Sarah Fisher’s Engine Dilemma

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There were five teams that won races last season in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Three of them consisted of the usual suspects: Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. The two others were Bryan Herta Autosport and Sarah Fisher Racing.

For 2012, teams have been forced to buy new chassis for the upcoming season: a formidable hurdle that many predicted would force some smaller teams to the sidelines. Added to that was the stumbling block of new engine manufacturers, Chevrolet and Lotus, joining Honda and relieving the Japanese manufacturer of their duty as the sole engine provider to the series since 2006.

With car count surely dropping for 2012 – late last summer, the series put what was obviously painstaking care into calculating a figure to provide the would-be engine manufacturers so that they could make their plans for the coming season. They decided that they were safe in telling the manufacturers that there would be no more than twenty-five full-time entries in 2012.

There was one problem though – the car count actually grew from 2011 numbers. Had everything fallen into place by St. Petersburg, there could have been thirty cars on the grid for the season-opener next month, compared to the twenty-five that started last year’s race. As it stands now, Conquest and Michael Shanks Racing are not expected to have deals in place by St. Petersburg.

Still, that leaves twenty-eight cars expected to answer the bell when the green flag drops on March 25th. That is, if Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing can secure an engine deal by then. As each day passes, that “if” is looming larger.

Our friend Pressdog gave a very well-written account of Sarah Fisher’s dilemma on Saturday. You can read it here. He and I are pretty much in sync with our views on the matter. This is my take.

We keep hearing from those that are supposedly in the know that all is well and not to panic. Sarah will surely get her engine deal done. Right? Well, common sense would tell us so.

On the surface, you wonder what the holdup is. When Ed Carpenter secured his engine deal with Chevrolet last week, it left SFHR as the only team capable of making the grid but without an engine. Not only is SFHR capable of making the grid, they’ve gotten everything in place to run the season – except for an engine to push the car around. They’ve gotten a hot young driver in Josef Newgarden, a new chassis, a new facility under construction and a new source of stability (read: cash) in partner Wink Hartman. Apparently all that and three dollars will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, when it comes to trying to get an engine deal done in INDYCAR.

None of this is Sarah Fisher’s fault. None of it. She has done everything right. In fact, she has done everything the right way ever since she started her own team back in 2008. She and husband Andy O’Gara have been methodical in not biting off more they can chew and have planned their growth accordingly. Unfortunately, getting everything in place has left her standing without a chair when it comes to an engine program for 2012.

Our society dictates that there must always be someone to blame. That’s just the way things go today. Unfortunately, there is no clear direction in which to point the finger. I’m not sure what criteria INDYCAR used to come up with the estimate of twenty-five cars, but I’ll promise you there was more effort than just pulling a number out of a hat. Whatever the case, they obviously underestimated the actual total.

Officials also mandated that each manufacturer be able to supply at least 40% of the field, in case there wasn’t an even split among the teams. That came to 120%. That’s should be enough of a built-in cushion, Right? Based on the original estimate, each of the manufacturers needed to be ready to supply at least ten cars with engines. Unfortunately, Lotus got a late start – make that a very late start. Consequently, Lotus has informed series officials that they will be unable to fulfill the 40% requirement for 2012.

The result is that Honda and Chevy are left scrambling to make up the difference. There is no giant warehouse holding an endless supply of new 2.2 liter twin-turbocharged V-6 racing engines for these manufacturers. Meeting their original deadline was a daunting task, but somehow Chevy and Honda were up to the task. Lotus was not.

So who gets punished? Lotus? Not a chance. Instead, it’s the two manufacturers who played by the rules and did what was expected and required. They have been forced to fill most of the void left by Lotus. But those receiving the most punishment for the Lotus failure are the teams that weren’t immediately chosen by a manufacturer last fall. Make no mistake, teams did not choose their engines – the manufacturers hand-picked the teams they wanted to work with.

So who is to blame? Well, there’s enough blame to go around in a lot of places. INDYCAR must share some blame for underestimating their car count for 2012 and not having a better contingency plan in place. The series also should have had some better safeguards set up to prevent the manufacturers from having all the say-so in who got their engines. I also say shame on the series if they do nothing to penalize Lotus for dropping the ball. So far, it appears that Lotus will face no consequences for their inactions.

So as much as I appreciate them joining the series, Lotus deserves the bulk of the blame for dropping the ball. Granted, their parent company has recently gone through an ill-timed acquisition; but that doesn’t exonerate them. If they weren’t fully prepared to hit the ground running when they made their announcement last winter, they should have pushed their participation back a year. Instead, they hoped against hope that they could get it done and failed, furthering the burden of the other manufacturers and holding several teams hostage. Yet they will apparently go unscathed.

Most seem to think that eventually things will work out where Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing will end up with a Honda engine. Even if they get it this week, think of the track time they’ve already lost to the other teams. They have a rookie driver in Josef Newgarden, who has never driven an IndyCar of any type. They have a full staff, but own a car that has yet to turn a wheel. It’s kind of hard to gather data on a car that has no engine. Most other teams have logged many test miles and are already way ahead. No matter how talented he is, Josef Newgarden needs seat time in his new surroundings.

One of the beauties of this season was that everyone would be starting with a clean slate. At least for the first part of the season, all teams would be considered to be at the same starting point. There are several scheduled tests going on this week. Teams are scattered across Barber, Texas, Phoenix, Sebring and Infineon. Many test miles will be logged, yet Josef Newgarden and SFHR sit still in Indianapolis trying to work out a situation they didn’t create. Every day that goes by without them on the track puts them further and further behind the rest of their competitors. Even if things work out this week, it’s almost criminal how far behind the other teams SFHR will be when Spring Training begins at Sebring during the week of March 5th.

Normally, I don’t think that a racing body should go out of its way to make sure a team makes the grid. I understand INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard’s hands are tied and I don’t pretend to know what goes on in dealing with engine companies. But when the team that won the most recent race in the IZOD IndyCar Series has no engine deal through no fault of its own – I think that is the time for Randy Bernard to step in and make something happen. This has already gone on way too long.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Sarah Fisher’s Engine Dilemma”

  1. Not having the ability to project or adjust the figures on this estimate doesn’t say much for Indycar bean-counters. Of all the roadblocks standing in the way of the growth and success of Indycar, I’d vote this one most avoidable. Sarah’s team with J. Newgarten could be one of the favorites of the series, if Indycar would just get out of their way.

    • I have a question also: does this engine distribution thing mean that each car only gets ONE engine? so no cars have back-up engines? Because if they did, it seems like a loan could be made to SFHR for the good of the series. but if each really only has one engine isn’t that cutting it a bit close to start with?

      • Oilpressure Says:

        It’s my understanding that the engine “deal” gets you into the “program”. Once in the program, a team or car gets engines on an “as needed” basis. Keep in mind that the engine is expected to last for what amounts to 2-3 races (I think) between engine changes. If the engine fails or blows, the team gets a new engine from the manufacturer. What makes this so difficult for the manufacturer is that not only is there a scarce supply of engines on-hand, but with reliability such a question mark this year – it’s hard for the manufacturers to budget engines. That’s why Lotus not fulfilling it’s required allotment has presented such a hardship on everyone else. – GP

  2. I am not qualified or knowledgeable enough about the situation to comment on any possible solution. I can say this: This situation cannot, CANNOT, be allowed to continue much longer. As George and Bill have emphasized, Sarah and her team have done everything right. Always. They have gone above and beyond what might reasonably be expected of an IndyCar team owner. If they miss the first race or wind up being any more behind the rest of the teams, IndyCar as a series will have a difficult time overcoming the negative publicity. The air is going out of their balloon (and ours)

  3. Brian in NY Says:

    It seems that I have read different articles about Sarah’s situation. I understand the Lotus deal, but I also read that Lotus was willing to supply an engine to the teams that committed to them by the New Year, but Sarah’s team did not want a Lotus. Instead they held out for a Chevy or Honda and now they are in a position of not having a deal with any of the teams. I understand that teams may not want a Lotus and would prefer a Honda or a Chevy, but a team that wasn’t committed to running the full season until a last minute benefactor came aboard is not exactly a safe bet. She didn’t run a full season last year and to think that she is more deserving then Herta, Dreyer & Reingold, or Dragon racing and should get what she wants just because she is a fan favorite is overgenerous. I’m sure any of the Lotus teams would have wanted a Chevy or a Honda, but understood their negotiable position and settled with a Lotus. If Ms. Fisher had agreed to signing with a Lotus she would be testing as we speak. Instead, she gambled and has no one to blame, but herself.

    • I hadn’t heard that, Brian. I think that does temper my opinion on the subject a bit.

    • I haven’t heard that either and I’ve followed this story pretty closely. Can you site your sources? As I recall, Lotus was begging for teams in December and not in a position to be making demands. If this were true, I think we would not have heard the outcry from fans, Robin Miller and even other teams and driver who are people that would have known this side of the story. If it IS true, then good for you. You scooped everybody.

    • I believe the story about Sarah turning down a Lotus is based on a post on TrackForum. Not the most reliable of sources.

  4. Lotus is a trainwreck. It’s engines will probably suck, and even if by some miracle they succeed there’s no guarantee Lotus won’t go belly up in the next two years. To be honest Lotus Cars feels a bit like a Ponzi scheme. No one with a brain would want a Lotus engine and SFR/Newgarden deserve something a little more competitive.

  5. Harsh realities for Sarah for sure but last year her team was a team that ran mainly just the ovals. Considering that her sponsorship came a little late may have been the decision makers reasons for not commiting sooner. I love Sarahs commitment and love for the sport but before we all get pissed off we also must look through the eyes of the manufacturers also. The best funded and balanced teams should be represented in the series. Sarah wanted Chevrolet and may not get what she wants but her team will get a engine deal and hopefully soon. As a fan I remember many teams having issues with engine programs so really this is not the first time that a team wanted this and got that. Until the three engine manufaturers get their programs up and running smoothly these things happen. Chevy and Honda have done what they said they would do . If people are upset they should put blame where it belongs and that is Lotus. Late in the game is no excuse and if they would have signed teams earlier than maybe Sarah would have been able to get the Chevy she wanted. Hang in there Sarah we love you and wish you the best.

  6. I guess this boils down to life not always being fair.

  7. Quite frankly it’s time for IndyCar to stop rescuing these buttasses who are a day late and/or a dollar shot.

    • Had Lotus played by the rules, you might have a point. I don’t buy that crap that Lotus committed to all teams that committed to them by Dec 31st. Never heard that. No in this case Sarah Fisher played by the rules and Lotus didn’t but Sarah suffers. It is totally appropriate for IICS to step in and save them. And please don’t dumb down this site with your buttass comment. Totally unnecessary.

  8. Apparently Terry Trammel is a very busy man, I mean how many times can INDYCAR keep shooting itself in the foot? This is all INDYCAR issues. Who is the parent and who is the child? You as a parent set the rules, the child lives by the rules. Same case scenario, INDYCAR must have blinders on to short side this issue, with engines. Now INDYCAR walks through a barrage of bullets with the issue of SFHR. Something also tells me we do not know the whole story on MSR also. GET IT RIGHT INDYCAR and let’s move on. Just do the right thing, we all understand. Your credibility is at stake.

  9. Jack The Root Says:

    “I love Sarahs commitment and love for the sport but before we all get pissed off we also must look through the eyes of the manufacturers also. The best funded and balanced teams should be represented in the series.”

    The “eyes” of the manufacturers say there are very few people watching this product.

    Here you have a popular owner and the equivalent of a California Condor (an American driver). A combo that some folks might actually be interested in watching. And instead of getting the combo on the track, they are stuck with no engine for the first 25% of the year.

    That is lunacy for a sport that continues to trump itself in stupidity. And it will kill any chance SFHR had, of getting into the IC Welfare Program (also known as the Leaders Circle) for 2013. The “little guy” will continue to stay miles behind and will never catch up (even with new cars/engines).

    And Indy Car and its zealots continue to wonder why nobody takes them seriously and nobody gives a damn about their sport anymore?

    • These are great points. It’s amazing to me that a lot of IndyCar observers were excited for the new chassis/engines precisely because we might have a period of time where Penske and Ganassi haven’t already won the race in the garage. And here we are not even having run a race yet, and the series is allowing a situation that puts an upstart team doing everything right (new facility, exciting new American driver) and a competitive disadvantage. I assume this will get fixed, but harm is already being done.

  10. According to Sarah Fisher’s Twitter, she has been chasing any engine contract she can get for months. So it’s not that she has turned down one; she hasn’t had an offer.

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