Five-Star, Can’t-Miss Prospects

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Throughout the Christmas season, I was surrounded by wheezing and coughing. Yet, somehow I remained unscathed. December and January had me convinced that I had escaped the fate that had hit most of my family, friends and co-workers. Then out of nowhere on Monday afternoon, I felt it. That little twinge that lets you know you have fever. I went home and went straight to bed, not to resurface until midday Wednesday. Most of that time was spent sleeping. I didn’t know it was possible to sleep that much. I never miss work, so for me to miss two days in a row due to sickness – well, you know I was sick.

What finally motivated me to climb out of my cave on Wednesday was the torture I was having to endure in bed, while watching ESPN – National Signing Day. You know the ritual, when 17 year-old prima donnas that have been told how great they are for the past couple of years get to don caps of the school they have chosen. Some of the more classless blokes will stomp on the hat of the school they strung along for the past couple of months. Some of these five-star, can’t-miss recruits will actually pan out and go on to great NFL careers. Many, however, will not come close to the potential they flashed in high school. It is such an inexact science and that is why I choose not to follow recruiting at all.

The term “can’t-miss prospect” isn’t used near as much in racing as it is in stick and ball sports. There are just too many other variables involved. It seems to me that Jeff Gordon carried that label in 1993, and did pretty well living up to the moniker. Greg Moore was tabbed for greatness early on and was well on his way when his life was cut short at Fontana in 1999. Juan Montoya certainly lived up to his early hype.

As in football, there are many in racing that fall short of the greatness that is initially promised. So far, I would put Marco Andretti in that category. Two wins and a near miss at Indianapolis don’t make up for several lackluster seasons. Ryan Briscoe is another who is quickly finding himself in the category. Although he has eight wins on his resume, he was driving some of the best equipment in the paddock. His reputation is still smarting from fumbling away the 2009 championship at Motegi. For whatever reason, he currently sits without a ride for 2013.

Going a little further back, it could be said that Bryan Herta fell short of fulfilling all of his potential. Although he was a solid driver and has put together one heck of a team with a small budget; much was predicted for him as a rookie. He flat-out dominated on his way to winning the 1993 Indy Lights championship by winning seven out of twelve races on the schedule. He replaced Davy Jones at Foyt in 1994, beginning at Indianapolis where he finished ninth. A spectacular crash in practice for Toronto a few weeks later, ended his season with a broken pelvis. The following year, he raced for Target Chip Ganassi with dismal results. A few years at Team Rahal produced a couple of wins along with the embarrassment of giving up the lead to Alex Zanardi – in Herta’s old ride – at the corkscrew at Laguna Seca. Four wins in 179 starts could be viewed as a disappointment, when you consider what was expected of Herta after his dominating 1993 performance.

The greatest example of unfulfilled potential perhaps comes from Team Penske. No, not Ryan Briscoe or André Ribeiro – I’m talking much further back. You have to go back to 1982 and Kevin Cogan. Fair or unfair – that is how Cogan is perceived.

After a couple of very unsuccessful stints in Formula One, Kevin Cogan splashed onto the IndyCar scene in 1981. While driving a very limited schedule for the under-funded Jerry O’Connell Racing, Cogan finished fourth in his debut at Indianapolis and second the next week in Milwaukee. Although those races were sandwiched in between several DNF’s; Roger Penske felt as though he had seen enough.

With the retirement of Bobby Unser following the 1981 season, Penske needed a driver to pair up with his brilliant protégé, Rick Mears – who had already won the Indianapolis 500 in 1979, along with two CART championships. Kevin Cogan looked the part. Off the track, he was nice looking, well-spoken and would be a sponsors dream. On the track, he appeared fast, yet composed. The first two races of the 1982 season saw Cogan earn a third at Phoenix and a DNF at Atlanta. The trouble was, Mears won both of those races. You always want to beat your teammate.

At Indianapolis, Cogan started in the middle of the front row – in between AJ Foyt and Rick Mears on pole. Starting alongside a legend and a future legend is a tall order for anyone, especially a second year driver now driving for Roger Penske.

Coming out of the Pace Lap to take the green flag, something went wrong – terribly wrong. Cogan suddenly veered to his right into AJ Foyt, of all people. He bounced off of Foyt and collected Mario Andretti, of all people. In one move, he had taken out the two most legendary names in American racing, before the green flag even fell. Foyt was able to repair his car before the restart, but Mario was done. It was at this time that Foyt referred to Cogan on the air as Coo-gan, a name that has stuck through the years.

Mario was quoted on the telecast saying “This is what happens when you have children doing a man’s job up front”. Of course, when Mario Andretti was starting in his second Indianapolis 500 on the pole, he was the exact same age as Cogan in his second start on the front row.

It has never been explained what exactly happened. Some seemed to think that a half-shaft broke when he stepped on the throttle. Others surmised that his rear brakes locked up while he was trying to get the turbocharger going. Still there are those who think his nerves and inexperience got the best of him and he just messed up. Whatever the reason, he quickly fell out of favor at Team Penske and he was released at the end of the season after just one year with Penske.

Like him or not, Roger Penske is known for showing patience with drivers and will give them a few seasons to mesh with the team. Paul Tracy tore up a lot of equipment and was a bit more brash than The Captain would have preferred. Still, he drove for Penske from 1991 through 1997, with one year at Newman/Haas in 1995. But Tracy won races too. Cogan did not.

Donald Davidson says he has always felt that Team Penske hung Cogan out to dry. When Rick Mears experienced an identical problem during testing at Michigan later that summer, it was never brought public. Donald insists there were those on the team that just wanted Cogan out. If so, they got their wish.

For 1983, Cogan signed with Bignotti-Carter Racing as teammate to that year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Tom Sneva. A fifth place finish at Indianapolis was the only highlight of a miserable season. For 1984, Cogan started with Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers but finished the season with Forsythe racing finishing twenty-fourth in the standings. Kraco Racing and Pat Patrick were the next two stops for the star-crossed Cogan.

His greatest glory came in the late stages of the 1986 Indianapolis 500. While driving for Patrick. He had finally won his first race at Phoenix. Now in the waning laps, he had passed Mears and Bobby Rahal to take the lead. Then Arie Luyendyk brought out the yellow and the field was bunched up. With two laps remaining, Rahal shot past Cogan on the restart. Rahal went on to stardom, while Cogan fell deeper into obscurity.

In the 1989 Indianapolis 500, Cogan was involved in one of the most replayed crashes ever. Coming out of Turn Four, Cogan lost control and hit the inside wall. His car exploded into hundreds of pieces while the tub with Cogan still in it – came to a rest in the pits. That would be his last full season in IndyCar competition.

In 1991, while driving for John Menard in the Indianapolis 500 – Cogan started the crash involving Roberto Guerrero that also took out AJ Foyt, in what was supposed to be Foyt’s swan song. Although far less publicized, Cogan got the worst of it, by way of a broken arm and leg. He raced in four races in 1993 as a teammate to Al Unser, Jr. and Danny Sullivan and never drove in IndyCar again.

I’m sure that at the beginning of 1981, Kevin Cogan was considered the next sure thing. If someone were to say that he would end up with only one win in 117 starts, they would have been ridiculed – but that’s exactly what happened. I’m sure that over the years, Cogan has pondered a thousand times, exactly where did it go wrong?

Like so many high school players signing their National Letter of Intent on Wednesday, everyone starting out has wide-eyed optimism. Some will fulfill their dreams, some will over-extend and reach heights they never anticipated. But sadly, some will fall way short of expectations for reasons clear and not so clear. For Kevin Cogan, I’m hoping that history will give him the benefit of the doubt and explain his lack of success as more bad luck than anything. He’s presumably a good guy that the fans loved to hate. Maybe as the years wear on, history will be kinder to him than fate was.

George Phillips

In case you missed it: If you didn’t catch last night’s "Blogger Night" on Trackside, you can hear the podcast here. Thanks to Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee for giving us this forum and our annual five minutes of fame.

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6 Responses to “Five-Star, Can’t-Miss Prospects”

  1. I’ll remember Cogan for wrecking AJ and Mario, but Rahal passing at the green is “almost” as unforgettable.

    By the way, how much of Bryan Herta’s shot at winning races was lost when he was with Andretti? He was their set-up driver, so to speak, and gave it up so that Marco could win. Regardless of that, his Indianapolis 500 win with Dan Wheldon is one of the sweetest wins ever.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Robby Gordon is another guy who most of us thought would probably accomplish more than he did in Indycars. Maybe throw Patrick Carpantier on there too, as much as he cleaned up in Atlantics.
    Ladder-series dominators like Alex Barron, Townsend Bell, Raphael Matos, Alex Lloyd, and Buddy Rice also never quite duplicated their minor-league success, but they also probably didn’t get a shot as fair as the ones given to Cogan, Gordon, Carp, and Herta. I don’t know what to make of Mark Taylor.
    Of course, it’s better to have an unfair chance than none at all (see Jon Fogarty, David Epringham, etc.)

    When it’s all said and done, the interesting footnote for Ryan Briscoe’s career may be that he lost rides at both Penske and Ganassi. That would be too bad.

  3. Great job on looking back at Kevin Cogan’s star-crossed career. I always thought it was interesting to look at the careers of Cogan and Rahal. Both came from similar disciplines and were going to be the up and coming, young, road racing lions that would take on the legends of Indy. Rahal adapted quickly and Cogan never really hit his stride. When Rahal blew past him on that restart at Indy in 86, it was fairly symbolic…
    One other thing, Foyt’s last Indy500 was in 1992. He finished 9th. At the time, he was saying ’91 was his last one, but I guess he changed his mind. Imagine that!

    • Oilpressure Says:

      I’m well aware that Foyt came back the next year. He also was running speeds that may have put him on the second row on the morning of Pole Day in 1993, before Robby Gordon’s crash suddenly made him decide to retire. How many of us expected to see him come back in ’94? I did.

      • I was sitting in the Penthouse Deck, across from the south pits on that morning. We had a good view of Gordon’s crash. Hearing AJ’s emotional announcement and then seeing him take some ceremonial laps was an awesome experience. I was very glad that we got to the track early that day.

  4. I vividly remember Cogan’s crash coming out of turn four. I am the only still photographer who got a sequence of the entire crash, from the beginning of the spin to him sliding out of the car and walking away. I was in the press box and had just mounted a 600MM lens with a doubler on my camera. I didn’t have time to mount it on a tripod, I shot the whole thing hand-held. A shot of the car flying apart just before hitting the end of the pit wall was published in Sports illustrated.

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