It’s no secret that IndyCar, America’s premier open-wheel racing series, is struggling for an identity and struggling to increase its fan base. Long time sponsors such as 7-11 and McDonalds have either pulled out of the series entirely or scaled back marketing budgets to a fraction of former levels. In racing, it’s no longer enough for a driver to be fast and not wreck cars; today, a top level driver must bring sponsorship dollars to the team along with a reasonable amount of ability.
Ryan Hunter-Reay brings both with him, although his 2011 sponsors have yet to be announced. Previous sponsor Izod is exiting the series, but Hunter-Reay clearly has someone with deep pockets backing him, as he’s just signed for the next two years with Andretti Autosport. For 2011, Hunter-Reay will drive alongside teammates Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, both of whom finished below Hunter-Reay in the 2010 championship points chase.
Tony Kanaan, the personable Brazilian driver, was officially released from his Andretti Autosport contract last week, but this was nothing more than a formality. Kanaan knew he’d be shopping for a 2011 ride when primary sponsor 7-11 cut funding at the end of the 2011 season. At this point in his career, Kanaan is less concerned with money and more concerned with opportunity; the problem is that neither Chip Ganassi nor Roger Penske are shopping for drivers at the moment. Where does that leave Kanaan for 2011? Unemployed, unless he can pick up sponsorship dollars or is willing to sign with an underfunded team like Dale Coyne Racing.
From the prospective of a former racer, I hate to see guys like Kanaan out of a job and racers like Danica Patrick and Milka Duno with full rides. I know it’s all about the sponsorship money and drawing fans to the series, and both Patrick and Duno have well funded backers and legions of fans. American open-wheel racing used to be about talent, and guys like A,J Foyt and Bill Vukovich clawed their way to the top without the benefit of million dollar operating budgets. Maybe that’s what IndyCar needs; instead of watching the same uncompetitive-but-funded drivers act as rolling chicanes race after race, maybe the series should focus on attracting the best available drivers while containing costs. The new chassis and engine programs will help, but I can’t help wonder if the changes are too little, too late.