September 24, 2020

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How a Driver Gets to the Indianapolis 500

From Road & Track” data-reactid=”23″>From Road & Track

Since 1933, only two Indianapolis 500s have taken place without at least 33 cars on the grid. No race has taken place with a short field since 1947.

just two weeks ago, with the addition of cars from DragonSpeed racing and an alliance centered around Dale Coyne Racing. What may seem to have fallen into place just days in advance was, in reality, the result of months of work by owners and drivers who gear their seasons around a chance to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” data-reactid=”25″>Officially, this year’s field reached the traditional number of 33 just two weeks ago, with the addition of cars from DragonSpeed racing and an alliance centered around Dale Coyne Racing. What may seem to have fallen into place just days in advance was, in reality, the result of months of work by owners and drivers who gear their seasons around a chance to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

While the 23 full-season IndyCar entries participating in this year’s 500 find their own way to the grid, the majority of the ten additional entries making up the field are, at least in part, funded by money a driver brings. An experienced driver is given an opportunity to bring that funding, either through sponsorship agreements or more complicated business-to-business partnerships, to these cars, and, so long as the team can find an engine and an engineering staff, the car enters the race and takes its shot at making the grid in qualifying.

Each year, a small, dedicated group of drivers spends months of their lives finding the funding and partnership opportunities necessary to make one of these entries happen. Some of these drivers are successful, earning an entry and the chance to qualify for a spot on the grid. The ones who don’t refocus their efforts on the next season’s race.

Off-Track Business

Karam’s strong ability in ‘off-track business’ and long-time relationship with DRR have led him to make six of his seven Indianapolis 500 starts with the team, including a top ten finish as a rookie in 2014. While the benefit of team stability is obvious for a driver, the stability of the partnership also creates an advantage for Karam in finding and retaining sponsors. This consistency has allowed him to confirm his position on the grid as early as Thanksgiving in recent years, nearly half a year ahead of the next year’s race.

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire – Getty Images

Stefan Wilson, who led three of the race’s last ten laps when he last entered in 2018, sees early commitments to these deals as a pattern for the stronger entries. While entry in the race is his “year-long project,” the subject of countless hours of searching and preparation, he sees a pattern of the more predictable additional entries tied to major teams being packaged together and in the process of commitment by Christmas over the past few years. This was, however, a relatively recent adjustment; Wilson noted that one specific high-level entry was up in the air as late as March just a few years ago, but now seems to fall in line with the earlier schedule of other teams.

CoForce agency to find partners for the race and optimize their return-on-investment, also stressed that drivers are often responsible for more than just finding the money to enter a car. In 2017, for instance, he was aware that Andretti Autosport, already committed to a five-car entry for the race with the addition of Jack Harvey, had a sixth chassis available if a team could run it. He was also friendly with Honda, aware that their lack of available engines could change if the right situation came up, and aware that Michael Shank, the sports car team owner with a strong relationship with Honda and a history of winning with the Wilson family, was interested in entering the race. The team still needed an engineer, so Wilson brought in Zach Eakin, his engineer with KV Racing Technology the year before.” data-reactid=”43″>Wilson, who works with former Indy Lights driver Anders Krohn and his CoForce agency to find partners for the race and optimize their return-on-investment, also stressed that drivers are often responsible for more than just finding the money to enter a car. In 2017, for instance, he was aware that Andretti Autosport, already committed to a five-car entry for the race with the addition of Jack Harvey, had a sixth chassis available if a team could run it. He was also friendly with Honda, aware that their lack of available engines could change if the right situation came up, and aware that Michael Shank, the sports car team owner with a strong relationship with Honda and a history of winning with the Wilson family, was interested in entering the race. The team still needed an engineer, so Wilson brought in Zach Eakin, his engineer with KV Racing Technology the year before.

entertainment agent packaging a movie out of available clients under contract, he was able to help bring these parties together to create another entry. Even this did not actually result in a spot in the race, however: Fernando Alonso committed to the race at the 11th hour, Stefan stepped aside, Harvey was moved into the newly-created Shank-Andretti alliance entry powered by Honda and engineered by Eakin, and his ride with Andretti was delayed for another year. This, as he sees it, is all part of the business of finding a way to compete in the career-defining race.” data-reactid=”46″>Like an entertainment agent packaging a movie out of available clients under contract, he was able to help bring these parties together to create another entry. Even this did not actually result in a spot in the race, however: Fernando Alonso committed to the race at the 11th hour, Stefan stepped aside, Harvey was moved into the newly-created Shank-Andretti alliance entry powered by Honda and engineered by Eakin, and his ride with Andretti was delayed for another year. This, as he sees it, is all part of the business of finding a way to compete in the career-defining race.

“We’re like entrepreneurs, we start out each year with no guarantee that we’ll be there but we push on regardless”

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire – Getty Images

JR Hildebrand, who claims four top ten finishes at the Speedway, will start his tenth Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. It will also mark his third year at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, all as a teammate to Sage Karam. His spot on the grid is in no small part due to his strong relationship with his sponsor, SalesForce.

The company, like Hildebrand, hails from California’s Bay Area, but what makes them an ideal sponsor of an entry in the 500 is the company’s major secondary offices in Indianapolis. For Hildebrand, the strong relationship with SalesForce keeps the hunt for sponsorship from being a full-time job, and he is instead able to focus his business efforts on optimizing return-on-investment for that existing partner. At a traditional race, particularly for a company with so many employees based in Indianapolis, that involves a lot of at-track guests. In a pandemic, that looks more like garage and museum tours conducted remotely.

This sort of client activation is a key part of the return on investment that a driver and team can create for a sponsor, something echoed by all three drivers. What was once perceived as a business of calling large companies and requesting funding for a sticker on a car is now well known to be much more complicated, and strong partnerships built around event hosting and hospitality at the race, other marketing placement tied into the race, and even deals between companies on the car are all major factors in putting together the funding necessary to enter a car on in the race. The nature of the virus, and the race without fans that it has created, has taken away many of those opportunities for potential partners.

These conditions, however, can actually become a strength for some companies and some campaigns. Stefan Wilson notes that, while a partner focused on the hospitality is losing their opportunity to bring a significant number of guests to the track, one who focused more promoting on the business-to-consumer aspect of their business may actually get an increased return on their investment, as the strange conditions of the race and complete inability for racing fans to attend other races or automotive events will likely lead to a significant boost in television ratings for the NBC broadcast and total exposure for race participants themselves. This is why he sees the business challenge facing drivers as multi-faceted, stressing that”you have to know what your prospective partner is looking for, and see how you can be creative to deliver what they’re trying to achieve.”

Getting Into The Car

While “off-track” business is what gets drivers onto the grid, a driver’s other job is to get in a car and race well. I asked each driver if they thought their time off between races was of any particular concern; All agreed that it was not.

One advantage of the Indianapolis 500 for one-off entrants is the sheer amount of practice time available to drivers. Returnees must pass a re-orientation session to get back up to speed, generally a non-issue for drivers who have competed in the race in recent years. After that, they are given a set number of full days of practice before qualifying, and another, shorter practice session on ‘Carb Day,’ the Friday before the race itself. A driver is given specific time to re-acclimate, then thrown into situations where they and their team can prepare for both qualifying and the race itself, creating ample opportunity for the driver and team to build up some of the communication rhythms that full-time teams have built over months of racing together.

Wilson, Karam, and Hildebrand all also note the value of simulators, both professional and competitive. Hildebrand and Karam both spent some time this past year with their teams at the GM simulator working on preparation for the race itself, and, recreationally, all three are active subscribers to the simulator service iRacing. (Though Hildebrand, in the process of home renovation, has run fewer laps on iRacing than usual this past season, as “The room with [his] sim rig quickly became storage.”)

While none of the three drivers were too concerned with track time, each separately mentioned a specific focus on maintaining both physical and mental fitness, and for preparing for the specific intricacies of the race itself. Wilson, for instance, uses iRacing to practice the pit entry and exit cycle at Indianapolis, and reviews recent previous races to gain a stronger understanding of what specific drivers do in specific situations.

Of course, these drivers aren’t just here to take part in the race. Those in strong cars who run strong races naturally find themselves in position to compete for top fives and wins, and Dan Wheldon won the 500 in a one-race entry for Bryan Herta Autosport as recently as 2011. Just last year, part-time drivers Ed Carpenter, Conor Daly, and James Davison were able to record finishes of sixth, tenth, and twelfth, respectively, all within six seconds of the race winner.

In addition to this year’s 500, Sage Karam ran the Indianapolis Grand Prix in July, and he and his team hope to run more races together this season and next. On Sunday, Karam and Hildebrand will start this year’s race 31st and 32nd. Stefan Wilson, meanwhile, has already turned his focus toward the 2021 Indianapolis 500. It will be up to drivers like him to ensure the race will be the 73rd in a row with a full grid of at least 33 starters.