It's no secret. HVM Racing is going sports car racing. Team owner Keith Wiggins has made a rumble in the motorsports jungle about this before, but what is it that finally pushed him in that direction? Well, the explanation requires a little history lesson.
HVM Racing, lest we forget, had a strong year in 2007, Champ Car's final season, taking Robert Doornbos to third in the championship after leading it for the first half of the season. It was further proof that HVM's recent successes with Mario Dominguez, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Nelson Philippe had been no flukes. But like all Champ Car teams that had just a month to prepare their IRL Dallara-Hondas following the U.S. open-wheel merger, HVM had little hope of gaining further glories nor therefore attracting strong sponsorship over the next couple of seasons.
And so, when the Indy Racing League appeared headless and directionless at the end of 2009, Wiggins spoke privately about expansion or even, if the numbers didn't add up, a full-scale switch to the American Le Mans Series. “I've got responsibilities to my employees and to the future of HVM,” he said back then, “and right now, I don't think we're getting anywhere. I don't mean the team – although we have just had one of our toughest years; I mean open-wheel racing. I'm not sure anyone on the Champ Car side benefited from the merger. Even Newman/Haas are struggling to make ends meet and I think a lot of the rest of us are just going through the motions.”
But then, in 2010, Simona de Silvestro entered his life and very quickly became one of the most popular drivers among IndyCar fans. You could support Franchitti or Dixon, Castroneves or Kanaan, but by the time de Silvestro qualified 22nd for the Indy 500 and went on to become Rookie of the Year with a 14th-place finish, she was already many people's second-favorite driver. Her fiery accident at the Texas Motor Speedway a couple races later and restrained comments afterward warmed her further to spectators' hearts.
And, let's be frank, she was a charming lady in a male-dominated sport, yet always avoided playing that card. Solid grounding from Derrick Walker in her junior formula years had ensured the Swiss Miss never abused her novelty value. So while many felt that Danica Patrick had gotten great rides with Rahal Letterman Racing and then Andretti Autosport due to the predictable equation of “cute looks + reasonable driving talent = big sponsor checks,” all Simona cared about was racing and that meant she meshed perfectly with HVM's no-nonsense attitude. And so while Simona herself wasn't anti-Danica Patrick – a flimsy gender-based war of words would probably never even occur to her – fans and many team owners, rightly or wrongly, embraced Simona as the anti-Danica.
So at the end of 2010, with de Silvestro still mid-contract, IndyCar remained Wiggins' prime focus. With Randy Bernard as CEO and a new car on its way for 2012, he had hope for the series and, for HVM Racing itself, there was the arrival of some solid backing. The relationship with Entergy Nuclear started with a bang in St. Petersburg at 2011's season opener: despite losing her excellent race engineer Michael Cannon to Tony Kanaan and KV Racing just a week before the race, Simona finished fourth (in the wheeltracks of Kanaan, ironically). Suspension failure in the team's brand-new chassis during practice for the Indy 500 triggered a monumental accident and another fire, but her faultless behavior afterward won Simona yet more fans. In parallel, HVM's profile improved yet further: the reversion to the older car (famously dubbed “Porkchop”) endeared both team and driver to IndyCar fans for here was a band of plucky fighters, overcoming the odds and punching above their weight.
By the middle of 2011, though, Wiggins – along with every other team owner – was using just as much brain power and time looking ahead to 2012, when the Dallara DW12 would arrive along with new turbocharged engines from Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus. As the IndyCar rules played out with each manufacturer supposedly obliged to be capable of supplying 40 percent of the grid, HVM together with three other teams found themselves with Lotus. And, in a manner that he probably curses every day, Wiggins embraced the program at the start. Even while the legendary British marque changed ownership last winter, freezing the company's expenditure on the project and therefore starving its IndyCar engine builder Engine Developments (John Judd's company), Wiggins bravely championed his compatriots' cause. And, truthfully, his reasoning made sense.
“Because it's a smaller company, some people treat it with skepticism,” he told me back in January. “But I was in no doubt that it would be a good unit and, as an anchor team, we'd be at the top of the heap with Lotus. I didn't want us to be in a situation where we were just supplied engines, second or third in line behind big teams. We're trying to improve ourselves so therefore we want a true partnership…we have confidence in the program they laid out and resources they've promised. A smaller budget means a bigger challenge, but sometimes with challenge comes opportunity….”
Sometimes, yes, but not this time. If Wiggins' logic seemed faultless, his faith was misplaced as the promises started ringing hollow. De Silvestro and HVM Racing spent the 2012 season trying to work miracles but their challenge was too big – in fact, impossible – to overcome. The smallest power difference I heard of between the Judd-built motor and those from Ilmor (Chevy) and HPD (Honda) at any given time was 68hp, and at the start of the year, it wasn't even that close. While other Lotus-engined teams – Bryan Herta Autosport, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Dragon Racing – were able to switch to Honda (in BHA's case) and Chevrolet in time for the Indianapolis 500 last May, HVM Racing didn't. Lotus had released those teams from their contract but would not do the same for HVM, and IndyCar was not prepared to act on the team's behalf and hold a gun to the head of Lotus. Why? Because that would be a breach of contract which would allow Lotus to sue IndyCar. It was imperative for IndyCar to allow Lotus to continue and HVM, as the anchor team, was forced to tow the anchor.
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.