by Frank Santoroski
In the first three segments of this article, (Pt.1, Pt 2., Pt.3) we examined the top teams in IndyCar and the teams most likely to challenge. This week we will peek a bit farther down the grid and have a look at the rest of the field,
This is a group that I like to refer to as ‘The Other Guys.’ A label like ‘back-markers’ or ‘field-fillers’ does not truly describe these teams. Those terms may apply in Formula One or NASCAR, but IndyCar is a bit different.
The Verizon IndyCar Series is unique in the fact that every team fielding a full-time car on the grid has at least one race win to their credit, and many of them have multiple wins. Like Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell in the film of the same name, sometimes ‘The Other Guys’ wind up being the heroes.
Teams will likely receive an additional testing date with the cancellation of the season-opener in Brazil. The season will officially open on March 29 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. IndyCar pondered the possibility of a make-up race to take the date vacated by Brazil. In the end, the powers that be deemed that a hastily put together event would add no value for the Series, and will explore the option of adding a race somewhere else on the calendar. My thought there is, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” with no further comment.
Of all the teams on the grid that would struggle for sponsor dollars, I have a hard time believing that Rahal- Letterman-Lanigan would be one of them. After all, the team principles include Bobby Rahal: a racing legend, David Letterman: an icon of late night television, and Mike Lanigan: an incredibly successful entrepreneur.
However, that is exactly the cross this team has had to bear for the past several seasons. From 2009 through 2011, the team was only able to run the series part-time due to funding issues.
The team staged a major coup when, in 2014, they were awarded one of the most lucrative sponsor package in IndyCar, the National Guard. They were unable to capitalize on their new fortune as driver, Graham Rahal, finished 19th in points in a series that featured 20 full-time entrants.
This is not to say that the season was a total failure, Rahal managed a second place at Detroit and led 28 laps during the season, but the poor finishes far outnumbered the flashes of brilliance.
As the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan team was licking their wounds and preparing for 2015, the news came that the National Guard would be ending its sports sponsorships as part of a new marketing strategy.
With the National Guard money off the table, this persistent team refuses to give up and have a full season planned for 2015, with or without a sponsor. The team will again feature Graham Rahal as the driver. The 26 year-old American became the youngest winner in the series when he took a victory at St. Petersburg back in 2008. He has not visited the winner’s circle since then, and would really like to change that in 2015.
The team recently tested at Sebring debuting a beautiful orange and blue livery that was reminiscent of the McLaren team cars that ran at Indy in the1960s and 1970s. It is quite obvious that the sponsor woes haven’t yet been cured yet as the most prominent logo on the car is that of Mi-Jack construction tools, a company owned, incidentally, by Mike Lanigan.
The team will run the Honda engine and aero kit for 2015, and, quite honestly, I do not expect them to set the racing world on fire. On paper, this team should be a top contender, but I have to go with the historical record. Can they win a 2015 race? Absolutely. The field is that deep in IndyCar. Will they win a 2015 race? That’s a different story. Stay tuned.
The team with the most unanswered questions in 2015 is undoubtedly Dale Coyne’s operation. The team has been a mainstay in American open-wheel racing since 1986, and Coyne has been known for two things. He is a master of identifying young talent and getting them behind the wheel. Secondly, he is the king of putting together short term and one-off sponsor arrangements and finding funded drivers to keep his cars on the track.
Coyne’s race team, small by comparison to the Penskes and Ganassis of the world, has taken four race wins since 2009, including a 2014 win by Carlos Heurtas on a rainy Saturday in Houston.
Coyne’s business plan centers around one paid driver for the primary car that will be again sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America, and one paying driver in the second car. We may see one driver do a full season in the second car, or we may see several different drivers over the season depending on the level of funding that they can provide.
Coyne’s paid driver since 2009, Justin Wilson, has departed the team looking for greener pastures. Wilson hasn’t landed the top ride he has hoped for as of yet, but suffice to say, he will not be back at Dale Coyne. Carlos Heurtes was Wilson’s 2014 teammate based on the sponsor dollars he brought in from his native Colombia. The door hasn’t yet closed on a return for Huertes in 2015, but we haven’t heard his name mentioned very much.
Much speculation surrounds Alexander Rossi taking the primary Coyne Racing car in 2015. The young American driver has been trying to break into Formula One, but, with precious few opportunities available in that arena, has thrown his hat into the IndyCar ring for consideration.
Other than Rossi, there are a number of drivers out there itching for a seat including, among others, Jean-Eric Vergne, Daniel Abt, James Jakes, James Davison, Ryan Briscoe, and Davide Valsecchi. Let the bidding begin!
I fully expect to see two full-time Honda-powered Dale Coyne entries when the green flag falls on the 2015 season. In addition, we can expect to see Pippa Mann in a Coyne car for the Indianapolis 500, and perhaps one or two of the other oval tracks.
Without confirmed drivers, we do not know what else to expect out of Dale Coyne Racing. Expect the unexpected. Did anyone expect rookie Carlos Huertas to come out of nowhere and pull off a win in 2014?
The final team we will examine is Bryan Herta Autosport. Herta’s small team made big waves in 2011 when they took a surprise win in the Centennial Indianapolis 500 with the late Dan Wheldon behind the wheel. Since then, Herta has kept the team on the track and has had up and down luck, but hasn’t visited victory lane since.
The team signed rookie Jack Hawksworth in 2014 and inked a deal with Integrity Energee as a primary sponsor. In only his fourth start in the series, Hawksworth took the early lead at the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis before being shuffled back on pit strategy. The young Englishman wound up on the podium at Houston and posted six top-ten finishes by season’s end. He won the Tony Renna Rising Star Award at the Championship banquet.
While Hawksworth did not disappoint, Integrity Energee certainly did. The energy drink manufacturer reportedly only paid a little over $470,000 on a sponsor agreement that was signed at $2 Million. The unpaid 1.53 million dollars has left Herta’s team with crippling debts, as his legal department is taking action against the sponsor. So far, he has gotten an apology from Integrity Energee, but no checks to cash.
With Hawksworth leaving to go to A.J. Foyt racing, BHA will hang its 2015 hopes on the talented 21 year-old Gabby Chaves.
The Colombian-American driver worked his way up to a full time Verizon IndyCar Series ride through the Mazda Road to Indy Program. In 2014, he won the Indy Lights Championship with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsport.
Chaves took 5 wins and 21 podiums in two seasons of Indy Lights, and he comes into IndyCar being very familiar with many of the tracks on the schedule. With a sponsor TBA, Chaves will contest the full season with the Honda power plant and aero-kit. Additionally, the team will also field an Indy-only entry for Jay Howard with backing from Green 1.
Personally, I have high hopes for this team. When he was an active driver, I always had a lot of respect for Bryan Herta. His driving career included rides in cars owned by the likes of Chip Ganassi, Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti. As a person to strike up a conversation with, I have always found him to be modest, gracious and very intellectual. How could I not root for Bryan Herta to succeed?
If Chaves were to break through with a win in 2015, it would be a classic David vs. Goliath scenario. Yes, It’s a tall order, and whether or not there will be enough sponsor dollars to string together the entire season is still up in the air. If nothing else, awarding Chaves the ride shows that the ladder system indeed works. It’s now up to the driver to make the most of the opportunity.
Like the other teams mentioned in this article, don’t expect Bryan Herta Autosport to contend for the championship. However, the Verizon Indycar Series offers intense competition on a variety of racing venues that often allows one of ‘The Other Guys’ to take home the prize.