Yesterday, Robin Miller reported that INDYCAR has made its decision on who will receive the two Leaders Circle contracts left open by the departure of Newman/Haas Racing. The victors were Ed Carpenter Racing and the Dragon Racing car to be driven by Sebastien Bourdais.
This has quite a few people up in arms. What about Bryan Herta Autosport? They won the Indianapolis 500 last year — shouldn’t that count for something? What about Michael Shank Racing? The loss of the Leader Circle money means they might not make the grid and Paul Tracy may lose his opportunity to run his farewell season. Rahal Letterman Lanigan, Dragon Racing’s second car, Sarah Fisher Hartman, Chip Ganassi Racing’s #83 entry, and Conquest Racing also missed the cut.
But while the message being sent by INDYCAR through this process may be frustrating to some, it’s a highly enlightened decision for the long-term growth of the sport: teams aren’t going to get free handouts just for showing up anymore. The days of being gifted $1.2 million per year for taking money from a mediocre ride-buyer and tooling around at the back of the field and generally being in everyone else’s way have come to an end.
The teams that applied for these contracts were made to work for it — and they were even charged $60,000 for the privilege of making a presentation, which is a common practice in the business world used to signal serious intent — and those best able to demonstrate strong sponsorship, talented drivers, intention to activate, and ability to assist the sport in growth were the ones that won the day.
The Leaders Circle program was instituted in 2002 to assist teams with their budget requirements.* If teams were under the impression that it was a permanent arrangement, they shouldn’t have been — it’s not a feasible system in the long-term. Randy Bernard’s mandate is to make INDYCAR independently profitable, and one of the best ways he can do that is to teach his teams how to be self-sufficient again and not to count on getting free handouts from the sanctioning body in order to show up. Now that interest in the sport is growing, this shouldn’t be nearly as tall an order as it was previously.
And if it means that a few smaller teams aren’t able to run, how great a loss would that truly be? The current rumored number of full-time teams is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 31. Does INDYCAR really need that many teams to be at its strongest? Might it be better to have 28 full-time teams — already an extremely healthy number compared to the past few years — that are strong and self-sustaining and can hire talented drivers who are entertaining to watch? What do those three extra teams that consistently run at the back with drivers no one has heard of really add to the final product?
The next logical step for this program, and one that dearly needs to happen as soon as the sport is healthy enough to make it feasible, is to make every single Leaders Circle contract subject to the same vetting process that the bottom of the grid just went through. If INDYCAR puts a bit of fear into every team of every size, positive results will follow. No one will be able to build a budget that relies on handouts anymore, and every team will be forced to go out and secure the money required to run on its own, rendering the Leaders Circle money a bonus instead of a requirement. And the exclusion of the #83 car from this year’s program should be a lesson to everyone that no team should be able to assume that it will be included simply because it is a big fish.
Once this transition is successfully made, INDYCAR should one day be able to return to a proper purse payout system that sees teams earn money entirely based on on-track performance, which is how things ought to be.
A final point: as mentioned in Robin Miller’s article, there is a miniature version of a purse payout system being implemented for those who didn’t make the Leaders Circle program. At each event, the top non-Leaders Circle finisher will earn $80,000, the second finisher will earn $65,000 the third $53,000, the fourth $40,000, and the fifth $26,000.
The money’s out there for the taking — if a non-Leaders Circle team beats all the others at every event this season, it will earn the equivalent of a full LC contract.
So, the message from INDYCAR is clear: do well in our sport and for our sport, and the Leaders Circle money can be yours.
Is that really too much to ask?
* This text contained an error in the originally published version and has been corrected.