That particular trend – piecing together several smaller sponsorships, or turning associates into primaries for a select number of races – was Andretti Autosport's modus operandi long before other teams copied it.
“In these last few years, the struggle to find and keep sponsors has opened my eyes as a driver and shown me the bigger picture,” Andretti explains. “My job is not just to drive a racecar. When you're struggling for money and your back is against the fence, you can't just shake hands and walk away. You have to build personal relationships with your sponsors. When you suffer, it makes you appreciate what you have, and I do.”
The IZOD and 7-Eleven losses still sting, of course, but not as sharply. Marketing director John Lopes and his team signed DHL and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, and Venom is tied to a long-term deal with Marco's car.
The addition of Conway could be a game-breaker, and the clean-sheet allure of 2012's new engine/chassis package has enthusiasm back at the fore. At the core of the sentiment is sales.
“Even if they occasionally get punched in the face, they come back swinging with results,” Hunter-Reay says of Lopes and the marketing group. “Last year we went from an IZOD-sponsored car, piecing it together bit by bit, to a full-year deal. It's a completely different deal, yet they made it happen.
“So it lies in their hands. They did an amazing job with it and obviously it's critical to a team, too. That's where it starts. Results on track come after that.”
Those results weren't terrible in 2010, just not up to the team's past. Kanaan won at Iowa. Hunter-Reay won at Long Beach. Marco had three podiums, led 58 laps at Barber and nearly stole the finale at Homestead. Patrick was racy on ovals, with runner-up finishes at Texas and Homestead. Hunter-Reay quietly had an excellent season in spite of a shaky sponsorship situation; finishing seventh in the championship with 11 top-10 finishes. But as tempting as it is to compare the two versions of Michael Andretti's team, it is pointless. The old group was raw and seat-of-the-pants and racing in a different era. This team is quite efficient in its staging of a resurgence, all business and brains and focus. Maybe this team doesn't need a leader. Maybe it works without one.
Let's go back to Hunter-Reay's pat response to the leadership question. No, he's not reading it from a card. He means it. “The biggest goal for me from a team perspective is to make sure I'm taking full advantage of every resource I have on the No. 28 side and also to work with my teammates as much and as efficiently as I can,” he says. “Other than that, I don't think anybody here really is interested in the title of team leader.”
Instead, he's interested in the title of winner. For that, he needs only what he's shown in the past: skills. Skills like he's perfected since his karting days, when he'd try to see how close he could get to matching lap times.
“You have to be very sharp to be consistent like that,” he says. “You have to be able to put the car in the exact same spot every time around. You have to brake at the same time and not make mistakes. It's all about not making mistakes. It's all about rhythm.”
Trying to get consistency, avoid mistakes and find a rhythm. The same could be said for Andretti Autosport.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the May 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.