Who Is An IndyCar MVP?

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Although the IZOD IndyCar Series doesn’t return to the track for another two and a half weeks, it’s good to be back here after a nice little break. That’s not to say that my week away from here was full of relaxation. Hardly. After all of the yard work I did at the new place this weekend, I was glad to see Monday roll around. This old body can’t do it like I used to.

I was also able to catch a lot of pre-season NFL football. What is it about these meaningless games that draw us in and make us watch? Apparently, I’m not the only glutton for punishment, since they were on various networks throughout the weekend. The ratings must be decent or else they wouldn’t be carried. I had planned to watch the Packers at the Chargers on ESPN. But by the time I got over to it, last year’s MVP Aaron Rodgers had already made his cameo appearance and had donned the baseball cap for the evening.

There’s something about that title MVP that is a little misleading. It stands for Most Valuable Player. There’s a difference between the most valuable player and the most outstanding player. The most outstanding player puts up a lot of gaudy stats, but those stats may not always translate to victories. Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars led the league in rushing last year, but his team only won five games. Rodgers and the Packers won fifteen games, although they fell short in the playoffs. The MVP is really the person whose absence would hurt their specific team the most. There is a valid argument out there that Peyton Manning should have been the 2011 MVP, since his absence caused the Colts to go from winning ten games with Manning in 2010 to winning only two without him in 2011. Perhaps the MVP should be called the most indispensible player.

This has spurred the question: who is the most indispensible person to their specific team in the IZOD IndyCar Series? What figure would be most missed by a team if he or she were to leave? Since racing is a team sport, this would not necessarily be a driver. It could be an engineer, a race strategist, a tire changer or even a front-office person that rarely makes it to the track on race weekend. Or it could be the driver, whose talent or presence is so great – no one could fill their void and the drop-off in results would be significant.

I have made my own list in no particular order of individuals who I believe their departure would hit their team the hardest.

Tim Cindric – Although Team Penske bears the name of its owner and founder Roger Penske, make no mistake that Tim Cindric has already put his stamp on the day-to-day running of this team. Cindric joined Team Penske following the 1999 CART season, following a successful stint at Team Rahal and Truesports. He was named President of Penske Performance, Inc following the 2005 season and now oversees all racing entities that Team Penske is involved in, including the NASCAR program. Roger Penske is now 75 and shows no signs of slowing down. Still, Father Time catches up to all of us and Cindric has been charged as the man to lead Team Penske once the inevitability of The Captain stepping down becomes reality.

Cindric’s value as a race strategist was demonstrated last summer when he was moved from the pit box of Helio Castroneves, where he had spent over twelve seasons, and moved to the pit of championship contender Will Power.

While Roger Penske currently calls the race for Ryan Briscoe and still holds the final say on important matters, Tim Cindric’s importance to this team cannot be understated and if he were to ever leave, his loss would be felt.

Larry Foyt – Like Cindric, Larry Foyt is the future for AJ Foyt Enterprises. Some may wonder how the word indispensable could be used to describe the leader of a team that currently sits nineteenth in points, but the key word is future. The son and biological grandson (it’s confusing) of AJ Foyt is building for the future while dealing with the present. While AJ Foyt is an icon of this sport and my favorite all-time driver, he gets in the way of progress at the team that bears his name. There have been too many examples of AJ letting his emotions get the best of him – either while berating a driver or being too loyal to longtime friends and employees that have hindered the growth of this team.

Larry Foyt knows this, but he is handcuffed. AJ handed the day-to-day operation of the team to Larry several years ago, but AJ still has the final say – and it’s usually not the right say. Larry was not a good driver, and that’s being kind. But all indications are that Larry is an excellent administrator and has a clear idea what needs to be done to move this team to a second-tier team, which would be an improvement from their current status. If Larry Foyt were to suddenly decide to direct his energies elsewhere, this team would be in a world of hurt.

Michael Andretti – Normally team owners would be exempt from this list, but I’m not sure that Michael Andretti has anyone currently waiting in the wings if he suddenly wasn’t there. When Andretti-Green Racing re-organized with the departure of co-owners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, many (myself included) predicted that this team would c0ntinue to slide at an even faster pace. Instead, Michael Andretti has taken control and become the leader I never expected him to be. He has two of his three cars in the top-five in points, one of which was leading the championship prior to the last race. He has also become a successful race promoter, having taken over that responsibility at Milwaukee and Baltimore.

Michael has defied the logic that mediocre drivers become great owners, while great drivers become mediocre owners. While he only won one championship while driving (1991), Michael finished second in points five times and third twice. At the Indianapolis 500, the record shows that he finished second once and third twice. What it doesn’t show is how he completely dominated the 1992 race for 189 laps before a fuel-pump failure left him with an unremarkable thirteenth place finish. As an owner, Michael Andretti has won the Indianapolis 500 twice and won the season championship three times.

On the surface, it appears that Michael Andretti is now calling the shots at his team. He is no figurehead. One cannot argue with the results of the turnaround with this team since he became the sole owner following the 2009 season. One just has to wonder who would be calling the shots if Michael were no longer there.

Mike Hull – It can be said that Chip Ganassi is the dominant voice at Chip Ganassi Racing. He probably makes most off-track decisions, while making the on-track decisions on race day while calling the races for Dario Franchitti. But Mike Hull is the guiding force for Chip Ganassi racing and is probably the person most responsible for CGR winning four CART championships, five IndyCar championships (including the last four) and four Indianapolis 500’s. As Team Managing Director, Hull is the understated, but undisputed leader of the team. On race weekends, he calls the races for Scott Dixon but also makes most team decisions regarding anything racing related.

Although usually calm and articulate, Hull is very outspoken on the lack of innovation in today’s open-wheel racing. He is very much a proponent of opening up the rule book and giving teams the power to make their own decisions. It’s an outlook that many share – myself included.

Tony Kanaan – I felt the need to put at least one driver on my list. If there was one driver a team would miss, it would be Tony Kanaan. Look no further than the days leading up to qualifying for the 2010 Indianapolis 500, when Kanaan was called upon to set up all five Andretti Autosport entries. Then on the morning of pole qualifying, Kanaan crashed his own car which started a string of events that saw him almost fail to qualify for the race.

When Kanaan moved to KV Racing Technology at the beginning of the 2011 season, he brought instant credibility, stability and leadership to a team that consisted of perennial wall-bangers EJ Viso and Takuma Sato. This season, he brought his childhood friend, Rubens Barrichello, to the team after nineteen years in Formula One. Barrichello is widely believed to be moving on after this season. He will be missed, but not near as much as Kanaan would be if he decides to move on as well.

Tony Kanaan is the consummate professional. He can be vocal in his discontent, but is also the ultimate team player. Almost everything he does is with the good of the team in mind. He is the team workhorse during testing and is a team leader. Kanaan is also very popular among fans, which doesn’t hurt when seeking sponsorship.

There are many good drivers out there. Some perform well, simply due to the teams they drive for. Tony Kanaan has the reputation as making the most out of not-so-good equipment or situations. Out of loyalty, he opted to stay with Andretti-Green instead of accepting an offer to drive for Target Chip Ganassi, following an abysmal 2008 season that got worse in 2009. Throughout those seasons, he kept his mouth shut and continued his roles of team leader and workhorse. His reward for such loyalty was to be unceremoniously kicked to the curb after the 2010 season. I often wonder how Tony Kanaan’s career would have gone had he driven for Team Penske or had he accepted the Ganassi offer. Still, I cannot think of a team that would suffer more from losing their driver if KV were to lose Kanaan.

So that is my list consisting of five names. Those are the ones that I consider indispensable to their respective teams. There are probably many more that should be on a short list. What do you think? Do you agree with all of mine or any of mine? Who would you remove? Who would you add? This should be a good discussion while we wait for the season to resume at the end of this month at Sonoma.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Who Is An IndyCar MVP?”

  1. Although I don’t plan to assemble a list, it is a good exercise. One thing apparent quickly is that no measure of success in Indycar or NFL comes without many members working together and well.

    I might contend that an offensive lineman could be in the running for NFL MVP every year based on their work reflected in the QB’s or RB’s performance, yet that would be unfair to the other 4 on the line. Emmitt Smith should give half of his career earnings to the linemen who gave him holes big enough to drive a truck through.

    Indycar operations seem lean enough in personnel that not many teams can spare a person without losing some measure of performance or efficiency.

    Ultimately, when I think about this, I’d much rather be on the team without an ‘MVP’ but one that works together to win consistently. It’s also precisely why I’m glad there’s no malarkey awards at the end of the Indycar season. “Just Win, Baby”.

    • Good column George. Personally, my vote is for Ryan Hunter-Reay.

      Brian

    • MVP’s usually go to the best player on the best team (unless your last name is Jordan) who plays a “glory” position. So it would have to be a Penske or Ganassi driver. There is no postseason or chase (thank god) so the winner will also be your champion.

      Who gets the most out of the least? Simon Pagenaud would be that man.

      • I’ll 2nd Pags, but I was going to throw out Servia as a guy who has truely been MVP of every small team at which he’s ever landed.

  2. Carburetor Says:

    I like your list George. Though not likely to be on anyone’s list today, I would mention that Mario Andretti likely still plays an important role in Andretti Autosport because of his likeability with sponsors. Years ago I knew a marketing manager for one of the racing teams and he shared the trials and tribulations of trying to attract sponsors (amazing stories!). This was when the teams were primarily responsible with drivers being somewhat less so. Nevertheless, he told me that sponsors flocked to Mario; that Mario really knew how to speak to the decision-makers of the sponsors, etc. He told me that his counterparts on other teams envied the ease with which Newman-Haas could get potential sponsors to show up to meet Mario. He might not have the same draw today, but I would guess he is very important to AA in attracting money.

  3. I, too, like your list, George, and I want to add David Letterman as MVP to RLL Racing. He of course, was the money to get it started and he had the good sense to leave Bobby alone and win an Indianapolis 500.

    By the way, would Bryan Herta have any consideration as Andretti’s MVP when he was setting up the cars and helping the other drivers in his time as the guy who ran the development engines? He did contribute a lot to the success of Wheldon, TK and Franchitti and without complaint.

    • Mike (15daysinmay) Says:

      Herta’s contribution to Andretti Autosport is very, very understated. I don’t think it is a coincidence that they had so much success when he was with the team. In that sense it is also no surprise that BHA has gotten off the ground as quickly as it has, too.

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