And so for the remainder of the season, we witnessed the sad result of a horrible four-way stalemate between IndyCar, Lotus, Judd and HVM. All parties deserved a greater or lesser amount of sympathy in this most vicious of vicious circles, for each could point to extenuating circumstances, but the bottom line is that, in racing terms, no one achieved anything worthwhile from this broken relationship continuing to the bitter end.
While many people weren't fully aware of Wiggins' predicament, at least everyone recognized the primary reason for HVM's dearth of results. After all, its car was as well prepared as ever, the personnel were high caliber, the driver always gave her best and only the stoniest of hearts could fail to be impressed by the stoicism shown (in public) by everyone involved. But behind the scenes, Wiggins' relationship with IndyCar and Randy Bernard could hardly have been more strained and thus he restarted his efforts to expand his team beyond the confines of open-wheel racing.
“Now you can see why I don't like having all my eggs in one basket,” he murmured during the Mid-Ohio race weekend. “It's extremely difficult to keep our sponsors happy when we're being treated like this. OK, I supported Lotus at the start and tried to make it work, but it's a situation that I should have been allowed to remedy, like the other teams did.” As a result of being unable to do so, Wiggins is currently contemplating the legal situation but won't comment.
If that wasn't enough, now Wiggins has had to deal with both his driver and his sponsors departing for another team and many of his staff following them. It's a hard-knock life, one that vast experience has taught him to deal with, and so he's sucked up his disappointment. In his favor, he has DW12 chassis (yes, in the plural), a lot of new equipment and a contingency plan for engine supplies when IndyCar and Lotus finally sever their ties. (Amazingly, they have still not resolved the situation, to the continued detriment of HVM). However, he's keen to avoid the struggles of the recent past; merely going racing in order to be part of the crowd is not what a Wiggins-run team is about, and so he has viewed his options carefully and is apparently headed for sports car racing.
“In the past, we'd looked at sports cars and thought it was a good idea,” he says, “but the main focus had always been what was going on in IndyCar. We liked the sports car concept and if someone had come and approached us to run a sports car team for them, we'd have done it, but we didn't aggressively seek out opportunities. The difference now is that our IndyCar package is there, ready to go, and so we can afford time to look at sports cars…and the formation of the World Endurance Championship means sports car racing makes more sense than before.”
Some may be surprised – or in some cases, upset – that Wiggins, who has operated in the U.S. since becoming the president of Lola Cars International back in 1998, is more interested in the European and global sports car scene than in the American Le Mans Series or the Grand-Am Rolex Series. However, he wants to be clear that he isn't ruling anything out right now, and his inclination toward the WEC is based in monetary logic.
“We are looking at the ALMS, in particular the LMPC class,” says Wiggins, “because Tom Brown our chief engineer won that class with CORE Autosport the previous year, so that is tempting, although my natural preference would be to go with LMP2. However, right now, you'd be very brave to invest in LMP2 because we don't know which classes are going to survive when ALMS and Grand-Am merge at the end of next year.
“Basically, it's a great opportunity for rationalizing U.S. sports car racing, just as the Champ Car/IRL merger was great for open-wheel racing as a whole, though not for all participants. But for 2013, sports car racing in America is in a situation where you don't know who the merger is going to be best for, and you don't want to spend a lot of money on equipment that turns out to have a shelf life of only nine or 10 months.”
So HVM Racing's plans are not yet fully formed, beyond Wiggins' resolve to run a full-time LMP2 – and also, perhaps, an LMPC team – in the WEC or ALMS next year. He's had talks with the FIA, with manufacturers at all levels of the sport, with some of his European rivals to see what cars might be available for him to buy and with drivers who he rates. What goes without saying is that, as a pragmatist, Keith isn't going to overstretch his team and, as a pragmatist who's still nursing burned fingers and a ravaged bank account from the year just gone, he's going to follow a tried and tested formula rather than let his ambition become shaped by faith and hope. His next move, in other words, has to be the right move and for now, playing it smart means the lower-risk/higher-opportunity route that he perceives the World Endurance Championship to be.
Wiggins says: “I think in America, sports car racing will eventually offer some good opportunities but myself and probably others are currently in a wait-and-see-what-happens mode as far as making a decision there is concerned. The WEC, though, is already in the situation that we all hope the U.S. scene will be in, come 2014. There are more definites in the WEC. Every market is a major market, and there are more opportunities for investment and more potential partners because there are more manufacturers, more competition, multiple tire manufacturers, and so on. There are hybrids, there's true development and there's true manufacturer interest in industry-related products. And there's the stability of the FIA…I mean, it's not going to go away, is it?!”
Interestingly, when Wiggins talks of partners, he's by no means just referring to sponsors/engines/car builders, but potential collaboration with other teams. This is a somewhat surprising change of outlook from “Wiggy,” and goes against the trend of pretty much any team owner I've ever encountered. Several times over the past few years, I wondered if it would be worthwhile for any pairing of HVM, Walker, Conquest, Rahal Letterman, Dale Coyne, etc., to join forces so they could take on the big teams at the top in IndyCar. Whenever I suggested it to any of those teams' owners, however, they looked at me like I'd served them a sewer rat in a hotdog bun. Responses ranged from, “I don't know if that would work,” to the rather less euphemistic, “He and I don't get along as rivals, so I doubt we'd make good partners.” Still, times change, economies dip and suddenly the “needs must” attitude becomes a little more prevalent.
Wiggins explains, however, there's very sound reasoning behind his new-found expediency. “What you look for in a collaborative effort is a situation where both sides can bring something equally strong to the table, right? So I wouldn't have a problem joining forces with an existing team and campaigning in both IndyCar and sports car racing, for example. If it's with a team or person who can open doors or has a great marketing group behind them, then obviously that's attractive to us as newcomers to a series. And, if they are a sports car team with no IndyCar history who wants to have a foot in both camps, then we have something we can offer them in return. Partnering us will make it far easier to compete in IndyCar than if they were to start from scratch. Or if there was an already existing U.S. sports car team that also wanted to race in the WEC, then that too could make sense for both parties.”
Always a guy who plays his cards close to his chest, it's not easy to pin down Wiggins with specifics. He doesn't like making statements until they are fact, unwilling to jeopardize potential deals by talking up one particular brand. Over the course of our conversation he speaks favorably of both prototypes and GTs, of Nissan and Honda, of Aston Martin and McLaren, of HPD and Lola (now ceased trading but still with chassis and parts readily available). But all he'll say openly is, “We've investigated several options, and we're looking very closely at a couple that are of particular interest.”
Not surprisingly, he employs exactly the same ethos when it comes to his choice of drivers. Suffice to say, all of the ones Keith mentions off the record are well known to the IndyCar fraternity and some would be ideal should he wish to run them full time in sports cars and occasionally in open-wheel.
Despite everything HVM Racing team has been through over the past year – or, some might say, since the U.S. open-wheel merger – Keith Wiggins retains a great deal of dignity and though he harbors some bitterness toward certain individuals, he never expresses it as such. Rather, he'll sigh at having not foreseen certain events or the underhandedness of certain individuals and he may even let the word “painful” creep into his descriptions of dealing with said events/people. But he never rants, never publicly slams any of his rivals or enemies. Like any savvy businessman, he knows that in a motorsports world that is both incestuous and uncertain, it's best to not burn bridges in case you need them again 12 months later.
His cynicism for what has gone before is usually balanced with a healthy positivity about his plans for the future and that balance makes him a realist. With the exception of the Lotus alliance, Wiggins' form predictions are usually highly accurate. So it's worth taking him seriously when he sounds upbeat about the team's future.
Keith himself doesn't want to close the 15-year IndyCar chapter in his history which includes 13 years as a team owner, from when he took over Bettenhausen Motorsports following the tragic death of Tony Bettenhausen Jr. But he admits that there's only a slim chance of being able to start over with a major sponsor and a highly talented driver and he's adamant that's what it will take to get HVM on the IndyCar grid in 2013: the days of being a mere grid-filler are over.
So while he's closing no doors, Wiggins is opening a new one to an environment that will present a whole new challenge. But maybe this time, his faith in the “with challenge comes opportunity” mantra will be rewarded.