In the mid 1990’s the CART championship was seen as a potential rival to Formula One in terms of being the pinnacle of motorsport. Yet after an acrimonious split the Indycar series is now only a small dent to the popularity of Nascar in America. Despite only being a niche interest in the American sports market over the last few years the series is seeing a vast improvement in terms of quality and reputation from both the drivers and teams. Will the Indycar series ever reach the peaks of the mid 1990’s again however?
Whilst the first paragraph may seem an exaggeration to some hard core motorsport aficionado’s it does appear the series is making improvements across the board. Firstly the driving talent has seen a sizeable improvement as the series is now becoming a haven for talented yet underfunded European drivers, who struggle to progress in a European culture increasingly reliant on driver funding. Complimenting this is the fact up an coming American drivers are making their presence felt in the series with flagship drivers such as Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball and James Hinchcliffe giving hope to the next generation.
The amount of American drivers breaking through into Indycar can be attributed to the success of their “Road to Indy” young driver scheme. This was launched in 2010 with the aim of providing assistance to young drivers hoping to progess eventually through to Indycar and the Indianapolis 500. Starting at the U.S National F2000 series through the Pro Mazda series and Firestone Indy Lights series the series champions receive assistance from Mazda and Indycar to progress to the next highest series leading all the way up to Indycar. It’s success has been remarkable as it has already launched drivers such as Josef Newgarden and Tristan Vautier with many more being close to being propelled into the cut and thrust world of Indycar.
It’s not just the young drivers that are helping raise the profile of the series as it has become increasingly attractive over the last few years to many high profile international drivers. Firstly 2012 saw highly regarded F1 refugee Rubens Barrichello move to the series with his close friend Tony Kanaan’s KV racing outfit which helped garner a much increased media focus on the series. This story was complemented by the announcement of F1 folk hero Jean Alesi as the driver for the Lotus-Fan Force team for the Indy 500. It was a shame therefore that the Lotus engine was vastly underpowered rendering Alesi unable to show his considerable talents at the 500.
2013 saw the shock announcement too that high profile F1 and Nascar racer Juan Pablo Montoya would be joining Team Penske for a full tilt at the championship in 2014. This deal was quickly followed with intense speculation that F1 driver Paul Di Resta would take his cousin Dario Franchitti’s vacant Chip Ganassi drive after his horrendous accident in Houston forced him to retire. So far the 2014 season hasn’t even started yet already there is a much increased buzz around the championship especially the centrepiece Indianapolis 500. Within the last few weeks it’s been announced that firstly 1995 Indy 500 winner and 1997 F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve would be returning to the 500 for the first time since his win in 1995 with the Schmidt Peterson Hamilton team. Only this week the race received another boost when outspoken yet highly popular American Nascar driver Kurt Busch would be joining the Andretti Autosport team for the 500. His attempt to compete in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 Nascar race in Charlotte has generated many press columns for the series which only helps with the profile of the series.
Of course not all of the increased excitement around the series can be attributed to the drivers. 2012 saw the introduction of the new Dallara DW12, the first new car for the series since the early 2000’s. Despite initial niggling problems for the teams the new car has been met with widespread approval from both the teams and drivers as the car enters it’s third season it should provide more exciting racing in 2014. Another key element to the upward trend of the series is the return of multiple engine manufactures. 2012 didn’t just see a new car as Chevrolet and Lotus joined the series, hoping to knock Honda from the autonomy they had enjoyed since Chevrolet last departed the series. The increased competition has helped with the competitiveness of the series and the importance of having one of America’s traditional “Big 3” car manufactures competing in the series only helps with the profile of the American series. Although the Lotus engine proved uncompetitive and they ultimately withdrew from the series before the 2012 season was over their initial commitment to the series showed the series does have international interest as America is still seen as a hugely influential market for car makers across the globe.
Whilst the series still poses no concern for the Nascar community the increasing professionalism and high profile talent competing in the series provides hope that in the near distant future the Indycar series can once again claw itself back to the level of popularity it achieved in the 1990’s going into the early 2000’s. Until then it will remain one of motorsport’s best kept secrets alongside the Le Mans 24 hours.