IRL Getting Smaller

While the IRL IndyCar Series is more than five months away from its season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, things are starting to take shape very quickly amongst drivers and teams.

Unfortunately, there won't be too many of either in 2007.

While any car count right now is purely speculative, it appears that next season will see as few as 15 or 16 full time rides in competition - down from a paltry 18 that ran full time in 2006 (initially, 20 teams started with the intent to run the entire 2006 season, but both Hemelgarn Racing and Cheever Racing failed to complete the whole schedule).

While nothing has been confirmed, it is almost certain that the casualty list will include Fernandez Racing (who has already confirmed they have released their IndyCar staff), one of the three Rahal Letterman cars and possibly the Dreyer & Reinbold entry. Currently, D&R is exploring their options, reportedly within both the IRL and rival Champ Car World Series, and working on various sponsorships opportunities.

It is a disappointing turn of events for a series that once felt would attract numerous car owners and drivers.

"(It worries me) a little because you want to see a strong series, you don’t want to see a weak series," said Marlboro Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, who spoke to RacingOne during Grand American Rolex Sports Car testing for the Rolex 24 At Daytona testing yesterday. "We have talent drivers, talent teams, strong series – potentially strong series."

Even though several reasons could be listed as to why the number of participants is dwindling in the IRL, the main explanation has remained the same as it was when the series was first founded in 1994 – rival series Champ Car.

"I think the whole open-wheel series competition between IndyCar and the other series is still a live wire," said former IRL team owner Eddie Cheever. "There are some people that come here and some people that go over there."

Although it appears unlikely that Cheever will be able to restart his IRL operation in the near future, outside of a possible run in next year’s Indianapolis 500, he is still a firm believer that the IndyCar Series will persevere and will likely begin the season with just as many entries as it has in the past.

"I think it’s a perception of value. I am a firm believer that the IRL has the right package," Cheever said. "I think that you cannot race in open wheel racing in the United States without running the Indianapolis 500. And there is some great stories in the IRL; you’ve got Danica, you have Marco Andretti, you have a lot of teams – Penske, etc. It’s taking more time to solidify its fan base than we would have liked to have taken, but it’s coming along."

Just like a majority of open wheel race fans, however, Castroneves knows one surefire way that car counts will return to prime levels.

"Well more cars in the field, definitely merging," Castroneves said. "Because everything IRL did already is to make it as easy as possible for the other cars – rules, tracks, things like that. Now we need common knowledge and good sense of both guys, top guys (IRL founder and owner Tony George and Champ Car owner Kevin Kalkhoven), to come to an agreement."

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