At the height of their proficiency, they were the ones to beat. One team arranged trophies like photographers arrange group shots – tallest in the back, shortest in the front. The other emerged in the mid 2000s with as much influence over the political geography as power on track. Both teams put first-rate talent in the shop and in the seat, and stood at or near the front of the queue in the Champ Car World Series.
But something happened on the road to peace and coexistence in open-wheel racing. Little more than two years after the merger of Champ Car and the Indy Racing League, two of the former's best teams have fallen as few could have predicted – Newman/Haas Racing to a shell of its eight-title self, and KV Racing Technology to a crash-marred, rudderless ship crying out for a strong lead driver and an insurance adjuster.
What's curious is that these two were best of the so-called transition teams in 2008: NHR took two wins that year, while KVRT's Oriol Servia finished the year in the top 10. What both teams retain during these lean times, however, is the belief that better days, years – and yes, perhaps championships – lie ahead.
“If we didn't think we had a chance to win every time we went to the racetrack, we wouldn't be in this business,” espouses Brian Lisles, Newman/Haas' general manager. “We're going to go into every race with the same tenacity that we had when we were winning championships. We believe that we will get back to that point. There's no questioning that.”
Consider the recent history, and suddenly the magnitude of the decline – and the heart of the optimism – gains clarity. In 2007, Newman/Haas was the toast of Champ Car. The team that won titles with Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Cristiano da Matta then backed them up with four in a row by Sebastien Bourdais. KVRT, too, was beginning to flex its political and productive muscles, with co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven leading the way toward unification while Will Power was emerging as an untapped talent, winning the IRL-governed Champ Car finale at Long Beach in 2008.
Just three years after Bourdais won his fourth championship and bolted to Formula 1, Newman/Haas is relegated to providing a paid ride for Hideki Mutoh (the team allegedly even considered fielding Milka Duno at one point). KV, on the other hand, is looking for leadership among a trio of relatively inexperienced drivers – Mario Moraes, E.J. Viso and Takuma Sato – who have delivered more broken parts than points.
Two questions, then, emerge for both teams. What happened and can it be fixed? Answers: A perfect storm of collapse, merger, readjustment and a charred economy. And yes – uppercase YES. Emphatically, leaders from both teams insist that not only can it be fixed, but it will be fixed.
“I talked to one of the more experienced drivers in the IndyCar Series just as a friend recently, and he acknowledged that we've had good cars,” explains KVRT general manager Mark Johnson. “He told me we shouldn't be ashamed of what we've put on the racetrack. We've had speed. If all the stars aligned, we could win a race now: the cars are capable of being on the podium.
“It's just a matter of consistency and continuity for us. The thing that binds the good teams together is the continuity with their engineers and other key personnel. With us, it's more or less a restart every year.”
Add to that inconsistency a shaky economic platform, and the disastrous recipe begins to simmer. The economic difficulty of the 2008 merger was evident in the numbers. Just five of the teams in Champ Car in 2007 remain in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2010, with varying forms of mid-level to tail-end results. Those that survived, like Newman/Haas and KVRT, had to invest in more than just different cars.
“The changeover in 2008 was hugely draining on our resources,” Lisles says. “It was massively expensive to change over for us. We lost a lot of personnel because of the schedule and the demands. They just threw up their hands.
“There's so much more to it, too. We lost Paul Newman, which was devastating. So switching series created a problem for us, and the economy has been a greater problem. The result of that is being forced to become a single-car team. That's unsatisfactory for us. Had we been in easier commercial times, I'm not sure we would be as fast as the teams up front, but we'd be closer. It's been tough, but motor racing is never easy. One small slip and you go a long way behind. All of those who came over from Champ Car had a big deficit to overcome.”
Economic trouble and inconsistency go hand in hand. When the budget isn't there, neither is the staff. “It comes back to the same thing for everybody – it's the economics of it,” Johnson says. “So we're playing the hand of cards we're dealt. It's very difficult to make progress in this economic climate. It's hard just to keep people in place year after year, and that's become one of our bigger issues.”
The merger didn't offer much help, either. Not only did teams have to acquire new equipment, they had to learn how to use it on tracks they'd never seen. The combination was bound to result in a couple seasons of adjustment and diminished results. When the results aren't there, neither is sponsor interest; all of Newman/Haas' primaries from back in the heyday – McDonald's, Havoline, Kmart, etc. – are long since gone. So the effort now at NHR's headquarters in Lincolnshire, Ill., is to secure sponsors for a standalone ride in 2011. But diminished results make for a tough sell.
“Certainly the economy as we know it has hit all of motor racing,” Lisles explains. “Two of the three Penske cars are running around with Roger's name on the side. It's a big challenge for all of us in motor racing but if you're trying to catch up, it's even worse. If you don't have the dollars, it makes it that much more difficult. As always, there is never one thing. It's a combination of factors.”
So far, the combination of factors has – in the opinion of the teams' leaders, anyway – created a lull, not a collapse. Both are capable of recovery, but they need as perfect a storm for success as the one that led to their downfall.
“Obviously we're happy with the progress we've made but, that being said, we don't feel our cars are at the same level as Penske or Ganassi,” KVRT's Johnson says. “As competitors, we always try to make more progress, but the economic challenges across the board have made it extremely difficult. When you start off five years behind the powerhouse teams, you'll struggle to catch up. Meanwhile, they're not just sitting there.
“It's just difficult. We're all competitors, so this has been hard for all of us to take. From a technical sense, we're happy with the progress. But from a productive sense, we're not.”
They point to the positives on the horizon for both teams. The evolving schedule looks more Champ Car than old-school IRL IndyCar for 2011, with the elimination of International Speedway Corp.'s 1.5-mile ovals and a net gain in short ovals and street circuits. The new engine and chassis specifications for 2012 also are expected to play into the hands of former Champ Car teams, essentially putting them on the ground floor with everyone else for the first time since the merger, as well as returning them to the familiarity of turbochargers.
And so, the dark days are battled with an equally bright force. “We're always positive,” Lisles says. “If you're negative, you might as well give up.” POSITIVE FOR 2012
New IndyCar? No probs
At Infineon Raceway in August, news broke that IndyCar team owners were balking at the new chassis/engine plan for 2012. Reports indicated they were angry enough to reject the entire idea. Reports apparently didn't include Brian Lisles. Newman/Haas Racing's general manager embraces the concept of a new chassis and engine combination, saying the cost isn't a concern for his cash-strapped team and the result might be a return to competitive racing for teams (i.e. former Champ Car teams) that are struggling to catch up to the status quo of the IZOD IndyCar Series.
“It's revenue neutral the first year, and after that you should be able to break even on it,” he observes. “Money isn't the issue with the new engine and chassis plan. It's relatively irrelevant. It will be a cost, but it isn't a problem in terms of raising the money. We would not sit down and say that 2012 is make or break. We would never say, ‘We'll be out of business because we can't afford it.' That conversation won't take place.”
Support for the next-generation car is partly founded in confidence in Tony Cotman (ABOVE), IndyCar's recently appointed project manager for the 2012 IndyCar. He's the guy who oversaw Champ Car's successful implementation of the Panoz DP01 chassis in 2007. That support also proves that, despite three trying seasons, former Champ Car teams remain on board with the unification of U.S. open-wheel racing's top categories – and that's a crucial sign of continued unity.
“The merger is still the best thing that could have happened,” says KVRT general manager Mark Johnson.