New IndyCar Teams Must be Patient

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On Monday, I wrote of the surprise announcement by Citrone/Buhl Autosport to participate in the two races at IMS during the Month of May and possibly more races during the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season. I’m sure they have realistic, yet still high aspirations for what they can expect this season and beyond.

However, the last few teams to enter the series have found tough sledding. In December of 2018. Veteran sports-car team, DragonSpeed Racing announced what appeared to be a modest 2019 campaign with thirty-four year-old IndyCar rookie Ben Hanley in the cockpit. They were to enter five races, including the 2019 Indianapolis 500. They also planned to run the season-opener at St. Petersburg, and then Barber, Road America and Mid-Ohio.

Due to a late yellow during the first round of qualifying at St. Petersburg, Hanley moved on to the second round, yet qualified twelfth. He finished eighteenth and two laps down, but that wasn’t too bad for the team’s maiden voyage into IndyCar. At Barber, Handley and fellow-Brit Max Chilton were the last two cars running, and they finished two laps down – twenty-first and twenty-second respectively in a twenty-four car field.

At Indianapolis, DragonSpeed quietly shocked many in attendance for qualifying, when Hanley sagely qualified on the outside of Row Nine, while two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso went home as well as the two fulltime cars from Carlin. Unfortunately, Handley fell out after fifty-four laps. But it seemed like every time I looked up in the early laps, he was in the pits with a mechanical issue. Although he was credited with fifty-four laps, it was a long day for Ben Hanley and DragonSpeed.

Despite their intentions to run two more races last summer, we never heard from DragonSpeed again during the 2019 season. Team Owner Elton Julian announced in August that while they would not return in 2019, they planned to run ten races in 2020. In December, that number was trimmed to six – St. Petersburg, Long Beach, the Indianapolis 500, Texas, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca. No driver was mentioned at the time and as of now, that part-time seat remains open.

No mater how realistic their expectations were for 2019, last season had to be a disappointment. Quite honestly, I have my doubts that DragonSpeed will answer the bell at all six of those races. Last year they fell forty percent short of their planned goal. I’ll be surprised if they make it to more than four races this season.

DragonSpeed is far from being the only established team in another series to find the transition into IndyCar difficult. Argentinean Ricardo Juncos had a tradition of success in Star Mazda and Indy Lights, winning multiple championships in both. In 2017, Juncos Racing made their IndyCar debut at the Indianapolis 500 with drivers Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra. Pigot finished eighteenth, while Saavedra finished fifteenth in the team’s initial IndyCar outing.

But in 2018, reality set in. Juncos ran one car, in eleven races during a seventeen-race season, split among three drivers – René Binder, Kyle Kaiser and Alfonso Celis, Jr. The best finish between the three of them was a pair of sixteenth place finishes – Kaiser at Long Beach and Binder at Barber. Seven of their eleven finishes were twentieth or worse.

We only saw Juncos on the grid twice in 2019, at COTA and the Indianapolis 500 – where Kaiser finished eighteenth and thirty-first respectively. However, their finest moment came in qualifying for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500, when the woefully under-funded team made the field at the expense of Fernando Alonso and well-funded McLaren. However, like DragonSpeed – we never heard from Juncos again in 2019. Supposedly, Ricardo Juncos is working on something for the 2020 Indianapolis 500, but nothing seems close to be confirmed.

Perhaps the best example of how tough things can be for a new team in the NTT IndyCar Series is Carlin. Trevor Carlin’s team had won championships in European Formula 3, GP3, Formula Nissan/Renault 3.5, British Formula 3, F4 British Championship, Formula 2 and Indy Lights. The team had also had tremendous success in Japanese Formula 3 and GP2. When they announced plans to join the NTT IndyCar Series for 2018, it was a question of how long it would take them to find success instead of if they would find success.

After fielding two fulltime cars over the past two IndyCar seasons, serious doubts are starting to emerge. Their initial season in 2018 proved to be their best and most stable. Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball moved from Chip Ganassi Racing over to Carlin. It was a natural fit as they had been Ganassi teammates for two seasons and got along well with each other. It also didn’t hurt that Chilton’s father was an investor at Carlin and controlled Chilton’s Gallagher sponsorship.

It was expected that it would take the team a while to find their footing in IndyCar. It did. Chilton finished nineteenth in the 2018 season-opener at St. Petersburg, while Kimball finished twentieth. It was only slightly better at Phoenix, when Kimball finished seventeenth and Chilton was eighteenth. The best race for the team during that inaugural season was Race Two at Belle Isle, when Kimball finished eighth and Chilton was eleventh. Kimball did manage fifth at Toronto that season, but Kimball and Chilton struggled to point-standings of seventeenth and nineteenth.

2019 was a brutal year for Carlin. No less than six drivers drove for the team. Kimball only had funding for five races going into the season, but ended up running seven races for Carlin. He was also the only driver among three Carlin entries to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. His best result in seven races was a pair of tenth-place finishes at Pocono and Portland. He split time in the car with newly-added driver Pato O’Ward, who had been a financial casualty before the season at Harding Steinbrenner Racing. After Road America, O-Ward headed to Super Formula racing in Japan – leaving Sage Karam and RC Enerson to split time in the car

After Indianapolis, Max Chilton announced that he would no longer run the oval portion of the IndyCar schedule. Conor Daly was tabbed to run the remaining oval races. Daly’s participation with the team provided one of the few bright spots for Carlin in 2019. When Daly finished sixth at Gateway, that was the highest finish for the team all season, among the six drivers.

For 2020, Charlie Kimball has taken his services to Foyt. Chilton has been announced for the non-ovals in the No. 59 at Carlin this season, but the oval-portion for that car is still an open seat. The driver for the No. 31 car has not been named either, though Felipe Nasr and Sergio Sette Camara split time in the car during the Open Test at COTA earlier this month.

For all of their reputation as a winning team in all types of ladder series, Carlin has been a model of instability and uncertainty as they head into their third full season of IndyCar competition. Would anyone have predicted that? I wouldn’t have.

It’s tough to break into the NTT IndyCar Series and find success early. Technically, you could say that Harding Steinbrenner Racing (formerly Harding Racing) won in their third year of existence; but it took an alliance with Andretti Autosport to do it. Who was the last new team to win their first race? That would be Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR), which came into existence in 2012 and won the season-finale that same year at Fontana. However, some would say that this was pretty much the same team as Vision Racing, which ran from 2005 through the 2009 season. But two years went by in between the Vision years and the ECR years.

Carpenter drove a limited schedule in 2010 in an association between Vision and Panther Racing, and he drove another partial season for Sarah Fisher Racing in 2011. Add the fact that by the time ECR came into being, they were running a new DW12 chassis and the new Chevy V6 engine – I think it’s safe to call ECR a new team in 2012. That makes winning that same year even more impressive.

Quite honestly, I wish the record was better for new teams coming into the series. It might make others looking to enter IndyCar more inclined to do so. Given the record of the three most recent teams to enter the series, potentially new teams have to be able to play the long game and be patient. Sometimes potential sponsors aren’t willing to do that.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “New IndyCar Teams Must be Patient”

  1. Landing sponsors in IndyCar is a hard sell which makes it difficult to secure the necessary funding to do well.

  2. Well, I wonder what Kyle Kaiser would be able to do with a good car.

    The current versions of Juncos and Carlin to a lesser extent, seem a bit like the Euromotorsports and Project Indy of today regarding their performances during this past year.

    Dreyer & Reinbold is probably doing it the right way: focussing on being an Indianapolis 500 regular and then expanding from there.

    And I remember when Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Raing rejoined the series in the latter half of 2011 with a few appearances of Pippa Mann, then followed by years of being a single-car effort. And it wasn’t until Graham Rahal started winning for the team that they expanded to two cars again, and with an experienced and funded driver as well who has also been a proven winner.

    Setting up shop elsewhere than Indianapolis might not have helped Carlin’s two-car effort. But what can this team do to turn things around? Probably invest on the engineering side for several successive years, like it has paid off for Coyne.

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…it’s Ben Hanley…no D in his last name.

    • As Red Green would say: “If the girls don’t find you handsome or Handley, they can at least find you Hanley”.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    To be fair, we did hear from Dragonspeed after Indianapolis, when Elton Julian said that visa issues would prevent them from bringing over the personnel to field the car at the additional races they had planned. They had similar, though less extensive, issues prior to Indianapolis, so I am inclined to believe Julian here that this was at least part of the reason why they disappeared last summer.

    Finding the right combination of driver, funding, personnel, and patience to make a new Indycar team work well and win is probably art as much as it is science, but acknowledging the importance of all 4 of those things is critical to any successful new squad. And to be fair to Indycar, new and young teams are not exactly putting a lot of hardware in their trophy cases in other top-level racing series either.

  5. sort of sounds like Entity Indycar Series

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