Panther Racing team owner John Barnes isn't ready to name the team's driver for 2014, but did reveal an internal decision has been made on who will pilot the No. 4 National Guard Chevy.
“We've made up our mind of what we want to do for 2014, and that will be announced sometime after the season,” Barnes told RACER on Friday at Sonoma where driver Ryan Briscoe set the ninth-fastest time of the day.
Australia's Briscoe and Spain's Oriol Servia have shared the Panther Indy car since the team parted way with JR Hildebrand after the Indy 500, and it's believed Barnes will sign one of the IndyCar Series veterans to a multi-year deal to lead the team. Looking at the chemistry and progress of the team since Indy, Briscoe should be in the lead to earn the Panther contract. But with Servia expected to close the season in the No. 4 while Briscoe honors his sports car commitments with the Level 5 ALMS team, the popular Catalonian is in a perfect position to steer the contract in his direction.
Servia is also in attendance at Sonoma (RIGHT), listening in during practice sessions, taking part in the technical debriefs, and staying fully engaged in the proceedings.
Although Barnes has narrowed his search, he says interest from within the paddock – including current drivers – continues to come in, and points to Panther's overall improvement since Indy for the team's elevated profile.
“It has been amazing how people call when opportunity arises,” he continued. “The people that have called, and the people that we have met with has surprised me. I think we have a great team, but I didn't know some were looking outside their own sandbox to consider us.
“The team itself has made some great strides since Indianapolis, and I don't think it's down to any one person. We shuffled the deck, looked at opportunities we had, were able to redirect people we've had, added a few others, and I think it is positive. We just have to see how the rest of the races go this season.”
Panther's ongoing partnership with the National Guard has added another element to its driver search, and as Barnes shares, the need for that driver to perform off the race track is just as important as anything they achieve behind the wheel.
“We know who we are, we know what our mission is," he said. “We've spoken to different drivers, and we've told all of them that our performance matters, but everything we do is about the soldiers. For them to understand who they represent and why they represent them is of utmost importance. We have the Medal of Honor recipient Jim Taylor with us this weekend; he received his medal for his service in Vietnam, and we also have 50 people in our hospitality unit who suffered spinal cord injuries from military actions and those people ground you. We're really happy to continue those who sacrifice so much for us every day, and our driver is a significant part of how we interact with our military family.”