Mediocrity Hits Newman/Haas/Lanigan
As we near the halfway point of the 2009 IndyCar season, one topic that has gone virtually ignored to this point, is the sub-par performance at Newman/Hass/Lanigan Racing. NHLR has had some bright moments in qualifying this season, earning two poles and sweeping the front row at Kansas. In races however, the results have been rather scarce. Graham Rahal seemed almost euphoric after a fourth place finish at Milwaukee, which to me spoke volumes – this is not a team that should be happy with fourth place.
Newman/Haas is one of the oldest and most storied teams in the series, trailing in longevity to only Team Penske and AJ Foyt Racing. The team was formed in 1983 when actor Paul Newman and Carl Haas decided to join forces in CART — with Mario Andretti as the driver. Since that time, the team has won eight CART/Champ Car championships. Their first championship was with Mario Andretti in 1984, then Michael Andretti in 1991, Nigel Mansell in 1993, Cristiano da Matta in 2002 and then four straight with Sébastien Bourdais from 2004 to 2007. In that time they also collected 105 victories.
When Champ Car and the IRL unified prior to the 2008 season, NHLR was considered to be the top team making the crossover. They did not disappoint as they won with Graham Rahal in only the second race of the season at St. Petersburg. Justin Wilson piloted the other NHLR car to victory at Belle Isle late in the year, dedicating the race to the ailing Paul Newman. Less than a month later, Newman passed away. NHLR was the only team from Champ car that won races in 2008. With their initial season of IRL competition behind them, the future seemed bright for the iconic team.
The off-season played havoc though, as Justin Wilson was mysteriously kept in limbo throughout the fall and winter months. He was eventually released in a move that was blamed on the global economy. Rahal, who ran the 2008 campaign with little sponsorship, was shifted into Wilson’s #02 McDonald’s car. It appeared that NHLR would run the 2009 season as a one-car team, something they had not done since Michael Andretti joined his father at Newman-Haas in 1989.
When the Andretti’s were paired together from 1989 to 1993, Newman-Haas was considered a threat to win every race. Mario was nearing retirement, but served as an on-track coach and mentor for Michael. In Michaels’ first year at Newman-Haas, he won twice while collecting four more podium finishes along the way to third place in the points standings. The following year, Michael finished second in the championship by earning five victories, yet he also had five DNF’s, which helped foster the Andretti reputation of “win or bust”.
1991 was a dominant year for Newman-Haas. Michael won nine times on his way to the CART championship. He also placed second at Indianapolis in an epic late-race battle with Rick Mears. Mario finished seventh in points that year, which was pretty impressive for a fifty-one year old driver.
The following year saw Michael finish second in the championship to Bobby Rahal, as he returned to his 1990 form of five victories paired with five DNF’s. Rumors were also beginning to swirl that he would be leaving Newman-Haas and CART to try his hand at McLaren in Formula One. Michael confirmed the rumors late in the season. Coincidentally, Nigel Mansell – the reigning Formula One champion, had become disenchanted with his team at Williams and decided to cross the pond to test the waters in CART, where he joined Newman-Haas.
Mansell started on pole and won his first race with Newman-Haas at Surfer’s Paradise in Australia. His missed the next race at Phoenix, however. In Mansell’s first experience on an oval, he backed his Lola hard into the wall – actually punching a hole through the concrete. It caused a severe back injury, which nagged him throughout the season. Mario Andretti eventually won that Phoenix race, in the absence of his teammate. It would be Mario’s final win.
Mansell led late at Indianapolis but a lack of experience on a late restart shuffled him back to third where he finished behind Emerson Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk. Mario Andretti, his Newman-Haas teammate finished fifth. Still, Mansell won the 1993 championship as a “rookie”, giving Newman-Haas its second championship in three years and its third in a decade.
Things were not as bright at Newman-Haas as they appeared on the surface. Mansell and Andretti did NOT get along. Some speculate that Mansell’s presence with the team sped up Mario’s announced retirement prior to the 1994 season. The 1994 Lola was not a good car and Mansell and Mario both struggled to find success against the up and coming Reynard chassis. Mansell eventually wore out his welcome and returned to Formula One, leaving Newman-Haas to seek an entirely new driver lineup for 1995.
Michael had returned to the team in an unlikely pairing with Paul Tracy. The season produced only one win for Michael, against seven DNF’s, which was still good enough for fourth in points. Tracy produced two wins and finished sixth in the championship.
For 1996 — Michael, now the unquestioned leader of the team, was paired with Christian Fittipaldi, the nephew of Emerson. This began a period of frustration as the team faced years that saw changes in chassis (Lola to Swift and back to Lola), tires (Goodyear to Firestone), engines (Ford to Toyota) and eventually drivers as Michael moved to Team Green, the team he would eventually buy, after the 2000 season.
The early years of this decade saw a revival at Newman-Haas, as they were the lone traditional CART powerhouse that didn’t cross over to the rival Indy Racing League. The team won five out of six championships from 2002 to 2007, as they won the last four championships in Champ Car’s existence. 2007 also marked the year that Mike Lanigan becoming a partner in the storied franchise.
Which brings us back to 2009. Just as it appeared that Graham Rahal would be NHLR’s lone entry for the season, word spread that they would become a three-car effort teaming Rahal with former Champ Car driver Robert Doornbos along with Citgo sponsored Milka Duno. The initial reports had the Citgo check being large enough to fund enough R&D for three cars. Doornbos had no visible sponsorship, but the Dutch driver is supposedly funded by his father.
The news of Duno joining NHLR made followers of the proud team wince. How could they have fallen so quickly to put their seats up for sale to the highest bidder? Milka tested with the team for pre-season oval testing at Homestead, but by the time the transporters arrived at Barber Motorsports Park for road course testing, Milka’s car was nowhere to be found. Rumors flew that Citgo’s check either never showed up or that it was far less than was agreed upon. Whatever the case, Milka was gone and NHLR was back to its usual status as a two-car team.
Expectations were not high for Doornbos, especially on the ovals – which is good, because he hasn’t delivered much. On the other hand, much WAS expected of Graham Rahal for 2009. Quite frankly, he hasn’t produced. He was on the pole for the season opener at St. Pete, but botched the start and was punted going into the first turn by Tony Kanaan; eventually finishing seventh. He ran a forgettable twelfth at Long Beach, but started on pole at Kansas where he was shuffled back to seventh. At Indy, after a strong qualifying run, Rahal duplicated his turn-four crash from a year ago. He ran a solid race at Milwaukee to finish fourth. Then, disaster struck at Texas where Rahal’s car was undriveable and he crashed on lap two, taking out two other cars. At Iowa, Rahal was a non-factor finishing eleventh while Doornbos took himself out on the first lap.
Who is to blame for this newfound mediocrity? Is too much expected of Graham Rahal, due to his early success and his last name? He is, in fact, only twenty years old. He comes across as very likeable and at times shows flashes of brilliance, interspersed with far too many brain-fades. Is the team to blame? They may have missed the setup at Texas, but they have qualified well this year, putting good cars in the hands of inexperienced drivers.
If I were Carl Haas and Mike Lanigan, I would somehow land solid sponsorship (which may be the biggest hurdle in this entire equation) for the #06 car and replace Doornbos with an experienced driver such as an Oriol Servia or Bruno Junqueira, who both already have experience with the team. A veteran driver could help mentor the young Rahal while he gets the seasoning he needs. It would also relieve the pressures from a twenty year-old expected to lead a team like NHLR. Let Doornbos and his father go buy a ride at a lesser team than this one. Otherwise, the fortunes of this once-proud team and Paul Newman’s legacy are likely to never be recovered.