For a time during a four-hour stint in the 12 Hours of Sebring, Ryan Hunter-Reay focused on running laps as close to the same time as possible. Again and again, even through traffic, he hit the line within tenths of his previous lap. “As long as you don't catch any squirrels, you can do it,” he said, explaining his technique. “If you catch somebody who's really snoozing, then it screws the whole thing up. It's always been a big thing for me since my karting days – consistency and repetition.”
Ah, consistency and repetition. Two characteristics that once defined Andretti Autosport are now what the team needs most urgently. Gone are the Andretti Green Racing days of the four amigos, when Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta stole Dan Wheldon's keys and filled his shoes with unwanted liquids. Today's version of Michael Andretti's IndyCar team has yet to establish a personality – or even a leader – or develop consistency or repetition. Instead, the search to define itself as a contender and return to the success of the past is Andretti Autosport's most unique trait of the present. Who is this team and where is it going? We're about to find out.
First things first. Hunter-Reay is not the leader. Not the way people expect, anyway. Sure, he's the veteran of the group, the one with the most cred and best numbers, but it's not in his DNA to lead the charges into battle. It's unlikely that a more professional, business-like and serious racer exists, but Hunter-Reay doesn't rally the troops with emotion or humor or swagger. Ask him whether he's the leader of this disparate collection of racers – rising star, owner's son and departing icon – and Hunter-Reay offers a pat response. “I think that kind of thing happens naturally,” he says. “I don't think there's a title you can put on it. I want to be the quarterback and the team leader of the No. 28 car. If things trickle down from this team to the other cars, that's great. Anything that makes the entire team stronger in the end is my ultimate objective.”
On track, all four of the new amigos pull the rope in their own way. Mike Conway has possibility with a capital P, capable of stealing a road or street race at a moment's notice while coming to grips with ovals and overcoming his Indy injuries. Marco Andretti is the team's bravery specialist, quick and edgy yet occasionally out of control, a racer still trying to prove that he's here for reasons beyond his surname. And Danica Patrick is likely off to NASCAR in 2012 but holds the wild card on big ovals and the capability of a lame-duck Indy 500 triumph.
As a group, they don't ride into town together on horses the way Franchitti, Kanaan, Herta and Wheldon did six years ago, but those four amigos were writing team history, not rewriting it. This group is attempting to take a team that had IndyCar racing by the tail and lost its grip back to where it was before: The Chasee instead of the Chaser.
“From the days of Franchitti, Herta, Kanaan and Wheldon in '04 and '05 to this point in time, this series is completely different,” Hunter-Reay says. “Back then, you would miss out on the pole and get outside pole or P3 by being six-tenths off the pace. The gaps were so much bigger back then. It's a completely different series now. Now if you're three-tenths off the pole, you're 12th or 13th.”
He's Googled the numbers. Fields have tightened dramatically in the past four years in the IZOD IndyCar Series as teams hone every last detail of the Dallara chassis. It's in this changing backdrop, Hunter-Reay explains, that Andretti Autosport has dropped to No. 3 status behind Penske and Ganassi. “Dropped” being a poor choice of words, for there might not be any element of failure in play in the equation. It could be that the best just got better at a slightly faster rate, a point Marco Andretti makes.
“I'm not sure we fell behind so much as Penske and Ganassi were able to improve faster than we were,” says Andretti. “It's a really tight series right now, and any mistake will cost you dearly. We haven't kept pace with them over the past couple years, but it's not like we're that far behind. If you sneeze during qualifying, you're 15th. That's IndyCar racing. All of these teams have had this one car for so long that we've all figured them out. The one who wins the race is the one who makes the right changes during a given weekend.”
Right now, that winning team isn't Andretti Autosport, but drivers and team members cite two attributes that should help in the recovery: the team's ability to snap back from adversity and its ability to adjust on the fly. Two blows recently staggered the squad that won three out of four IndyCar championships between 2004 and '07: 7-Eleven left Kanaan's car at the end of 2010 (and Kanaan was subsequently let go) and IZOD left Hunter-Reay's car to join Team Penske.
Says Hunter-Reay: “The things like the 7-Eleven issue and IZOD leaving don't help the situation at all, but now we're starting a new chapter with DHL and Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Those are the backbones of this operation now. Hopefully that relationship grows. We hope that becomes our 7-Eleven of the future. You've got to hit singles instead of home runs now.”
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.