The Year Of The Dragon

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Without a doubt, my favorite type of food is Chinese food. Don’t get me wrong. I love good ol’ southern food, sports bar fare and a juicy grilled steak as much as anyone. But if given the choice of only one type of cuisine I could eat every single day, it would be Chinese, Japanese, Thai or any Asian cuisine. But let me clarify – it would be the Americanized version that you’d find at PF Chang’s, Pei-Wei, Panda Express or any local Chinese dive that is on just about every corner. I’ve had “authentic” Chinese. My palate apparently isn’t cultured enough to handle the real thing.

Aside from the egg rolls, hot-sour soup, Hunan chicken and loads of MSG, I like the fortune cookies at the end of each meal. But I also enjoy listening to what must be the only CD circulated among every Chinese restaurant in the US. No matter what city – it’s always the same music. It’s sort of a mix of Mandarin culture meeting Roy Rogers. While enjoying the musical interludes – I always enjoy reading the cheesy placemats complete with printing of the Chinese Zodiac. I never pay attention to horoscopes, but somehow through decades of eating in various Chinese establishments – I’ve memorized the Chinese Zodiac. For example, I know I was born in the year of the Dog. My ex-wife was from the year of the Rat, appropriately enough. We weren’t supposed to get along. We didn’t.

This year is the year of the Dragon. Actually, the year of the Dragon begins next Monday January 23 and runs through February 9, 2013. Rest assured that it encompasses the entire 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. Yes, there is a racing component to this rambling diatribe.

How fitting that Dragon Racing could be poised for its best year ever for 2012 – the year of the Dragon. Of course, their best season ever would still be considered mediocre by most fans. In fact, their short history is more sporadic than any team currently in the paddock.

The team first surfaced in 2007 at the Indianapolis 500 and was known as Luczo-Dragon Racing. There, Ryan Briscoe was hired by Jay Penske (Roger Penske’s son) and Steve Luczo for a one-off effort that was run as a satellite team to Team Penske. The “Dragon” name comes from Dragon Books, one of the many media companies owned and operated by Jay Penske. Their car sported a beautiful yellow paint scheme, which closely resembled the Pennzoil cars that Rick Mears drove for Team Penske in the eighties. It was a deep rich yellow, not the light pale yellow that the Panther cars ran a few years back.

Although they ran one race, the team presented itself as a first-class organization – exactly what you would associate with the name Penske. The car ran well all month and finished fifth in the race. Briscoe apparently impressed The Captain enough that he placed him into Sam Hornish’s seat after Hornish traded stardom for relative obscurity in his move to NASCAR.

The following year, Luczo-Dragon moved out from Roger Penske’s shadow and became a stand-alone team. They had a good plan to grow slowly. They ran six races in 2008 with Tomas Scheckter in the car. They finished one race, crashed in two more and Scheckter broke three half-shafts in the remaining three races. Their best finish was twenty-first, late in the season at Belle Isle. Scheckter was not invited back for 2009.

With Scheckter out, they chose to go with a rookie – defending Indy Lights champion Raphael Matos. Gone were the snazzy black & yellow paint schemes from the previous years, Instead, they alternated between the colors of the Marines or the Air Force. Matos had some interesting runs that season, as most rookies do – but he started showing some decent consistency near the end of the season en route to a thirteenth place finish.

Looking for a cash infusion and a mentor for their young driver, Luczo-Dragon Racing formed with Gil de Ferran Racing to eventually form de Ferran Dragon Racing. It seemed like the perfect fit – partnering with a former champion in Gil de Ferran, who happens to be one of my all-time favorites. Gil de Ferran drove for Team Penske and won the 2000 and 2001 CART championship as well as the 2003 Indianapolis 500. He was expected to develop the young fellow Brazilian into a top driver. What sounded good on paper didn’t translate to results on the track. The team and driver regressed in 2010 and staggered to a fourteenth place finish.

Once Tony Kanaan was available immediately following the 2010 season finale, it was finally worked out that Kanaan would drive for what was quickly becoming known in most circles as “Gil de Ferran’s team”. But things went strangely quiet before Christmas of that year and by about this time last year, it was announced that de Ferran Dragon Racing was shutting its doors and Tony Kanaan was back on the streets. We all now know that Kanaan landed on his feet at KV Racing Technologies and had a very solid season last year.

The same cannot be said for the team he thought he would be driving for. One of the closest guarded secrets throughout the paddock is what went down between Gil de Ferran, Steve Luczo and Jay Penske. I have no idea what happened and have not been able to find anyone who can shed any light on the subject. But obviously something did. Whatever happened, the team went through another name change and emerged at Long Beach as Dragon Racing, with Paul Tracy behind the wheel. Although they only netted a sixteenth place finish, it was somewhat remarkable that they even made the grid.

Since Tracy had already cut a deal with Dreyer & Reinbold for Indianapolis, Jay Penske hired Chinese driver Ho-Pin Tung and American driver Scott Speed to pilot two entries. Tung crashed the car on Pole Day, suffered a concussion and was not cleared to drive. Scott Speed had some drama with the car and the team and was “sort of” replaced by Patrick Carpentier on Day Two of qualifying, who summarily crashed the car in practice. I say sort of, because Speed claimed to still be with the team despite reports circulating throughout the garage area to the contrary. Regardless, the team did not make the race.

Tracy returned to the cockpit for the few races that Dragon Racing entered. The team seemed to be a shell of its former self. Gone were the once-sparkling paint schemes, replaced by a stark white car that had little or no sponsorship and no creative presentation style whatsoever. One wondered why they even bothered to show up. Dragon Racing did not appear on many radar screens to answer the bell for 2012.

Then, lo and behold, came the announcement last week that Dragon Racing had signed Katherine Legge and four-time champion Sébastien Bourdais to full-time rides for 2012, to be powered by Lotus – financially and on the track. As Kevin Lee pointed out the other night – no one saw that one coming. On the same day, Jay Penske also announced that his team will be relocating from Indianapolis to California in order to better showcase his operation to potential sponsors.

Two weeks ago – if you had asked me about Dragon Racing, I would see images of the struggling team we saw in a few races last season. Given the makeover that Jay Penske has accomplished in these last few months, who knows what to expect? Throw in the wild-card that is the Lotus engine, and a prediction on how well Dragon Racing will perform is anyone’s guess. They could struggle as they come to grips with a new car, unproven engine and a driver that hasn’t been in an IndyCar since 2007 – or they could be the surprise of the paddock. If I were forced to make a guess, I’d lean toward them struggling – but you never know.

So before you write them off completely as a perennial backmarker, just remember – this is the Year of the Dragon.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “The Year Of The Dragon”

  1. Count me as a Dragon fan. I think that Jay is an awesome addition to the paddock, he knows how to put together a good program and we will see Dragon Racing be in the hunt for years to come. Don’t be surprised if they get a win this year. That Bourdais fella is a pretty good driver.

  2. I read somewhere that JPenske found some computer sponsorship or something? Good for them. I’m curious about how Legge will do. I started to say that Bourdais should be competitive, but who the heck knows how anyone will run with the new engines?

    (Year of the Rat, George? Made me laugh.)

  3. I’ve had a habit of supporting Dragon Racing over the years. Like to root for the little teams. Really hope Sebastien and Katherine run well this year.

    And I have always wondered what happened between de Ferran, Penske, and Luczo. Really odd situation.

  4. Good article, George! Nice recap of Dragon’s history!

  5. Love the Ex is a Rat comment. Bourdais has every bit as much talent as Dario, Dixie, and Power. If the engine is competative, I think he can win races. What he did with Coyne last year was nothing short of miraculous. 2012 could be a great year for Dragon.

  6. SS Minnow Says:

    I like your food angle as an attempt to get back in the good graces of the Eastern Hemisphere…… Can you imagine having close to 1.5 billion people alienated????? Just having fun on a Friday….
    Here’s hoping that Lotus can answer the bell with production AND provide a nice surprise for the series. Seabass was never a favorite, but it would be cool to see him on a podium frequently. Pulling for Kat as well. Underdogs unite!

  7. Nice angle on the Dragon, George.
    This team excites me. It will be interesting to see how it does.

  8. […] recently as last January, I wrote a post proclaiming how 2012 was to be the Year of the Dragon and that after some rocky times – the […]

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