalla Says:

    George you mentioned Derrick walker came so close to winning 1992 Indy 500, the answer lies there for Indycar to open winners in other teams. The reason Derrick Walker’s team so close to winning Indy 500 was the openness in specs everywhere with the cars, so even a small team that excel in one aspect (area) of car in a race have a chance because a big time team might not have focused at that area of a small team and therefore a new combination of things lead to a small team exceling. At the moment with so little things open, the bigger teams are able to perfect everything they can in the spec portion of the car and there is not too many variables in the open area of the car to produce a combination that can win as a small team. So as much as Indycar is improving in terms of rating and attendance, unless more areas of the car is opened it will never get back to how it was in Mid 90s like CART and this is why Indy500 was so celebrated because each year some fringe team might bring something so new and fresh that you cannot but wonder what this new thing is

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Limiting team sizes can be an effective way to promote competitive balance though it is a bit antithetical in auto racing historically. Of course, the sustained presence of teams with more than 2-3 cars is a pretty recent development in racing history, especially in Indycar history. In the past, it was tremendously difficult to assemble the personnel and funding to effectively field more than 2 cars, especially outside of the 500. That is no longer the case, but it should be noted that the expansion of the series’ top teams initially happened as a response to the shrinking ranks of small teams. It is a bit of chicken-egg problem: reducing the car count at larger teams requires competitive small teams finishing ahead of the large teams’ worst entries (Penske historically folds his 3rd and 4th cars when they finished poorly in the championship), but it is a challenge to encourage new and small teams to participate when they see large teams with 3+ cars locking down the podium. Even so, I don’t think Indycar’s fragile grid can afford to lose cars at this time, especially due to a rule.

    Nevertheless, Formula 1 has employed such a rule for a long time and NASCAR has done the same in recent years. I’m not sure it did much for the competitive balance of either series, and while it did not decimate grid sizes it also did them no favors. CART employed a 2 car per team rule in the late 1990s, only ending it after Gerry Forsythe and Andrew Craig squared off over whether Forsythe had the right to field a car out of a different shop after buying the Tasman team (he did, then he didn’t, then Craig got fired and he did again). The rule did seem to work as intended when CART grids topped 25 cars, but by the time of the Forsythe-Craig squabble its weaknesses were laid bare (though CART’s grid sizes collapsed regardless). It is worth pointing out that most stick-and-ball sports have comparable rules too: preventing owners from owning more than one team in a league, roster limits, salary caps, college athletics scholarship limits…

  6. When IndyCar raced the IR-03 or IR-08 Dallara, I got the feeling that certain years in the life cycle of a chassis promote the dominance of the Big Three whereas other seasons don’t.

    A new chassis always levels the playing field so small teams can race with the Big Three for the championship. That was the case when Graham Rahal was in the championship hunt in one of his father’s cars at the beginning of the manufacturer aero kit era. That started the resurgence of Team Rahal to become one of the Big Four.

    And whilst the “Red Cars” of Penske and Ganassi had the IR-03/08 dialled in by 2009 when they dominated, the “little guys” had caught up again by the time the chassis had gotten a little older in 2011.

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the same happened at the end of the DW-12’s life cycle. The new cockpit canopy called aeroscreen could reshuffle the cards on that one, though.

    Is it time for another season for multiple winners next year already? We’ll see.

  7. 3 cars per team is plenty.

  8. Oliver wells Says:

    Rossi supposedly did not join Penske as it meant a four car team so he is now in a five car team! But seriously, market forces apply but if a team owner highlights this as a concern attention should be made.

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