The 100th Indianapolis 500 only attracted 33 cars—enough to fill the grid, but not enough to have entries bumped from the grid during qualifying. Despite the milestone year, teams are still very conservative with who they’ll put in a car. Here’s why just making the grid was so hard this time.
There’s no shortage of talent coming up through the lower levels of racing. Only issue is, if you’re not an established name like the Tony Kanaans and Will Powers of the IndyCar world, it can be incredibly difficult just to get your foot in the door.
Rookies have had better luck landing a one-off seat at the Indianapolis 500, leading to six of them on the grid this year. The Indy 500 remains one of the most recognizable, popular and legendary races on the planet. While it’s still hard to land an Indy 500 drive regardless, it’s a lot easier to convince sponsors to chip in for a race that will be broadcast across the planet as opposed to, say, a regular-season race at Phoenix.
Elsewhere on the schedule, they’re feeling even more the squeeze.
“It’s harder to convince teams to hire you over guys with twenty-plus years of experience,” said driver Gabby Chaves. Chaves was left without a full-season drive despite being named both the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year for 2015, having been bumped from his own three-year deal with a team after the team lost a sponsorship deal.
Chaves is one of several drivers racing in the Indianapolis 500 in hopes of securing a drive in more races later this year.
Because top teams in IndyCar often secure their own sponsorship as opposed to waiting for drivers to bring sponsorship cash with them, Chaves explained, those teams can afford to pick who they want for a seat—which often means grabbing the most experienced hot shoe they can get.
Young driver and 2013 Indy Lights champion Sage Karam says that part of the issue is that teams are being really risk-averse with which drivers they add. Less-experienced drivers tend to make more mistakes in the car, which leads to more repairs, and thus, more costs.
Costs are hard on teams this year, so Karam says they’re afraid to take a chance on younger talent.
There’s a number of factors that have contributed to IndyCar’s lack of funding to go around, according to ESPN. Television ratings are down 70 percent from the series’ heyday in the 1990s, making it difficult to attract sponsors. Additionally, prize money was largely cut in favor of a system that hands out a flat $1.25 million subsidy per team with minimal bonuses for top-five finishes—all in all, roughly a quarter of what NASCAR drivers make.
Cars are estimated to cost between $3 million and $8 million depending on the team, writes ESPN. While that was a substantial cut in costs on IndyCar’s part, when the series cuts its contribution to teams to a minimum, it’s not enough. When aero kits were introduced last year, it was yet another cost for teams that were already spread thin.
Karam also said that the new dome skids meant to keep the cars from catching air in a spin have made the cars harder to drive. That’s another factor that’s made teams more risk-averse than usual. According to Karam, the three-car Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team didn’t want to put a younger driver in at all with the dome skids added.
As a result, more younger drivers—including Karam—have found themselves without full-season rides. Karam is competing in a Dreyer & Reinbold - Kingdom Racing one-off entry for the Indy 500. In order for younger drivers like him to find a full-time seat, though, Karam says he’ll need to see a few of the more established guys retire.
“I can’t drive without a seat open,” Karam explained.
The lack of enthusiasm for putting younger talent in the car is a little worrisome. Fortunately for Karam, he picked up a sports car drive with Lexus, and while the Lexus program continues to wait on parts, he says that there’s interest in putting him back in an IndyCar for his home state race at Pocono.
To get to Pocono, though, Karam wants to make a good impression here, especially given that he’s been out of the car until now and that he’s still struggling to cope with last year’s traumatic race at Pocono.
“I want to show everyone that I haven’t gone anywhere,” Karam said. “I’m back.”
Funding, as always is another issue. Pippa Mann says that she’s had to “think outside the box” when it comes to funding her entry. She’s driving a pink and white Susan G. Komen Foundation-liveried car to raise support for the charity, but the foundation does not contribute funding for Mann’s car.
Money actually flows the other way in this deal, with Mann’s efforts fundraising for the Komen Foundation—one of which totaled over $61,000 during last year’s Indy 500.
Instead, having a high-profile charity partner has helped raise the profile of Mann’s Dale Coyne Racing IndyCar, and helped attract other partners to fund her racing.
Despite some fans’ belief that women automatically get better funding by merit of being a woman, Mann claims that this isn’t true.
“A race car has no idea it’s painted pink,” Mann said.
Danica Patrick is the most often cited example of a woman supposedly having it easy, but Mann argues that Patrick has done an exemplary job of building her own personal brand. Fans follow that brand more than they do other, lesser-known female racers, and with a following comes the funding.
As to why Mann is the only woman in this year’s Indy 500, she attributes the same funding issues that are shared by every single driver on the grid more than anything. There’s a much smaller pool of women capable of competing in IndyCar right now, and as such, there are even fewer women drivers who are able to put together the funding to get on the grid.
“The economic situation is tough for us all,” Mann said.