The teams of IndyCar take to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course today for an open test session, and it’s a far different field than we saw at the start of the year. James Davison in the Coyne #18. Oriol Servia in the Panther #4. Luca Filipi in the #98. And that’s not taking into account the big engineering and crew changes at teams from Dragon Racing to Rahal Letterman Lanigan.
To a point, that’s expected. This is not a sedate sport, which lack of performance can always wait for offseason tweaking. From the Coyne Carousel to Panther Racing’s talent competition, there’s been no shortage of drivers in and out of cars.
On one hand, I have a huge amount of respect for guys like Tag, whom I’ve mentioned before is tremendous with fans, and JR Hildebrand, who still has no shortage of potential in racing and beyond. But you’ll excuse me if I show a bit of excitement about the replacement drivers and some of the late silly season news kicking about.
There’s something great about seeing any driver “get their shot”. As a baseball fan, I sort of equate it to seeing a prospect called up later in the season. You don’t know whether the driver will be the open wheel equivalent of a Ryne Sandberg, getting a quick look that will turn into a long, happy career, or a Ron Wright, there for a single race and nothing more.
I understand the odds, of course. Generally, replacement and one-off drivers don’t blast out of nowhere and stun the world (Mike Conway’s Detroit excellence notwithstanding; he’s an old street course pro, in any case). If you’re jumping into a struggling or second-tier team’s car and finish the race, that’s usually a pretty good day. But hey, they might set the world on fire. You just don’t know. Maybe James Davison or Luca Filippi goes like a bat out of hell, and it’s the beginning of a great run. Maybe it’s the only time their name will be announced. An IndyCar career can go 15 years, or 15 minutes, and no one is quite sure just when the timer will go off.
That’s the allure of IndyCar’s version of the “September (August?) Call-up”. There’s the unpredictability, the unknown, the new/strange sponsors, the thought that a driver is finally getting the call they’ve been working so hard to ensure comes through. There’s heartbreak, too: seeing a driver run out of funding, wadding up a car or being wrecked early in what could be their only race of the year, that can be positively brutal to watch. Even if is in defeat, though, they’ve done something most of us bench jockeys can only dream of. Whether they’re a high note or a footnote, they’ll be in the history books.
That brings me to this: I’d also be lying if the stats nerd in me wasn’t just a bit excited over some of the one-off entries as well. There are plenty of fans who love trivia, and among that tribe it’s fun to be able to mention that Dillon Battistini ran at Kentucky with Conquest Racing in 2011, or Adam Carroll’s two-race stint with Andretti in 2010. Open wheel trivia and stats folks eat that sort of stuff with a spoon.
So while the revolving doors aren’t necessarily a positive development, and while one-off entries might seem insignificant compared to the main contenders, there’s still some enjoyment to be had therein. To get folksy for a minute, you can’t plant a crop if you don’t till the soil. So bring us your James Davisons, your Luca Filippis, your Lucas Luhrs, your Stefan Wilsons. Announce those names that no one expected to hear, or that no one is quite sure about. Let’s see how they do, and enjoy the good aspects of some late-season turbulence.