Can Small IRL Teams Survive?

Thank goodness the short off-season is over and the new racing year is already upon us. This weekend marks the true New Year with the annual Chili Bowl in Oklahoma where open wheel racers gather to remove the rust and dust from holiday inactivity.

Of course the off-season is a misnomer anyway because true competitors never stop preparation and development. Although it’s still plenty quiet in this area of the world, the sight and sound of teams reconvening is growing.

In fact news of their demise is premature, drones at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing have revealed. One of the initial Indy Racing League IndyCar Series entrants, DRR will be back to race another day, having shed the boat anchor Gen IV Chevrolet Indy V8 the team had been using since Infiniti suspended its IndyCar Series program a couple of years ago.

Tired of being uncompetitive, DRR traded their Chevys for last season’s overwhelmingly successful Honda engine and just installed the first power mill into a primer gray Dallara chassis that has now its first road course kit (arrived just after Christmas like another gift under the tree).

It’s good to see smiles on the faces of people who were enveloped in frowns for much of the season just past. Despite the wealth of an excellent driver in Brazilian Felipe Giaffone and as good a squad of mechanics/engineers as anyone out there, Dreyer & Reinbold languished at the rear of the IndyCar Series field.

Felipe would just shrug as he came through the qualifying lines at the ovals, where reporters interrogate drivers about their two-lap efforts. Attempting to put a brave face on the situation, he’d always hope the car would be better in the race. It rarely was.

Although they haven’t made it official yet, Giaffone won’t be the primary driver for DRR in 2005, the Indy Racing League’s tenth season of competition. That job goes to Roger Yasukawa, whose association with Honda brought DRR the capable engine it sorely needed. Yasukawa is no slouch – he nearly earned 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year driving for Super Aguri Fernandez Racing.

That honor went to steamrolling Dan Wheldon at Andretti Green Racing instead, who proceeded to take the top step of the podium three times in 2004 (and second in points), including winning Honda’s first major victory at its own Twin Ring Motegi track last April.

(The Wheldon win ended a drought that Honda would, most likely rather not talk about. So we won’t, except to note that until then, either Ford or Toyota had taken checkered flags on Honda’s turf and it wasn’t pretty for the independent automaker that prides itself on racing success.)

Yasukawa didn’t have much to show for his 2004 season, other than two races for Rahal Letterman Racing at Twin Ring Motegi (11th) and in the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race where he finished tenth in RLR’s three-car assault that won racing’s big prize with team leader Buddy Rice.

Yasukawa is fast, smooth and has learned a good deal about how to drive an Indy car with tutelage from Super Aguri Fernandez spotter John Martin; he’ll realize even more knowledge through the efforts of DRR co-owner and spotter Robbie Buhl, who retired from the cockpit last year after recording two career IRL victories.

Roger spent much of last season putting together an opportunity for this year. He attended most races and, when he wasn’t at the track Yasukawa was siding up to potential sponsors. In his two 2004 appearances, Los Angeles-based Yasukawa had support from Sega, the gaming company whose Sammy “pachinko-type” games are very big in Japan.

The folks at DRR aren’t sure yet whose names will grace the sidepods and wings of their #24 Dallara/Honda/Firestone challenger in the 17-race 2005 season aside from long-term supporter Aventis. Purex may be back and, hopefully if they are it will be with a bit more funding and marketing than in the past couple of seasons.

This year will cost more for all IndyCar Series teams because of the sole street contest in St. Petersburg, FL and brace of road-course events in California and New York.

In addition to the normal oval updates from the League for both chassis constructors, Dallara and Panoz G Force, there is the road course kit mentioned earlier to have on-hand, hopefully more than one kit for inevitably necessary spares.

The cost increases might be scaring away other single-car teams; it might be the partial cause of Tom Kelley’s departure from the ownership ranks, one that’s been as inevitable as sunrise to most in the business.

These last few seasons, Kelley appeared to suffer from “PacWest-itis”, where money is spent more for entertainment than competition. Both driver Scott Sharp and Delphi have left his fold after long tenures.

IRL stalwart A.J. Foyt Jr. expects to run his grandson Anthony for a third consecutive season with a Dallara/Toyota but sponsor Conseco has other matters to tend to, such as reorganization from a bankruptcy filing. Foyt expects to be part of the League again in 2005 but where will his money come from? Super Tex is mum.

Greg Ray’s Access Motorsports had a tough run in 2004 and Ray, the IRL’s 1999 champion stepped away from the driver’s seat after the Richmond round in late June, leaving the chore to 2003 Menards Infiniti Pro Series champion Mark Taylor for a best result of seventh at Nashville and Texas 2. From Access there’s absolutely no news.

John Menard, who lends his name to the IRL’s ladder Menards Infiniti Pro Series might be more interested in watching son Paul compete in NASCAR’s Busch Series than returning with Panther Racing to field a second Chevrolet entry as they did last year.

That departure could leave Tomas Scheckter as the sole Chevrolet representative in GM Racing’s stated final year of IRL competition. Panther’s been silent about plans for a second car.

When U.E. “Pat” Patrick left the CART series he helped form and came to the League at Indy with a Dallara/Chevy, he appeared enthusiastic about driver Al Unser Jr. and his small team’s prospects. Unser retired after a moribund three races and his three replacements did nothing to give the ultimate Wildcatter reason to smile. Or continue.

While many of the former CART carpetbagger teams have thrived in the League’s oval-based competition and fielded at least two cars- Andretti Green Racing being the overall champ in car count with four entries – Patrick stuck with one, as did IRL regulars Dreyer & Reinbold, Kelley, Foyt and Access.

The health of four of those five teams is questionable as the League prepares for the first of two open test sessions at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida at mid-month. It’s good to see DRR back for a tenth season, but what about the others?