How Long Is Too Long?
As the 2009 IndyCar season is winding down, about the only suspense left in the silly season seems to be the length of the contract that Danica Patrick will sign with Andretti-Green Racing. The smart money says that she will sign a short-term contract so that she will be free to bolt to NASCAR if she so chooses. By short, I would guess possibly as short as a year but probably two. Quite honestly, the way things change in IndyCar racing – I can’t imagine why any top driver whose main goal is to win, would sign for much longer.
That’s a nice way of asking…what was Tony Kanaan thinking when he signed on for five years at AGR? Teams, teammates, engineers and even sponsorship packages are ever changing. Those changes usually affect the complexion of the entire team. Five years can be an eternity in IndyCar Racing.
One only needs to compare the starting field of this year’s Indianapolis 500 with the grid of the 2004 race – just five years earlier. Believe it or not, there were only twelve drivers in this year’s 500 that also started in the 2004 race – barely more than one-third of the field. Of those twelve, only four were with the same team; Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and AJ Foyt IV. The wining driver in that race didn’t turn a wheel all season this season in the IndyCar Series, while the winning team struggled to field one car in only one race this year.
In 2004, Andretti-Green was the team to beat. They won the championship with Kanaan that year as well as the Indy 500 and the championship in 2005. Rahal-Letterman won Indy in 2004 with Buddy Rice along with two other races that year. Of course, the common denominator was that both teams had the powerful Honda engine. Meanwhile, Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing struggled as they were saddled with the underwhelming Toyota powerplant.
Now that all teams have the same engines and chassis, that factor has been taken out of the equation. Still, there are other factors that change. Rahal-Letterman lost several sponsors along the way and are on the brink of extinction – in the IndyCar series, anyway. Over the past off-season, Tony Kanaan lost his excellent longtime engineer, Eric Cowdin. He is now responsible for the setups on Ryan Briscoe’s car at Team Penske. A check of the current standings might tell you whether or not Kanaan misses Cowdin.
Teammates change as well. Drivers don’t have to be best friends with their teammates as the AGR bunch was in 2004 and 2005. Still, they need to have a decent working relationship. I’m not sure that Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson were great friends in 2008, but they seemed to coexist pretty well as teammates. When Rahal was teamed with Robert Doornbos for the first twelve races this season; the results were not pretty.
Although most of the teams are still running the same chassis that they did in 2004, almost everything else has changed. Two engine manufacturers have left and one chassis has disappeared. Teams have dried up and gone, while others replaced them as a result of unification. With the current TV package, sponsorships are now tenuous at best. With so much that is subject to change on just a yearly basis, why on earth would any of the top drivers ink such a long-term deal.
I go back to a question I asked in early June – does TK want a do-over? Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee asked him a more poignant question on their radio show about a month ago. They bluntly asked him if he had any regrets. To his credit, Kanaan was his normally classy self and took the high road. He expressed confidence that AGR was in the process of turning things around. He is certainly closer to the situation than most of us are, so I’ll take him at his word.
For his sake, I hope he is right. I’m sure he already had knowledge of the upcoming re-structuring at AGR. Perhaps he knows what changes are coming and is certain that they will be what is necessary to put his car back in victory lane. I hope so. Of all drivers, it would be heart-breaking to see Tony Kanaan grow way past his prime while saddled with a long-term contract on a sinking ship. If AGR doesn’t turn things around quickly, I hope that he will be granted a release. The window of opportunity is starting to close on Kanaan. He is one driver who has earned the right to place his face and nose on the Borg-Warner trophy. I want to see him do it…soon.