Any number of elements factor into a successful racer's career: talent, seat time, technical smarts, funding, determination, confidence and, yes, luck to name the most obvious. One ingredient often overlooked, particularly in a career path filled with false steps and detours, is continuity.
Of course, a disjointed apprenticeship is practically a given for all but a fortunate few. But still, one would be hard-pressed to find a driver who has enjoyed less continuity in his rise through the ranks than Adam Carroll. After a conventional – if challenging – path to Formula 3, he drove for no less than three teams in 2003, a different team in each of his first two GP2 campaigns, and had a mixed bag of DTM, GP2 and some F1 testing for BAR Honda in '07 before finding a home with Team Ireland in A1GP. As he had everywhere, Carroll impressed, leading Ireland to the 2008-'09 championship, which led to…not much for the balance of '09 and the first half of this season.
But if you're expecting a “nobody knows the troubles I've seen” story from Carroll, you'll be severely disappointed.
“I'm very lucky that I even got to do what I did,” says Carroll. “One season with a top-level GP2 team is 1.5 million Euros [$1.9m]. I did one and three-quarter seasons for less than 600,000 Euros [$769,000] with teams that were struggling and managed to win races. Lewis Hamilton, Robert Kubica, Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Rosberg, Nelson Piquet Jr. – they're all guys I ran against and beat. That's one of the things that keeps me plugging along: I know that every time I've been in a car, I'm up to speed and I have a chance. So far, I've won in everything I've done.
“When I got to A1 it was so important to have the continuity. It was the first time I really had it, from one season going into another. I was able to concentrate on driving. And the end result was six poles and five wins.”
The A1GP title wasn't enough to earn him a regular ride in higher formulae, but enough to capture the attention of two guys named Andretti: Marco and Michael. They witnessed what Carroll could do with that elusive continuity when, what was then Andretti Green Racing fielded the American A1GP entry for the young Andretti. This year, Carroll arranged a meeting with Michael at Long Beach.
“We just hit it off,” says Michael, “and Marco knew him and liked him, too. Adam's a winner. What he did in A1GP was impressive. On top of that, he's a great kid to work with, so I felt that, personality-wise, he was gonna fit right in here.”
Not right away, though. The IZOD IndyCar Series is an environment where even Roger Penske can't find a sponsor at the drop of a hat and, notwithstanding support from the series sponsor, proven winner Ryan Hunter-Reay struggled to develop a full-time program with Andretti Autosport. So Carroll's funding was hard to secure. Thanks to Boost Mobile, Dr. Pepper/Snapple and Automatic Fire Sprinklers, which stepped up from Andretti's Indy Lights program, a fifth AA car was confirmed for Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma.
But for a team on the cusp of righting itself after two seasons in the wilderness, fielding a fifth car at selected events borders on insanity in some people's eyes. Not, however, in the eyes of the one who counts most.
“We've run five cars many times,” says Andretti. “I think our best race last year was when we entered five cars at Sonoma. The results weren't great because a couple of our cars got taken out on the first lap but, qualifying-wise, it was our best. So it's not hurting: in fact, it's helping.”
Andretti Autosport experienced a mixed bag qualifying at Watkins Glen, taking eighth, 10th, 13th, 16th and 21st on the grid. Remarkably, the second-highest was occupied by Carroll, just 0.2sec behind Marco and well clear of teammates Tony Kanaan, Hunter-Reay and Danica Patrick.
Had he just scraped into the race, he'd have had an excuse: that session was just his third day in a racecar in 14 months. But he didn't need any excuses. Not unlike Sonoma'09, however, qualifying proved the zenith for the AA team – and Carroll – at the Glen. Although he easily ran in the top 10 in the first half of the race, like a couple of his teammates, he suffered from the wrong choice of tires on the final pit stop and slipped back to an unrepresentative 16th-place finish.
Andretti, who called Carroll's race, was nonetheless impressed.
“It was his fourth day in a racecar in 14 months, his first time at Watkins Glen and he qualifies 10th,” he says. “That's pretty impressive. I think he was a little surprised by the race pace but he settled in and, in the middle of the race on (Firestone options), he was right there. On the primes, he lost some spots but he got a full race distance under his belt and he learned a lot, and we learned about what he needs from a car. I think that will really show at Mid-Ohio.”
Ideally it will also show at Infineon, which would make three IndyCar starts from five race weekends, a virtual non-stop stretch by Carroll's recent standards. More importantly, though, a strong weekend at Mid-Ohio could prime the proverbial pump for 2011. With Marco, Patrick and Kanaan locked in contractually, it remains to be seen how Carroll – and Hunter-Reay – would fit into Andretti Autosport's plans for next season.
“I'm optimistic about Ryan,” says Andretti. “As for, Adam, we'll see. It would be a home run to get a full program for five cars.”
Carroll recognizes that, too. “A full season would be the jackpot,” he states. “Even half a program – the road courses – I would be happy with that. To get paid for being a racing driver is like getting blood out of a stone. It does happen, but it's hard.”
And yet with a little continuity of the kind Carroll and Michael Andretti hope is in store at Andretti Autosport, it does at least get a little easier.