In IndyCar, starring once in a substitute role is an achievement. Doing so twice validates yourself as “the guy they want” to a team that needs to call you into action. And doing so a third time vaults you to “Supersub Legend Status.”
Welcome to the club, Giorgio Pantano.
Pantano's stint filling in for Charlie Kimball at Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing at Mid-Ohio this weekend is his latest chapter in his unofficial autobiography, “What more do I have to do to earn a ride for the following year (besides find money)?” The 33-year-old Italian now has a six-pack of starts he could use as evidence he should move from a pinch-hitting role to the starting lineup.
Three drivers in the last 15 or so years have merited inclusion in this most exclusive of clubs for part-time drivers, and it led to full-time rides later in their careers.
Roberto Moreno's efforts with Newman/Haas Racing, Bettenhausen Motorsports and PacWest Racing (LEFT) in the late 1990s were all catalysts for his eventual seat at Patrick Racing in 2000, where he scored an emotional first win at Cleveland and finished third in that year's CART championship.
In 1999 and 2000, Memo Gidley did well in sub roles with Walker Racing, Payton/Coyne, Forsythe and Della Penna, ultimately earning the second seat at Target Chip Ganassi Racing for the second half of 2001 and scoring several podiums. Cruelly, he wasn't retained for 2002, and faded into the career wilderness with only a handful of starts in 2004 his lone remaining open-wheel outings.
Most recently, Simon Pagenaud parlayed his trio of one-off appearances for Dreyer & Reinbold and HVM Racing last year into a full-time season this year with Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports – and has scored three podiums and is battling for a top-five in the standings with a team that wasn't close to either last year.
It's time for Pantano to get a full season chance, as his predecessors did, for the 2013 season.
His first go of IndyCar, driving what was an inferior Panoz-Toyota chassis and engine package for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2005, he finished 14th on debut in Sonoma and fourth at Watkins Glen, the latter from second on the grid – out-qualifying his teammate and the eventual race winner, a guy with the name of Scott Dixon.
That year came after being spit out of his lone Formula 1 chance with Jordan, and after another sojourn back to Europe – culminating with a GP2 Series title in 2008 – he was again glossed over for a return to F1.
Late last year, he did well in three starts filling in for Justin Wilson at Dreyer & Reinbold, again in an unfamiliar car, this time the Dallara-Honda. He was the top finisher outside the Penske/Ganassi stables at Sonoma in sixth place, only to be penalized for blocking and sent to an unrepresentative 17th. Fastest lap at Motegi was another fillip in his cap.
On this most recent “supersub” occasion, back with Ganassi for the first time in seven years, Pantano again stepped into a car he had no prior experience in, and would be afforded no extra track time in the packed Mid-Ohio schedule.
Immediately on the pace, he qualified a respectable four tenths behind teammate Graham Rahal even though both were struggling overall for pace. On Sunday, the two ran a train together on similar three-stop strategies to move forward through the field, each running at a quicker clip than those in fuel-save mode.
Pantano, to boot, had the race's fastest lap for most of the day – a 1:07.3930 – until Oriol Servia, who'd been struck by a faulty gearbox at the outset that doomed his race, eclipsed it late in the going.
Again Pantano finished 14th on his first start on an unfamiliar track, in an unfamiliar car, and nearly set the fastest race lap in the process. Despite the performance, which included a couple great passing maneuvers heading into Turn 4, Pantano was brief and determined for more after the race in his post-race remarks.
“I want to thank the whole Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing crew because they just gave me a perfect car today,” he said. “Unfortunately, I need to learn more about the car. I think I need to shake out a few things but I did as much as I could today.”
One of the highlights of late in the year in IndyCar is that one-off or substitute entries tend to appear in trial runs for the following year. Often times they lead to nothing but on a few occasions, they bear fruit in a greater and more prolonged opportunity for the following season.
Pantano is the first such driver to have that chance this year. The same 25-car field has been present since Detroit, with the only difference being which Dragon Racing entry would be running. There haven't been any substitute drives or one-off entries, in some respect due to the lack of available engine leases. Paul Tracy's omission from the Canadian rounds is probably the most obvious.
Kimball, who's proven dependable and steady in getting cars home if not the outright fastest driver out there, has been one of this year's most improved drivers. But in a race where Pantano was expected to shade Rahal, who's now a free agent, Pantano once again showcased his worth in pursuit of the ultimate chance of a full-time ride.
Two things work against him. He's “old” by rookie standards – at 33, he's no spring chicken – and he doesn't bring any money, which is undoubtedly the biggest hurdle to clear if he is to garner a spot on next year's grid.
But substitute “experienced” for “old” – more than a decade combined of F1, F3000, GP2 and IndyCar – and “talent” for “money” and suddenly you realize you have a guy who has more than earned his chance. Ganassi, perhaps in replacing Rahal, or other owners could do a lot worse.
And following in the tracks set forth by Moreno, Gidley and Pagenaud – who all earned their rides without so much as bringing a dime on their own – would be a just and deserved position for a guy who has proven on three separate occasions, in three separate cars, he can hack it in IndyCar.