After months of anticipation, the IZOD IndyCar Series finally revealed last week that its season finale will take place in the bright lights of Las Vegas. But what looked to be a relatively simple announcement turned into something much bigger.
The $5 million prize to any “outsider” that can defeat IndyCar’s best on Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway may strike some as a touch gimmicky, but it certainly showed off the ambition and moxie that series CEO Randy Bernard has.
Ever since he took over the sport, he has looked for ways to make IndyCar the best series in the world. In his mind, this is another way to establish that sort of lofty stature.
“We want to see anyone that thinks that they are good enough to compete with our drivers,” Bernard said on Tuesday. “I think that we threw it out there with the belief saying that, first and foremost, we believe our drivers are the best drivers in the world. They are the fastest, most versatile race car drivers in the world.
“We have to gain credibility for these drivers, and there's not a better way than to throw a challenge out like this.”
With that big shot of buzz, just about everything appeared set for the final run to the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Fla.) on March 27.
Then just hours later, one of IndyCar’s fan favorites found himself out of a job. Again.
With limited funding to give, former series champion Tony Kanaan said that he couldn’t hang on to his ride at De Ferran Dragon Racing – a ride that he had received just before this past Christmas. Subsequently, the team shut down last Thursday after four seasons of operation (two as a full-time program).
Before last Thursday, the pairing of Kanaan and the highly respected Gil de Ferran had to be considered one of the more interesting to watch for the upcoming season. After running Raphael Matos in 2009 and 2010, DFDR seemed ready to improve tremendously with its latest driver.
“We have a big challenge ahead of us, but we have the attitude of winners,” Kanaan said in December. “We have Gil, who doesn't need any introduction, and myself with all the results that we had. The goal is to go win races. The more races you win, you put yourself in a position to go win championships.”
Now, Kanaan is back to scrapping for sponsorship. Save for his all-too-brief tenure at DFDR, he’s been in that unenviable position since he left Andretti Autosport at the end of the 2010 season after 7-Eleven’s decision to drop its primary sponsorship of his former No. 11 machine.
He’s also back in a free-agent pool that could have some talented and disappointed drivers watching St. Petersburg on television instead of racing there. There are only a handful of open seats still remaining with less than one month to go, and open-wheel champions such as Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Paul Tracy and Sebastian Bourdais are currently on the outside looking in. All have talked with various teams over the offseason, but as of now, none has nailed down a ride.
And what about the younger competitors of note that have tested this offseason for various IndyCar teams? Firestone Indy Lights champion J.K. Vernay turned laps for Conquest Racing, which also has spoken with Tracy about a potential deal. Canada’s James Hinchcliffe has tested twice for Newman-Haas as it tries to pair him with veteran Oriol Servia. Then you have Martin Plowman, who has tested alongside Bourdais for Dale Coyne Racing.
The silly season looks to go through the Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park on March 14-16 and right into race week in St. Petersburg. There’s still some time, but it’s starting to run out.
That’s not good news for IndyCar, which really needs to have its former titleholders in the fray. Kanaan and Wheldon have been part of IRL/IndyCar’s core for a while, and Tracy and Bourdais did the same for CART/Champ Car. Their departures or continued full-time absences would be tough blows to take.
But the toughest blow may be with Kanaan on the sidelines. It goes without saying that he still is considered one of the best drivers and he may be at his highest point of popularity in the open-wheel world. Unfortunately, none of that matters.
It’s a tough trend to watch, but one that is not surprising. The economy still is having negative effects on motorsports, and while IndyCar’s overall prospects are improving, it has to work through those problems like every other series.
Nobody is safe.
Not even a champion.