Jacques, Juan Pablo & the future of Indycar

I am a spotty, squeaky voiced 14-year old pupil at Lord Wandsworth College boarding school in Hampshire, England. As we count down the days to the under 18s disco at Harpers nightclub in Guildford and our best and pretty much only chance to awkwardly kiss a girl, our days are filled with new, seemingly life changing music. Oasis’ “What’s The Story Morning Glory”, Pulp’s ”Different Class” and Radiohead’s seminal “The Bends” are on constant rotation. I have a poster of Drew Barrymore on my wall. Windows ’95 has just been released and the Encarta CD ROM has blown our minds. A whole encyclopedia… on a disc. Forrest Gump wins the Oscar for Best Picture. Bill Clinton is in his first term as US President. OJ Simpson goes on trial for murder.

The 49ers win the Super Bowl. Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras win Wimbledon.

And Jacques Villeneuve wins the Indy 500.

1995 was 19 years ago. That’s a hell of a long time. An awful lot has changed. And so, when it was announced earlier this week that JV would be contesting the 2014 Indianapolis 500 after an almost two decade break, it was rightfully seen as a pretty big deal.

He will be racing a third entry from Schmidt Peterson, and made all the right noises in the PR blurb.

“To have the opportunity to return to IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500 is something I never thought possible,” Villeneuve said. “The memories I have there will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I’m excited to create new memories in 2014.”

Villeneuve, never one to shy away from a decent soundbite, hasn’t exactly been Indycar’s biggest fan over recent years. But he admitted that the new direction the championship had taken was pivotal to his desire to return.

“I guess it started when they started going back to road racing, going back to a mix of tracks, going back to the IndyCar that I knew, basically. Then came this new car, which was quite a surprise with the spoilers and everything.

“I was dubious until the first time I saw it racing, then I realised how amazing it was, how close the racing was for open-wheel racing. It’s never heard of anymore in modern days. That’s how racing used to be.

“When I started seeing that last year, I started getting excited again, just because the racing was amazing, the cars looked fast and aggressive, it looked hard on the drivers, and the battles were fierce, which is all what I love about racing.”

Not Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. Actually Jacques Villeneuve.  c/o James Moy Photography

Not Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. Actually Jacques Villeneuve.
c/o James Moy Photography

For Indycar, this is hugely positive PR. A champion who had become disillusioned with the series sees a bright new path being forged by the sport and wants to be part of it. The fact that this comes in the year when another mighty champion in Juan Pablo Montoya returns, should only add weight to the Indycar PR machine.

I do question, however, whether at 42 and with a lack of running in the DW12, Jacques will be ready. Sure, people will point to the fact that Al Unser won Indy 500s 17 years apart. They’ll remind us all that Emmo came back in his 40s and that this is the wonder of the 500. I get that, really I do. I love the history and the unique nature of the event and that, in the right car and with luck, anything can happen.

Jacques himself might argue that the last time he raced the Indy 500 the cars were faster and thus his task in 2014 is not so grand. Pole was set at 231.604 mph in 1995. Last season, Ed Carpenter’s pole speed was 228.762 mph. That’s only a 2.9 mph deficit. Not a huge difference. Factor in also the immensely physical nature of the DW12 and that lack of testing and it becomes clear that JV will have a huge challenge in May and will have to make the most of the practice week before Pole Day. If it rains like it did in 2013, his challenge will be greater still.

Juan Pablo Montoya is training his guts out to be ready for 2014. He cannot afford for his season to be a failure. And ultimately, that is the risk for both drivers here. Villeneuve talks of the desire to write a new chapter, to make new memories. But what if those memories are miserable?

Montoya hitting the gym - hard c/o @jpmontoya Twitter

Montoya hitting the gym – hard
c/o @jpmontoya Twitter

Kimi Raikkonen returned to Formula 1 and made a huge success of it, rejuvenating a career on the skids. Michael Schumacher made an F1 comeback and failed to win, scraped a solitary podium and for the first time in his F1 career, couldn’t beat his team-mate. Three years running. So which will the JV and JPM comebacks prove to be? Will it add to the legend, or take the shine off something that glistened so perfectly?

In Villeneuve’s case, I fear it may be an ego-driven folly destined to lead only to disappointment. I say this purely from the standpoint that his focus is on Rallycross, as it should be. And that, after 20 years, if he’s not coming back to win the Indy 500, why even bother?

Then there’s the other question… should Indycar be promoting its past glories over its potential future stars?

While it is easy to claim Villeneuve is denying others an opportunity to race, the simple fact is that Jacques Villeneuve is not taking anyone’s seat. This third entry for Schmidt Peterson has been lined up specifically for him, although it was interesting to note the omission of mention of any solid funding for the drive at the announcement.

Villeneuve Vs Montoya Vs the Indycar gang we’ve come to know and love over the past few years is a huge selling point. The only way you could improve on that is to bring Little Al, Paul Tracy, Gil de Ferran, Bobby Rahal and Mario or Michael Andretti back into the fold. But then you’re bordering on the old GP Masters concept and Indycar already has enough detractors claiming it is a retirement series.

There remains, however, a question over who will fill the empty slots to make up the 33 car field for Indy as at present the grid sits way under quota. And this is by far the larger issue here.

While my first impression of Villeneuve’s return to the Indy 500 was negative in that I didn’t see the point in him risking his reputation for a vanity project, he’s a grown man and can take responsibility for his own choices, no matter how stupid we may think they are. On reflection I have come to see that the positive aspect is that in 2014, alongside Montoya, we will have the only two drivers in history who have competed at the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis lining up to go head to head for the Borg Warner.

As such there has perhaps never been a greater opportunity for driver managers and the money men to get funding for their driver for the 500. And, who knows, if these folks do their jobs properly, perhaps we’ll even see 35 cars or more and a Bump Day that actually means something. Because the 2014 Indy 500 is going to be a huge draw.

Hand on heart, I’d rather be at Indy than Monaco for the Grand Prix this year.

Who fills those seats is the big question now, and I hope that the return of Villeneuve and Montoya starts to help Indycar promote itself better, something in which it has been woefully ineffective in recent years. With Dario Franchitti hanging up his helmet for 2014, there are some real stars waiting to shine. But one questions whether Indycar is marketed well enough to allow them to do so.

Half the grid are ageing to a point that they will not, or should not, be in a position to carry on for much longer. But there is, as yet, a lack of an influx of hungry and talented youngsters to make the older guard fear for their positions or feel challenged on track. Sure we’ve seen some great new talent enter the fold over the past few seasons, but not enough. So where is the future of the sport?

Where does America's future lie for single seaters? c/o James Moy Photography

Where does America’s future lie for single seaters?
c/o James Moy Photography

I put this question to Randy Bernard a few years ago before he got the chop. There is no denying that the man got some things wrong during his tenure at Indycar, but in his vision for the future I believe he was spot on.

He wanted Indycar to become a driver’s first choice, not second or third on the list of where they wanted to be. His focus, he told me, was on GP2. His reasoning was simple. In GP2 you had some of the world’s greatest young racing talent, but their chances of getting to F1 relied solely on bringing enough money to the table and if you didn’t have $10 million you weren’t going to get a chance. Indycar budgets, by comparison, were and are comparable to GP2 budgets at closer to $2 million. Bring in the talent, watch the racing shine, draw in the sponsors and all of a sudden you have more funded drives and a full field of quality racers… those very same racing talents that F1 should have been nurturing instead of financially screwing.

I agreed with him completely. I still do. But even if you get these talented youngsters over to the US, Indycar has a problem. It can’t market itself. Because it doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be.

If I have learned one thing since starting in American television, it is that the US fanbase is fiercely loyal to what it loves. We see that with the F1 broadcast and how many fans tune in at insane hours of the day. But if there is one thing that US sports fans are loyal towards, it is their country. It’s no surprise that the biggest sports are all national sports. The great rivalries are town against town, State against State, University against University. The most successful championships are those that play their seasons exclusively within the USA. Fans will watch because they want to, not because you tell them to.

This is one of the reasons why Formula 1 has struggled to get a foothold. It thinks it is the big player, the most important championship in the world, and so from the outset that causes resentment. No band ever broke America by saying they were the best. The Beatles didn’t turn up and tell everyone they were better than anyone else. They played the Ed Sullivan show, were announced as a popular beat combo from Liverpool, and showed everyone they were the best. They changed the world.

In Formula 1’s case, a bit of humility would go a long way. It would never do such a thing, but I’ve always thought F1 would do itself no harm in acting as a support event at a NASCAR race to draw in new fans, by providing a different show to what the main players were selling.

But by far Formula 1’s biggest issue in America is that it dips its toe into the US market just once a year. Formula 1 will never have the same bedrock of support as NASCAR because NASCAR races so often and so widely across America that it is possible for most of the populous to see a race with their own eyes. NASCAR promotes American heroes to American fans from one coast to the other. Formula 1, as a World Championship, will never be able to do that.

But Indycar could. And yet it doesn’t.

When Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Indycar Series in 2013, the championship’s marketing department should have PR’d the hell out of him. A good looking, wholesome, American family man had just taken on the world and won in an American–based racing championship. But what did they do? Next to nothing.

And it’s sad. I love Indycar. It is proper racing, hard racing, populated by a paddock full of talented people and incredible racing drivers who don’t get the international credit they deserve. It isn’t a B championship to F1. It stands on its own and should be promoted as such. It can cross the boundaries of being a racing series which races almost exclusively stateside and yet boasts an international cast of some of the finest racing drivers from around the world.

In order to do that, however, it needs to figure out that this is precisely its USP to American fans and advertisers. And then it needs to promote itself as such.

When we look at this year’s Indy 500, we are presented with an example of how this championship can get itself back on the offensive. If, by some monumental failure by the sport, the 33 spots at Indy fail to be filled, I would propose that Indycar does the following: field the cars itself. Slap Indycar logos all over them, dedicate the liveries to charities, do whatever they want to with the cars. But field the cars themselves. Take the financial hit. And open it up. Run a three-day shootout in which you invite the best talent from around the world to come to Indianapolis and compete.

Left behind. F1's next generation could be Indycar's. c/o James Moy Photography

Left behind. F1’s next generation could be Indycar’s.
c/o James Moy Photography

Bring over the Conor Dalys, Sam Birds and James Calados, Fabio Leimers and Stefano Colettis, Antonio Felix da Costas and Luca Filippis. Get Robin Frijns and Geido Van de Garde, and ask Simona to jump in one last time. Ask Bruno Senna to give it a go, draw Nelson Piquet Jr in from NASCAR. Don’t limit it. Bring the talent and the names and the next generation, run them against each other in a controlled practice environment and pick the best five or six to run in Indycar funded seats.

If one of them wins or even comes close to winning, it’s a huge story.

Just look at what Carlos Munoz did last year. He very nearly Montoya’d it and won on his debut. It can be done.

Take the financial hit, promote the hell out of it, and give new talent in Indycar a shot. Show them that America really is the land of opportunity and that Indycar really is a championship that can stand on its own feet. Give the established order a kick up the backside, reinvigorate the fanbase, and give people something to talk about.

Most importantly, give the sport a vision of its future.

While I love the idea of JPM and Jacques going wheel to the wheel for the win at Indy, it’s not the future, is it?

In the past 19 years, a lot has changed. Some things, though, have not. I still love Oasis and have a thing for Drew Barrymore. And the Indy 500 is still one of the biggest races in the world.

Nineteen years ago a young guy turned up, took the race by the throat and from two laps down, won it. This year he returns no longer a kid but a champion, a man, and, to some degrees, the embodiment of the establishment he took on and beat two decades ago. If his return is to mean anything, then it must be because the flame of hope is being passed from one generation to the next. If that new generation isn’t there to do to Jacques, Juan Pablo and all the others, what they once did as kids themselves, and more importantly if nobody feels the desire to watch, then their presence means nothing, they are proving nothing, and the series has no hope left at all.

JV wins the 500 in 1995 c/o @Indycar Twitter

JV wins the 500 in 1995
c/o @Indycar Twitter

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25 thoughts on “Jacques, Juan Pablo & the future of Indycar

  1. Personally I find nothing interesting about JV running the Indy500. It seems just like a glory run from an accomplished racer that has nothing to prove. Plus I feel like JVs racecraft has decreased in the last few years, so I feel like he’s just taking up a seat for attention.

    However, about your comment on bringing in young talent from international racing all over the world, I cannot support that hard enough. I was a little saddened to hear that Paul DiResta wasn’t coming over to the IndyCar series, and I feel like the Felix Di Costa’s, Daly’s and Sam Bird’s of the world could really leverage their experience in IndyCar, as well as raising the profile of the sport more.

  2. It’ll be fun to see how Juan and Jacques fare in this year’s edition of the Indy 500. The series will never be what it was when American drivers dominated and, as such, attracted such interest. Those eyeballs migrated to a large degree over to NASCAR. They both also suffer from being spec series running fields of identical cars so closely matched that the drivers have difficulty passing.

    • Dennis inadvertently shows us why Will and Randy’s idea of bringing GP2 drivers won’t save the series.

      There’s great racing in GP2- and bringing drivers over to race in the semi-open-wheel cars conceivably could bring some good racing, but would also likely drive away what fan base that they still have.

      This is a series that has been insistent since 1995 that what they needed was short track Americans- that the problem with CART were the abundance of foreigners. Never mind the ticket sales and ratings with CART.

      Bringing back CART drivers JV and JPM is akin to ‘sitting around trying to recapture those glory days’.

      You might still like Drew Barrymore and Oasis, Will, but this is more like Hootie & the Blowfish from your Rolling Stone cover- 99% of the population hasn’t the foggiest idea of what they’ve done since 1996 and have moved on.

      • @Jim: Pre-96 CART had “an abundance of foreigners”, yet was extremely popular in the US. The early IRL was filled with short track Americans, and extremely unpopular. Sounds like the facts disprove your theory.

        • @neti1 – reread what I said because you interpreted it 180 degrees off.

          The early- mid 90’s were the heyday of open wheel in the states. Open wheel in the states has not seen attendance or ratings numbers approaching those since that time.

          At the split there were people who liked CART/Champcar and stuck with it regardless of the nationalities involved. (Myself included)

          Those who agreed with Tony George’s vision of an oval based series populated with “short track Americans” followed it. Clearly the vision has failed (see sales/ratings/etc) – but the demographics continue to be the same. Go to any IRL topic form and see them still argue that “what we need are Americans”. Heck, see Dennis above that I replied to who thinks that “it’ll never be what it was when American drivers dominated”

          CART/Champcar viewers and ticket buyers left and didn’t come back. Randy Bernard gave multiple interviews about giving up on getting back people who left after the split.

          By going after an international driver market, you might increase sales/viewership. But at the same time, you will be alienating the current core fan base which are those people who followed the path of preferring a short track American based series.

  3. I’m all for a fairy tale story, but when you have newcomers and people from other series turning up for the month of May and actually coming close to win, it’s actually a problem for the series.

    And it’s not just that it makes blatantly obvious to even the modestly interested bystander that the current roster is a bunch of second rate racers who didn’t cut it elsewhere. (Yes, I said that. I tried to come up with the name of a current driver I would consider this unfair to and failed.)

    It’s that having your biggest event won by someone who will disappear from the scene because he has no seat, no team, no budget puts in question the viability of the whole series. NASCAR dealt with Trevor Bayne winning the 500, they found enough of a budget to continue running races that showed the regular gang was regularly beating him.

    IndyCar on the other hand couldn’t put anything together to keep the brilliant DW on the grid, devaluing both their biggest race and their series in general.

    And that’s why, while I’m sure IndyCar is ecstatic about the PR JV’s entry provides, they hope that someone with a seat and a budget will be handed the traditional bottle of milk come May 25th.

      • It’s a bit of a pipe dream comparing Munoz to a Series-run one off. He had the expertise and excellence of an Andretti Autosport behind him, as well as the experience of RHR, Marco and Hinch. You undervalue the necessity of a great team behind you, with a strong engineer who has experience at the brickyard and an established race team & pit crew. Your idea is cool and all but I can’t see it working – these entries will not be competitive.

        It kind of is a throwback to Tony George’s Vision Racing (which was much criticized as an artificial entity meant only to pump up the entry numbers), only it would only be assembled for one race which makes it even less likely to do well. Even JV’s run will be with Schmidt, who has Pagenaud in the running as a strong championship competitor, with whom he’ll share data and hopefully get advice. And Montoya will have the Captain, Will and 3 time winner Helio to draw from.

  4. This is probably the smartest comments on Indycar that I have ever read……for once!
    You are totally correct. Indycar doesn’t promote itself well but I’ll still travel from Australia to the 500 and hopefully take in Detroit as well.
    There is another small matter. I went to Baltimore this year. A bloody goat track and Belle Isle isn’t much better. I love the street and road circuits but how do you improve the quality of the tracks please.
    I hope the IRL reads your article. I love F1, always have but since young Mr Briscoe joined Indy, its got me in. Come back to Surfers Paradise and promote it properly!

    • I hate the street tracks like Baltimore. Poorly thought out, terribly executed, rushed and bloody dangerous. Indycar needs to measure itself and it’s tracks to a higher standard all round and spend the money doing so… But that’s for another blog

      • I agree with the vision of making Indycar a good choice for up and coming talent. Well said, btw.

        But the safety standards will hold Indycar back. Franchitti’s career-ending crash was only 5 months ago. That was a disturbing crash in part because it was a fluke crash by one of the best drivers in the series. Other drivers thinking about racing in Indycar could see it could have happened to anyone on that track on that day.

        Franchitti saw his former team-mate Dan Wheldon not survive another fluke crash, another crash that could’ve happened to any other driver on that track on that day.

        And Franchitti saw his friend Greg Moore not survive another crash that could have been anyone else there on that same day.

        Three very talented drivers… done. Why would a driver manager or a driver want to subject themselves to these safety standards? When planning a career, It borders upon unintelligent to choose to come race Indycar versus series with more professional safety standards such as World Series by Renault or GP2.

  5. Indycar let Kyle Larson, a hugely talented, American open-wheeler, slip through their fingers. Instead of doing everything in their power to bring him to Indycar, they just sat back and watched him go to NASCAR. Huge fail! Larson could have been exactly what they needed–a young, talented midget/sprint car racer moving up to the open-wheel big time.

  6. I like your idea about house cars. But who crews the cars? You know it makes a difference. An opportunity for Michael Shank Racing and the like?

  7. Oh man, when Buxton writes, it’s like Grant Wahl about football. Perfect. You nailed it about Indycar and F1. One lost and with bad PR promos, but with great looking, fast cars. The other thinking it’s the s… and loosing US by only visiting once a year. Give own money to NJ and race with NY backdrop. What else do you need as a promo? Maybe Indycar will get to NJ streets? And about JV. He won’t win 500. He was “over” when he lost a battle vs young Kubica… It was his ending as a top driver, unfortunately.

  8. Will just laid out the perfect business plan for Indy car I have seen. It all make total sense. For the past few seasons the racing has been the best in the world, no question, but the powers that be can’t seem to capitalize on it. The PR is simply nonexistent. I live within 60 miles of Indy, and Villeneuve is remembered fondly by the fans I know here. I was at the track opening day in 1994, and Villeneuve was obviously on a different level than most of the other drivers. A friend who was there at the time was adamant beforehand that he had no business being there after several incidents in the previous races that year, but after watching for a few minutes in turn 2, he turned to me and said “You’re right, the kid’s good.”. I think he’ll do fine. Indycar’s biggest asset? The drivers are (mostly) all friendly (with fans AND each other) and accessible. Indycar definitely needs to promote that!

  9. And hence, the problem with Indycar and the people who run it. The fans and those that love the sport have better ideas for it than the people running it. What the people at IMS need is a little more imagination. To use an American term, you “knocked it out of the park” Will.

  10. Spot on, Will.

    IndyCar could vacuum GP2 on the amazing talent that is there that will never get the chance in F1 because of $€£. I’ve said this myself dozens of times.

    And your Indy 500 idea is briljant.

    / Swedish Indy fan.

  11. To me the problem with Indy Car is that it absolutely has no identity, and with no identity there is no interest. I watch the Indy 500 every year. Not the whole thing but at least a few laps. I love motorsport, absolutely love motorsport. F1, MotoGP, V8 Supercar, sportscars, I wish I had a channel to watch DTM, Supercross, heck I even like watching R/C car racing online! IndyCar, I am just not interested. Weird thing, I think there are some very talented exciting drivers. Problem is, the series is just boring. The races are boring, the cars are butt ugly. Nothing other than the drivers interests me in that brand. And the worst part, because of the boring cars and ugly cars, the drivers are not able to shine through. Nascar does not have the formula. They never did. They had the death of a legend at the most visable race of the year, while holding off other cars so Darrel Waltrips younger brother and his own son both driving for his own team could go 1-2. And Nascar exploited the hell out of it. I fell for it, and I watched every race for years after that. Now I watch the 2 races run at Daytona. And maybe the last race if they were able to orchestrate an exciting end to the championship. If Indy needed to look at anything to make their brand more appealing, look at Supercross! They make it feel like more than a race, it is an event. Indy needs to be a support race more often, wouldn’t it be fantastic if the IndyCar was a support race for F1 at COTA!? I think it would be!

  12. Having a wild card spot is a really good idea. it would make for a better show because the field would either actually be full or more full than in season’s past. The series would not really lose out that much because they would not have had the entirety of the entry money anyway.

    It already is not a manufacturer series (side note: I would like F1 to get to having to develop their full cars, but that is not realistic at this time) so there would be no difference in drivers and teams buying into the series. They would be effectively renting the car if they could out-qualify other interested parties.

    My only criticism is that doing this for the greatest event on the calendar is a bit . . . disheartening. I would like to see the team interest generated naturally. Bringing all the top talent could also make it like the poor IROC series that was just filled with Cuppies.

  13. Wow. Exactly. I had the opportunity to cover the Baltimore Grand Prix last year, and had the time of my life — as much fun as I had in all my trips to the USGP. It’s a great product, and should be a no-brainer to market. It’s a shame it won’t be back there, because I’d talked quite a few people into going.

  14. Love the idea for bringing in the new talent and making it a shoot out. It would add so much prestige to the sport here in the US.

  15. Your quote: “I love the history and the unique nature of the event and that, in the right car and with luck, anything can happen.”

    Operative words here are “history and unique nature of the event” and I’ve always thought the Indy 500 was just that. Back in the AAA, USAC, CART and IRL days to today’s Indycar, those particular series were always separate from this thing called “The Indianapolis 500″.

    Last May, I watched a replay of the 1981 Indy 500 and ABC’s Dave Diles had a brief segment telling us that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced an estimated paid race-day attendance of 422,000… How many of those folks followed the rest of the series that year?

    Unique nature. History. That’s what defines the Indy 500. It’s still a separate racing event all unto itself. Even today, diminished as it is.

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  17. You need significance in order to make accomplishments noteworthy. While you rail against Villeneuve or Montoya being the future of the sport, what is lost on you is that the significance of Jacques’ victory in 1995 was due in part to who he beat. The field had noteworthy contenders in it and significant omissions from Penske, Emmo, and Al Jr. who failed to qualify against a stout field. Taking away the likes of Montoya or Villeneuve, both previous 500 winners among other great accomplishments, diminishes the potential significance of a win by a young guy like Munoz. I agree, the future of the sport is in the youth moving up, but without any significance to their accomplishments their wins would mean nothing. Jacques win in 1995 meant something and it’s because of who he managed to beat. And if Montoya or Villeneuve go on to win again in 2014, then I guess a guy like Munoz just isn’t good enough!

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