Yesterday, Alex Lloyd announced he had resigned his position as “third driver” in Chip Ganassi Racing’s IndyCar Series stable. The 2007 Firestone Indy Lights champion – the most convincing Lights title winner since the late Greg Moore’s 1995 dominance – had spent two years in the shadows, with just a couple of glimpses of sunshine, at the 2008 and ’09 Indy 500s. Sam Schmidt, the team owner for whom Lloyd won that Lights title, ran a Rahal- and Ganassi-funded car the first year, a Ganassi-funded car this year.
In the first he spun out, but this year, in the hot pink HER car, he had qualified on the first day, snagging 11th on the grid with a dramatic late run that won the praise of the team, media and his peers. This “kid” sure didn’t look rusty. On race day, he lost a lap very early on when officials observed his rear light wasn't working and the team was ordered to fix it. Thereafter, however, he recovered to finish 13th.
To be completely frank, those weren’t Lloyd’s only two races. He had also competed for Ganassi in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, but when you’re teamed with co-drivers of the status of Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Juan Montoya and Scott Pruett, you’re only regarded as the “other driver”. And besides, Ganassi cars are expected to win that event – and Lloyd happened not to be in the winning car either time.
For a guy who won the 2003 McLaren Autosport British Racing Drivers’ Club Award, after finishing runner-up in the Formula Renault UK series to Lewis Hamilton, almost two years out of work was too much. He’s only 24, but he’s well aware that one-off races mean you slip off the radar all too easily, yet being a Ganassi driver is a double-edged sword. Who will take you on – from their own budget – if you’re contracted to Chip? The answer, was apparently no one, and so Lloyd has become a free agent, once more.
In a frank interview with RACER.com, Lloyd reveals the reasons behind his decision.
RACER When did you decide it was time to quit Ganassi?
Lloyd Towards the end of the Month of May. I had a clause in my contract that I had a certain amount of time to decide if I wanted to terminate it, or run the risk of having an option later in the year when it wouldn’t be my decision. So I got to a point where I had to make a decision there and then: I think from the end of the Indy 500, I think I had six days to make the decision. I thought about the last couple of days of race weekend, and thought more about it after, and I didn’t see the plans that the Ganassi team had been working on coming to fruition. I didn’t feel there was much of a chance of getting anything else, other than what I’d been doing so far. We had a strong Month of May, despite the end result, and I thought, “It’s gone well this month, so I need to get in a car more regularly.” One year, is OK. Two years is the limit. I couldn’t run the risk of being in the same situation next year. But if I didn’t take that decision right then, I stood that risk of doing absolutely nothing and being able to do absolutely nothing about it. It was a decision to be in control of my own destiny and pursue what I wanted to pursue, which I hadn’t been able to do before.
RACER And by doing this in June, I guess it gives you a head start on some of the other drivers.
Lloyd It gives me more time to figure things out for next year, so as soon as I’m able to talk to other teams – which is at the start of next week – I’ll pursue those options. But it also gives me more of an opportunity to get something for this year, too, even if it’s only a few races, while simultaneously working on 2010. Having some races this year will help my cause for next year. It seemed a better option. A lot of companies and teams are putting things together for the following season earlier and earlier in the year. By the time you get to September and October, their budgets are often decided, and you really need to be pretty certain of what you’re going to do. These extra few months will be invaluable to me putting together a deal.
RACER Is the HER sponsorship linked with you or Ganassi?
Lloyd They were found through Ganassi, that’s how I got introduced to them. But I don’t know exactly how that’s going to play out in the coming months. I had a good relationship with them through May. But I think I’m going to have some funding, regardless of whether HER want to work with me. It’s something I didn’t have a few years ago, but in this era, it’s pretty much essential. There are a lot of good drivers out there sitting on the bench, so it’s pretty crucial to have something behind you to make a deal happen, and I think I might have that.
RACER And you’re still set on the open-wheel route? I’m assuming if you’d have stayed at Ganassi you could have spent the next 15 years racing for Chip in Grand-Am.
Lloyd Honestly, doing something other than open-wheel never even crossed my mind. I feel like I���ve gotten this far in open-wheel and never had a proper shot in IndyCar, so I’m not willing to give up on that. We had a strong 2007, and even outside of the Month of May, I’ve done quite a few tests with Ganassi and know that in the same car as Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon, I know that I can produce the results if I’m given a chance to get out there. When I decided to leave Ganassi, I didn’t feel like I was giving up on anything happening. I was at a point where I could see opportunities out there which I couldn’t take advantage of because I was under contract. So doing this feels like a move upwards, even if it doesn’t look like it. Being linked with one of the best teams is a good thing, even if you’re not driving, but it is a double-edged sword, because at the same time for a couple of years I’ve not been able to take opportunities to actually race. And again there are people out there who want to help out but again, I couldn’t take advantage while in my contract. By doing this, I hope I can do more races. When this contract ends next week, I’ll be getting straight onto that.
RACER You need to remind people that you’re not just an Indy specialist – that you’re rather good on road courses and street courses, too.
Lloyd Exactly. It was good last year, because 2007 was fresh in people’s memory. But every month, you’re getting further and further away from that and it’s no longer the first thing people think of when they think of you. They think the last thing they can remember, other than a couple of Grand-Am races, that was those two Indy 500s. I want to be running full time, running on all the ovals, streets and road courses – especially the road courses, because (a) that’s my background, and (b) that’s where I’ve tested mainly. I think I could jump right into an IndyCar and do well on a road course. But it’s one thing knowing that yourself; it’s all a bit irrelevant to team owners if they haven’t seen you prove it. I’ve gotta do to find that opportunity.
Since I announced it, a lot has been made about the Danica rumor and that it all ties in with my decision to leave. But I can honestly say, I hadn’t even heard about that when I made my decision; the timing was pure coincidence. I made this decision for myself.
RACER How did Chip take the news?
Lloyd Very well, actually; they all did. I wouldn’t say I was concerned before I told them, but at the same time, when you’re a driver sending in a letter terminating your contract to a guy like Chip, you’re never quite sure… I mean, let’s face it, it’s normally the other way round where he’s concerned! But he was very understanding that, as a driver, I need to get out there. I know they’ve been working hard to try and find the funding for a third car: I know that because I’ve been working with one of their guys, president of their global marketing strategy, and they worked hard over the HER energy deal. And I know they appreciate that I showed commitment to stick by them this long. Last year, Chip gave me the option of signing with him or walking away, knowing that at that point, there was nothing on the table. But we showed loyalty to each other, because we each felt the other had put their best effort in. The budget is just so damn high to get something going, but we all expected it to be a little easier to find in the course of a year and a half. Had the open-wheel merger not happened, it would have been easier, because we had a bunch of races lined up prior to that. But yeah, I got an email back from the team, and it showed full understanding; we both knew the chances of putting a deal together were slim.
RACER How much is the budget to run a third car? How much were CGR looking for?
Lloyd I’m not sure. I wasn’t privy to the actual numbers; I only hear the same figures that everyone else would through website rumors. But I can only imagine it’s a lot.
We know the budget is very high, because you’ve got to pay something comparable to Target. There are other teams out there whose budgets are considerably less – less than half, probably. But I’ve seen the work and the development that Ganassi puts in for the two cars, and I can’t imagine many other teams – there are one, maybe two – which have the type of resources and active input that Ganassi does to making the cars the fastest. From what I’ve seen over the last 18 months, it’s really not a surprise that they’re as good as they are; you don’t need to be there long to see exactly where that speed comes from. They have some really, really good people working there, and working constantly on fine-tuning. It’ll cost quite a bit! With the rules so tight, that’s where the difference comes from, and that’s why two teams dominate.
RACER So are you representing yourself as you go looking for rides or do you have some agent doing deals for you?
Lloyd I’m kind of doing it all myself. I have an attorney who’s involved in the racing world, and who’s been there as an advisor, I suppose, but having been in the IndyCar and Indy Lights paddocks for a few years, I kind of know everyone there, and I know how to put a deal together. If I was looking outside of IndyCar, then I’d consider an agent just to help with contacts, but I know most of the team owners personally. So now I’m just looking forward to talking to people next week; obviously I can’t while the contract still exists. I’m not yet a free agent. But I’m looking forward to seeing what my options are and talking with team owners, seeing what sort of budgets people are looking for, and seeing what drives might be available this year.
If I didn’t have anything, it would be very tough to see where I could end up, because there are very good, established drivers out there like Paul Tracy and Oriol Servia who are available. But, I think I’ll have a budget, and I think that gives me an advantage. At this precise moment, I don’t have the backing fully sorted – I probably need a month or so – otherwise I could have been in a car as soon as Iowa.