Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: To Cap or Not to Cap?

First, INDYCAR president Mark Miles said it. Now, Zak Brown alluded to a similar line of thinking: The way to build value in the sport is to freeze its growth.

That’s basically what their idea is in capping the field at 27-cars, as proposed by Miles, and even lower, possibly 20, as mentioned by Brown. In their eyes, to improve the sport, they will limit expansion of the field.

What?

Can we just pump the brakes her? While every other news release that comes out of the series has involved some sort of step back or problem, the greatest positive example that leadership can tout is the robust field that lines up every weekend. There are 10 different owner groups unloading 27 DW12 machines off the transporters each race weekend. The Indianapolis 500 entry list is inching near the magical 33 mark well before the calendar turns over to the next season because it’s not that hard to come up with six more cars since the full-time grid is so high.

And the powers in charge want to cap that growth?

The reasons are there, of course. Not enough room at certain tracks on pit road, where the current 27-car field is at their max limit. Then there’s the priority effort to create value if a charter system is implemented. If there is restricted access to the grid from a cap, then those that want in will pay pretty pennies and nickels to get a spot via charter. Also there’s the two OEMs in Honda and Chevrolet that will probably lose more money supplying engines beyond their current capacity.

Good reasons for the business side of things. But do they hold water? Not much.

Don’t have room on pit road? Then get creative. Do like Dover Motor Speedway did for years with NASCAR and alternate the two slowest cars out of the same box. Or find some spare space in further up the pit road or on another section of track. Figure it out. 

Value? The series’ television viewership and commercial appeal – most sponsors are business to business not to consumer – shows there isn’t much value to be had at the moment. Outside the Indianapolis 500, companies, TV networks and sponsors are not throwing millions on millions of dollars to associate with IndyCar. If the new TV deal comes in at the rumored $30-40 million range, it pales in comparison to every professional sport out there.

Put a cap that will require a new owner to invest millions to just get the charter to enter, and they will likely say forget it since the return on investment isn’t worth enough. So, they will walk away. This could also have repercussions on new teams trying to make the Indy 500. A cap on NASCAR Cup charters (essentially the same thing IndyCar is discussing) forced a downsizing in car numbers attempting the prestigious Daytona 500 after it was implemented in 2016. For the 2015 Daytona 500, 50 cars were entered, with the field set at 43. The 2024 running, with a charter cap in place, had only 42 cars entered, and 40 competed on that Sunday.

Expect the same result in IndyCar.

See also
The Pit Straight: Logan Sargeant & the Duality of Scott Dixon

As for the OEMs, their desire to stay at the current leasing numbers is only a concern for their bottom line. Fans could care less about manufacturers saving money. Furthermore, this is all on the series and their inability to get a third engine supplier to offset the responsibility on Honda and Chevrolet. By staying at 27, then the manufacturers can breathe knowing the labor costs of maintaining more full-season engine programs won’t fall on their shoulders.

So, each one of the possible reasons to cap the field seems flawed and easily countered with some more work, creative planning and logic. Perhaps the direction the leadership wants to go is unnecessary. If the fans were put as the priority and not the stakeholders, the decision would be an easy one to make.

Say no to a cap.

Granted, IndyCar isn’t saying there can’t be more than 27 cars attempting races. It’s just that if there are more entered over that number – which isn’t confirmed yet – then there will be bumping at races over that mark. Let’s take a look at why that might not be such a good idea in this current climate for the series.

First off, having as many cars as possible on track for an IndyCar race is always a good thing. Whether it’s the current 27 or expansion to 28 or 29 with Prema Racing coming in, the series should aim to have the most cars out there that a team can put together. Don’t put some arbitrary number that will prevent fans from seeing 15 rows of cars line up for a green flag start.

With such a high number, the series’ current full-time field has more opportunity for action and, y’know, racing throughout the grid. Not every race will have the competition up front like this last weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach; there will be times where the leader pulls away. It will be the racing throughout the rest of the pack that will continue to engage or entertain the fans watching, especially those in person. Take that away, limit the amount of cars put on track, and that decreases racing that can entice a spectator to possibly come back again.

A field anywhere in the low 20s can look dismal when spaced out, and turn into a mundane affair. Examples of this are littered in the Indy NXT companion events where car counts have been in the teens for several years, though a recent jump has occurred since Penske Entertainment took over the series. Put 20 cars on a track like the four-mile Road America and it might stretch out and become a race-day practice session.

Maintaining a perspective of more is better is the direction to go. It won’t matter what type of track the series visits either, as the different disciplines have unique characteristics for large fields. On road and street circuits, it creates more cars willing to try different strategies or hopefully alleviate the gaps that the aforementioned Road America might create. There also can be more opportunities for chaos which will add a wrinkle to a possibly stagnant race. Sure, it’s not great that every race turns out like the first two hectic Nashville Grands Prix but something like WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca last year was entertaining due to its mayhem. 

On the ovals, lapped traffic will be critical to overcome to maintain position. While drivers might complain about backmarkers in their way, it’s the faster car’s job to get around slower ones. At recent Indianapolis 500s, when the race lulled into a coma due to the challenging aero package, overtaking picked when lapped traffic came into play. This same thing happens at the shorter tracks. Take a look at Josef Newgarden catching the first and second place cars at the Hy-Vee One Step 250 last year.

Again, more cars, more action. 

Another glaring disadvantage to the cap is restricting opportunities for both drivers and crew members. In an at-times stagnant sport, advancement from one junior level to the top rank is hard enough. In Europe, there are two dozen possible drivers every season vying for maybe one or two Formula 1 seats.

Luckily for the latest generation of IndyCar drivers, the ladder system has been used in conjunction with European converts to great effect. With the large field, there are more available seats for either European based pilots who realize they can’t make it to F1 like Callum Ilott or Christian Lundgaard or young guns climbing the American formula ladder like Kyle Kirkwood and Christian Rasmussen. Better yet, all are receiving ample time in the seat to prove their worth, and not slipping through the cracks as continues to occur in the European ladder.

Lastly, doesn’t it just make the series at least appear to be on strong footing when a large field takes the green flag? It gives fans more drivers and teams to root for and spreads the available stories to so many different personalities. If Brown wonders what the cars running beyond 20 are “bringing to the table,” perhaps a discussion with fans in the camping lots wearing various jerseys will provide answers. He thinks fans “don’t pay attention” to those in the bottom of the grid. Not sure that was the case when a driver like Pato O’Ward, one of the more popular guys on the circuit was working his way through traffic after a penalty at Long Beach. Or, perhaps, when David Malukas was carving through the field at Gateway in 2022?

The field has been able to grow because of its accessibility, not value. Owners that are passionate about the sport will be less in love with it if the dollar amount to enter — not compete — just enter, is in their way. Why do that? For a niche sport, it makes little sense to put up restrictions for prospective owners to get into it. F1 and NASCAR have solid reasons, millions of dollars that go to teams. IndyCar doesn’t have that.

At 27 cars, the field is healthy now, but that isn’t a guarantee it will last. Another economic downturn here or there, and teams might shrink down in size. Funding might dry up and budgets might tighten. Who will fill those gaps on the grid if that happens? Those owners that were told no, you have to spend millions to create a team just to qualify for the race, are probably gone. Fans could be left watching 22 cars racing instead of the robust 27. Let’s also mention that the pot of interested owners that might to try the Indy 500 but may have lost interest because the dollar signs didn’t work out. Getting to 33 for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will be like 2003 all over again when back-ups were leased out just to hit that number.

See also
Scott Dixon Does It Again, Wins Long Beach Grand Prix on Fuel Mileage

These are all hypothetical situations, but that’s what the series should be analyzing and accounting for. Unfortunately, it feels like leadership is taking a short term gain (full field) and trying to create a restriction on growth just to make it more selective to get in so value magically rises. That cost of that decision could have unknown ramifications for further growth down the road.

Maybe these points are all for nothing. The field is robust and the series has to be happy seeing the 27 machines flying down Shoreline Blvd. in Long Beach. No decision has been set in stone, but with how often the charters have been brought up, it seems just a matter of time before the cap is in place and bumping outside Indianapolis will be enforced.

When that happens, IndyCar will have officially signaled that to grow their value, they will undercut growth on track.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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