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Latest IndyCar driver hire easy to criticize

February 27, 2014

It would be easy to criticize the IndyCar Series and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which this week hired Jacques Villeneuve to race in the Indianapolis 500 this year.

Lots of folks thought, “Here we go again. Another gray beard for IndyCar.”

And it’s true, that at 42 [he’ll be 43 by the time the green flag drops on the Indy 500], Villeneuve is no spring chicken. He’s not likely to pique the interest of young fans IndyCar so desperately wants to win over.

Earlier this year, Team Penske was trumpeting the return of 38-year-old Juan Pablo Montoya, a former IndyCar champ who spent much of his prime in Formula One and NASCAR. The other former Indy 500 winners in this year’s race include Buddy Lazier, 46; Tony Kanaan, 39; Helio Castroneves, 38; and the youngster of the bunch, 33-year-old Scott Dixon.

Let the Geritol sponsorship jokes begin.

It must be a bit scary for Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles to wonder where the series will be when this crop of old-timers retire. The development of young drives hasn’t exactly been the series’ strong suit.

But there is an argument for bringing back and leaning on veterans. Sports franchises must think a little like Wall Street. If a team isn’t first and foremost doing the things it thinks gives it the best chance to win in the here and now, that sport starts to lose credibility.

While their bones might be a little creaky, few who know much about racing would deny that the above list of drivers has the ability—given a good car—to win at Indianapolis. And there’s still tremendous value for sponsors in being part of a winning Indianapolis 500 team.

But there also is a need for teams to develop drivers. It’s vital for the long-term health of the sport. And it’s important to remember that for every seat taken by someone like Montoya or Villeneuve, that’s one less for an exciting new driver—someone who could capture the imagination of a younger audience.

In terms of giving young drivers a chance, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has done more than most IndyCar teams.

Led by team principal Sam Schmidt and businessman Ric Peterson, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is entering its third year of competition in the IndyCar Series. In its first season as a one-car operation with Frenchman Simon Pagenaud in 2012, the team quickly made its mark as Pagenaud claimed the Rookie of the Year title and placed fifth in the series championship.  

Following Peterson’s addition to ownership in 2013, the team expanded to two cars, again capturing Rookie of the Year honors with 2012 Firestone Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier, also a Frenchman. In his second year Pagenaud placed third in the series championship with two wins. 

Yes, I’d like to see more young Americans get a shot, but there’s a solid argument that talent has to trump nationality when it comes to teams choosing their drivers. It’s certainly a difficult balance for a team that races the majority of its races in the U.S.

There’s no doubt the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti teams could do more to develop young drivers—especially Americans. It blows my mind that most IndyCar teams don’t also have an Indy Lights team to nurture their own long-term future as well as that of the sport.

Focusing on today and tomorrow is difficult enough, let alone this year and next. I credit Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for attempting that tricky balancing act. But if the series as a whole doesn’t start looking at least a little further down the line, in a decade's time there aren’t going to be any gray beards left to bring back.

And then where will IndyCar be?

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