The 2014 Verizon IndyCar season kicks off this weekend in St. Petersburg and that means your Frontstretch IndyCar staff returns, starting this week to bring you all the news and storylines straight from the open-wheel world. We will once again be bringing you previews and recaps of all the racing action along with our Open-Wheel Wednesday commentaries. We’ll also be introducing a new piece, Up Close and Personal With… starting next Tuesday, April 1st, focusing on open-wheel drivers, past and present.
We start off with our season preview today, catching up on some of the biggest IndyCar developments of the offseason and looking ahead to what 2014 may hold.
1. The biggest news, of course, is Verizon taking over title sponsorship of the IndyCar Series. What’s your thought on the fit of this sponsorship and potential of it?
Matt Stallknecht: Honestly, it’s a great fit. Verizon is a high-tech company and INDYCAR is a high-tech sport. Both properties have plenty of affordances which allow each to feed off of the other and make the other better. I think this is a solid partnership that can be mutually beneficial for both parties, and in INDYCAR’s case, Verizon offers about as much financial security and stability as you could possibly hope for in a title sponsor. Overall, everyone wins, and INDYCAR fans can breath a sigh of relief as a result.
Huston Ladner: This question is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, if this news is the biggest bit from IndyCar, then it should be noted that the offseason wasn’t all that exciting. But really, Verizon taking over was long anticipated and it seems like a good fit. If Verizon does its best to capitalize on the relationship, something Izod never did, it should work out well. In addition, there is the potential to develop a psuedo-rivalry between cell service providers with Sprint in NASCAR and Verizon in Indy. Some marketing person has to be hitting on that one already, right? One question that has to be lurking is what it means for the sponsorship of the Penske Racing teams.
Toni Montgomery: Not an unexpected bit of news, since talk has been pointing to Verizon as the new title sponsor all along… but good to see it actually a done deal. It takes a lot of pressure off as far as financial support in my opinion and now we can focus on the product. I think this is a good fit. Verizon has already put a lot of technology into the sport with the apps they have in place, and I think the image of IndyCar as a technological sport matches well with that. I also think it gives IndyCar a sponsor that is more familiar to people. Izod is not what everyone wears, but Verizon is huge and brings a massive customer base to the table, both of existing fans and maybe potential new ones. I also think this is a great opportunity for a little friendly sponsor competition given that IndyCar and NASCAR now have competing sponsors. I think that opens a marketing door for Verizon and IndyCar.
2. Qualifying procedures have been changed for the Indy 500. Instead of starting with pole day and ending with bump day, the field of 33 only will now be determined on day one and the starting order, including the pole, on day 2. What are your thoughts on the new procedure?
Matt: Much ado about nothing really. It will change how the teams approach the race, yes, but I don’t think it will do anything to drastically raise the excitement level of qualifying. It almost seems like a change for the sake of change, but we’ll see how it works in May. I’m certainly not against it, I just can’t say I’m wildly excited for it.
Huston: Traditionalists are sure to howl over the change, but it doesn’t seem to be a huge deal. Bump Days have not quite had the luster that they once did so maybe it won’t change very much. The race is still what really matters and the fastest 33 will be in it. The story of how they get there has just changed a little bit.
Toni: I’m sure traditionalists will not be terribly fond of the changes, but honestly, the old system just wasn’t really working for the current reality. It was great when 55 cars showed up and there was actually a need for all of those qualifying days and some actual drama involved in making the field, particularly on bump day. We just don’t have that anymore. It’s just not the present reality so what we were left with was one qualifying format that really didn’t match the format used anywhere else and that just didn’t create the interest or excitement it used to. This brings qualifying for Indy more in line with what fans see elsewhere and also ends having to spend Bump Day trying to make it exciting when it really isn’t.
3. The driver and manufacturer points systems have also been tweaked. The driver points put more emphasis on the three 500-mile events by way of double points for those races for drivers, as well as bonus points for Indy qualifying. The manufacturer points have also been expanded a bit, beyond the simple system of last season to make the competition between the two manufacturers a bit more interesting. The 10-grid spot penalty for early engine change outs has also been eliminated and replaced instead by a points penalty for the manufacturer. Thoughts?
Matt: Excellent changes here all around. I especially like the double points for the Triple Crown events. I have always been an advocate of doing things that bolster the clout and importance of marquee races in sports like IndyCar and NASCAR, and double points is the kind of provocative and game-changing move that can really add a great deal of prestige to the big races and set them apart. The bonus points for qualifying are cool, though I’m not blown away by that change. However, I think it’s a cool wrinkle to have. As for the manufacturer points system and the engine change out rules, both were in dire need of adjustment, and the changes that were implemented were solid. Overall, I applaud IndyCar’s work in these areas.
Huston: First, good on IndyCar for awarding points for qualifying. All series should do this. The grid versus points penalty for engine changes will be one to track but it’s difficult to know how it may or may not affect those who are battling for the championship, which usually comes from the wealthier teams. But the double points for the three 500-mile events is the big thing. The AP’s Jenna Fryer joked on Twitter that a driver could sweep those three and be set for the Championship. Sure, it’s unlikely, but in essence the points from those three races are the equivalent of six others. It’s great that IndyCar wants to bring added intrigue to those events, and once again, while the likelihood of a sweep by one driver is doubtful, it just seems like a bit much. But, hey, let’s see how it plays out.
Toni: I understand what they were trying to do by giving those three events more weight, in more than just the money bonus to the driver who can accomplish the Triple Crown. It raises the stakes and elevates them above the rest of the schedule even if there isn’t a potential Crown winner. That being said, the Indy 500 for me has always been a pickle as far as its place in the scheme of the entire season and this move speaks to why. In the past, when there were many more than 33 cars showing up, I questioned giving points at all for a race the regular competitors stood a chance of being shut out of (it happens – see Penske Racing, 1995). While that’s less likely to happen these days for a number of reasons, let’s say Scott Dixon has a rough go in qualifying, starts next to one-off competitor Jacques Villeneuve, and gets crashed out by an overzealous Villeneuve on turn 1. He essentially LOSES double points to the rest of the field. This consequence may be a bit much.
As for the manufacturer end of it, these are good changes and I am really glad to see the dreaded 10-grid spot penalty go away. That just got ridiculous late in the season when half the teams were out of engines and the first 12 guys had to go to the back.
4. Which new driver/team combo do you find most intriguing? Do you see anyone, new or otherwise, who might be on the verge of a breakthrough year?
Matt: You have to go with Juan Pablo Montoya with Team Penske. He’s a star-level talent with a huge following that has a lot to prove in his return to IndyCar. What more could you want? JPM is going to be a contender right off the bat, and he offers some intriguing new blood at the front of the field for a series that is in dire need of star-caliber drivers. As for a breakout wheelman, I think Josef Newgarden could be poised to have a career year. He’s an incredible talent who now has two years of IndyCar Series experience under his belt, and I think he could really shine this year.
Huston: The correct answer here is Juan Pablo Montoya. Not only will he be in top equipment but it’s also the fact that he’s returning to open-wheel racing. Will he be rusty? Will he be awesome? It’s just the easiest story going for the sport.
Breakthrough year – tough one. It’d be great to see Graham Rahal make some noise. It seems the team put some more money into their operation and the signing of Oriol Servia should be an asset as the two will be able to share information (chuckle now, Servia detractors). The sport would benefit tremendously from his finding success as he’s engaged with fans through his appearances with the National Guard and through things like Twitter. In addition, his girlfriend, Ms. Force, brings crossover appeal from the NHRA and more attention.
Toni: I think most people are most interested in the Montoya/Penske pairing. Montoya was an absolute force when he raced in Champ Car, and he won the Indy 500 in his only start in the IndyCar Series. Granted, Formula 1 is still open-wheel, but it’s not quite the same and it’s been a few years since he was there as well. It will be interesting to see if Montoya picks up where he left off all those years ago. If he does, Team Penske is going to be a monster.
I don’t know that there is one driver who is poised for a breakout year, but there may be one team. I’m intrigued by the tag-team deal going on at Ed Carpenter Racing. We know what Conway can do on a road course and Ed Carpenter is stellar on ovals. It could be really interesting to see how that plays out.
5. With the departure of Simona de Silvestro for Formula 1, there are no women slotted for full-time rides. What happened to the diversity IndyCar was so proud of and is this any reason for concern… or simply just a lull in interest from minority drivers?
Matt: I think it’s nothing more than a lull. Every sport goes through ebbs and flows in regards to the diversity of their athletes. IndyCar is no different. There is still plenty of diversity in IndyCar, as the sport has drivers representing nations around the world. I think we shouldn’t forget that. I’m quite sure a talented female driver (or two or three) will resurface in the series before long. There are far too many talented female racers around the world for a top series like IndyCar to not have one for a very long time.
Huston: Well, diversity is a funny thing. If you think about it, IndyCar IS diverse by the number of countries represented by the drivers. But if the question is solely about gender diversity, then it’s tricky, as there does not seem to be any women coming through the ranks. Does that kill the sport? Not really. Females have always appeared in motorsports, but statistically, not in large numbers. There’s bound to be another one in the not-too-distant future. The missing elements of diversity that have not been addressed are the representation of blacks, homosexuals, or other minorities who have yet to pilot an IndyCar.
Toni: Diversity is kind of a funny question. In NASCAR, diversity includes Latino and Asian drivers (see: Aric Almirola and Kyle Larson) but for some reason that doesn’t seem to apply in IndyCar, where there are always Latino drivers (see: Juan Pablo Montoya or Carlos Munoz) and Takuma Sato has been kicking around for a number of years. So if you look at it that way, IndyCar IS diverse. If you look at it in terms of female or African-American drivers, then no. But I also don’t think it’s something you can force. There just might not be any female or African-American drivers ready or able to come up to that level just now. I think if it’s because they are there, but not being given the opportunities solely because of gender or race, then you need to do something. If it’s simply because they are not there, or not ready, then I don’t think it’s a problem and they will get there when and if they are ready.