Cap the field — now is the time

IndyCar commentary — By on January 23, 2012 9:07 am
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There has not been a better time in many years — nor will there be another for many more to come — to cap the starting field at IZOD IndyCar Series races.

A discussion of this same idea took place during last year’s off-season, but conditions weren’t ideal at that time.  The hierarchy within the field was well-established, and it was clear which teams were likely to be battling against such a rule all season long.  Capping the field then would have made it difficult for those teams to attract sponsorship to appear at all 17 race weekends, and it drew their ability to earn their TEAM money into question.  It didn’t make economic sense for the teams or the Series.

Right now, though, as we sit on the cusp of reintroducing engine competition to the series for the first time since 2005, it’s not at all clear which teams would stand to benefit from such a rule and which would be at risk on any given weekend.  This next month or so is a rare opportunity for a cap to be made official with absolutely no risk of bias whatsoever.

Such a rule would give observers a very good reason to watch the back of the field in qualifying if one engine manufacturer winds up being highly dominant or one lags far behind the other two.   Watching which teams are able to squeak by time and again — and which are consistently being sent home — would add an immense amount of interest to a segment of qualifying that has up until now held next to none.

The primary argument against capping the field up until now has been the difficulty that smaller teams may have with finding sponsorship.  But during this brief window of opportunity, it’s not clear which teams might struggle, and so the idea of not making a race is a more nebulous concept that should be a much easier sell to sponsors.  Also, one could easily argue that the sponsor on the car that just barely makes the final spot — and likely even the sponsors on the cars that get sent home — could garner more attention than that of the car that qualifies 17th if things are done right.

Also, there’s a quiet culture shift going on in INDYCAR at the moment.  Changes are being made to the TEAM program to substantially increase the competition for the final spots among the back of the field.  INDYCAR clearly wants to see all of its teams working to improve themselves for the betterment of the sport rather than showing up and running in circles week in and week out.  Why not take that a step further?

This is particularly true since capping the field at certain events will be necessary anyway if the number of anticipated full-time entries pans out as predicted.  Going into 2012 with thirty engine leases in play would have been considered pipe dreaming six months ago, but today it appears to be reality.  Some tracks simply don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate that number of cars.  (Mid-Ohio is an excellent example — its pit lane can hold 26 INDYCAR stalls, 27 at a stretch).  If this will need to happen at a few tracks anyway, why not enact it across the board and turn it into an integral element of the competition?

There are many strong reasons to consider capping the field at IZOD IndyCar Series events.  It’s a race lover’s dream:  increased competition with no preconceived bias that can only be of financial benefit to the sport.

But the rule needs to be brought into play before the season opener at St. Petersburg — and possibly even before the open test at Sebring at the beginning of March — or many of these benefits instantly melt away.

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