Muscle Milk Pickett Racing team owner Greg Pickett has always followed his heart when it comes to choosing a racing series, and with the loss of his beloved ALMS P1 class in the new-for-2014 United SportsCar Racing series, he's exploring all options going forward, including the IndyCar Series.
With last week's announcement that Lucas Luhr, one of his two champion drivers from the Muscle Milk P1 program, will drive for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing at Sonoma, the veteran owner/driver tells RACER he'll use the event to take a deeper look inside a possible move to open-wheel.
“I've been to Indy before, but that's almost like a separate world, and we've also raced with IndyCar at Long Beach and Baltimore and places like that, but I've never been able to get plugged into the rhythm and the cadence of a normal IndyCar event,” said Pickett, who has backed his son-in-law Scott Sharp, the 1996 IRL co-champion, as recently as 2009 (BELOW RIGHT). “And I was a part of Scotty's last Indy 500 run, but that wasn't a situation where I was in at the ground level of team operations, if you see what I'm saying.”
Mild branding from Muscle Milk will be seen on Luhr's Honda-powered No. 97 SFHR entry at Sonoma, but the most meaningful association between Pickett and the team will come from its presence on the timing stand and the setup pad.
“I had met Sarah a couple of times before and really enjoyed catching up with her recently,” Pickett continued. “She's built a very strong engineering-minded team. So for me, I told Sarah that we're happy to help with making Lucas available, and you'll see our name on the car, but what I really wanted – and she granted – was inside access. I'll have a headset and radio to be there on pit lane to get a feel for what it's like to run an IndyCar team, and I'll also have some of my key people there.
“And our team manager and chief engineer Brandon Fry will engineer Lucas, so as you can see, we're really trying to wrap our heads around what it takes if we were to decide to possibly go with the IndyCar Series. That's why I wanted to be there and really be on the inside so I can come away from the weekend with everything I need when it comes time to make a decision about where to take our program.”
Fry, who worked as an engineer for Walker Racing and Forsythe Racing in Champ Car, and later Conquest Racing in the IndyCar Series, has made a name for himself as one of the most exacting engineers since transitioning to sports cars in the ALMS. Although the Dallara DW12 package will be a new package to learn, his experience with HPD's high-downforce ARX-03a P1 car should smooth his return to open-wheel competition.
A move from sports cars to Indy cars is by no means a foregone conclusion for Pickett, but with the loss of the P1 category in the USCR, he's considering new horizons to maintain his interest in the sport.
“I'd like to think we've built a solid little team here,” he said. “And we've loved everything about racing prototypes in the ALMS, starting with the first Lola we bought, the [Porsche] RS Spyder, then the Lola-Aston Martin, and for the past two years, our HPD chassis. I think anyone that has seen this magnificent car in action knows just how incredible it is, and that fits our Muscle Milk brand. I've always loved sports car racing and that has been our base, if you want to put it that way. We're also talking to a few OEMs who aren't currently competing as a factory in the United States about partnering here.
“It has mainly been about GT racing, which I think will be amazing here next year, but that's a big thing to pull off unless something happens pretty quickly. 2015 would be a more realistic timeline. We're looking for something that brings that excitement, which is why we're looking at IndyCar because it's a big arena with a lot of passionate fans and the competition there is pretty stiff. You can see how much effort it takes to be successful these days.”
Pickett has been one of the most vocal ALMS team owners regarding the USCR since the ALMS and Grand-Am merger was announced last September. His candor has been rather interesting – a dissenter's voice to challenge the party line – and he's still not sold on where sports car racing is headed.
“If I'm to be completely frank, I see challenges ahead here as what I call ‘uninformed optimism' continues to be seen and heard,” he explained. “When the [USCR] was announced, people said they weren't sure about it, but they had a lot of respect for the France family, the relationships they have with the TV networks and the OEMs, and hoped it would all be a fantastic product, but it was uninformed optimism. And as we've seen since then, the information that has come out [about the USCR] has been painfully slow. As it gets closer to happening, the hope is that it transforms to ‘informed optimism.'
“Once the schedule comes out, the rules come out, the network package comes out, then, hopefully, if it all looks good and makes sense, people will have that informed optimism about where the [USCR] is headed. But right now, we're still in that place where people don't have enough information to be pessimistic or optimistic. Either way, it's hard for a team like ours to commit to any direction until more is known. Honestly, I think it's hard for anyone to commit to buy a product when almost one year later, you still don't know what you're getting.”
Racing in the combined P2/DP class continues to hold minimal interest for Pickett, who has made vast investments in building an elite P1 program with all of the personnel and equipment necessary to battle the factory programs. Money isn't the concern for Pickett as he looks to secure his team's future, but keeping his team together and engaged in something equal or greater to P1 racing appears to be the main priority.
“We're already racing with an IndyCar budget, a [NASCAR] Nationwide budget,” he admitted. “We know how expensive it is to compete in IndyCar because that's where we're at in the American Le Mans Series with our P1 program. We go racing with 25 people. We have six dedicated engineers. We have a bespoke engineering trailer. We don't want to squander all of that.
“When I'm walking toward the plane to go to a race, I want to be excited. Since I stepped out of the car, I want to be charged up when I go to the track. I think you'll see that whatever we do, it will be something that has that passion and excitement for everyone here. The next step is to see what we think of the IndyCar race with Lucas and evaluate where we stand.”
An announcement on Pickett Racing's plans for 2014 is expected within the next 60-90 days.