The success enjoyed by the unified IndyCar Series this season has provided many positive storylines but, for one stalwart of the leaner years, Sunday's Chicagoland finale may have been the downside of this year's growth.
With fields reaching 28 cars at their peak this season, and possibly expanding beyond that on occasion in 2009, speculation in Joliet suggested that Marty Roth has been politely asked to confine his involvement to managing his eponymous team next season, giving over his seat to a younger and, potentially, more competitive driver.
Roth, having graduated from the Indy Pro Series as an ambitious owner-driver, used the unification announcement to expand his operation to run a second car for 2006 Pro Series champion Jay Howard. Sponsorship, however, was sparse for both cars until Indianapolis and, in the build-up to the race, Howard was parked in favour of the more experienced John Andretti.
Despite his deal initially for the Brickyard, the veteran continued alongside Roth for the next four races, before Howard returned, in place of Roth, for round eleven on the road course at Watkins Glen. It proved to be a one-off return and the Roth team continued in single-car spec for the remainder of the season. Roth, himself, was the best placed of the trio in terms of points, claiming 24th overall having at least practiced at every round except the Glen, while Howard and Andretti took 28th and 30th respectively.
While he occasionally showed glimpses of real speed in qualifying, especially on the shorter ovals, Roth was a regular at the back of the field, and it would appear that the Indy Racing League is now hoping to attract a more competitive runner than the 49-year old for 2009.
The IndyCar Series has proven slow to embrace the talent coming through from its own feeder series, retitled Firestone Indy Lights for 2008, as sponsorship proved to be a problem. While champions like Howard, Alex Lloyd and Wade Cunningham sit on the sidelines, this year's IRL rookie of the year Hideki Mutoh has made a name for himself with AGR and Formula Dream backing, and Jaime Camara lucked in to the second seat at Conquest after Franck Perera's French sponsorship ran dry and he fitted the bill for existing backer Sangari. Vision duo Ed Carpenter and AJ Foyt IV both came up through the ranks, but in seasons past. Jeff Simmons continues to ply his trade in the feeder series despite being a regular pick-up for the Indianapolis 500.
This year's Lights champion, Raphael Matos, and runner-up, Richard Antinucci, have both made no secret of their desire to step up next season [see separate story
]. The Brazilian possibly stands the best chance, amid rumours that the AGR outfit that co-ran him in Lights may expand to five cars for 2009. Antinucci, meanwhile, may have to rely on family ties, and the possibility that uncle Eddie Cheever may revive his team to cash in on unification.
"I think there is a great future ahead of us," was all Matos would say after clinching the Lights crown Sunday.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, there could be bigger casualties than Roth, with two of this year's leading rookies - and former Champ Car frontrunners - apparently having the axe hung over their heads. While neither Justin Wilson or Will Power would be seen as expendable by their teams in normal circumstances, should sponsorship be required, neither appears to be entirely safe.
Wilson told the Indianapolis Star
newspaper that he 'still hasn't been told' whether his contract will be picked up by Newman/Haas/Lanigan team for next season, despite finally breaking into victory lane in Detroit. Ironically, the Briton's car has been the one in the NHLR line-up with clearly defined outside sponsorship, with Wilson carrying the McDonalds colours previously campaigned in Champ Car by Sebastien Bourdais.