The Andretti Autosport Slide Continues
I am not normally a conspiracy theorist. I believe that there was no one lurking in the grassy knoll, that man actually did land on the moon and that “New” Coke was not an ingenious marketing ploy. But my eyebrows were raised on Friday when two announcements came from Andretti Autosport, just a couple of hours apart. The first was confirming what had been fully anticipated for several days – that Tony Kanaan had been given his release from the team he had driven for since 2003. Later Friday morning, it was announced that driver Ryan Hunter-Reay had been signed to a two year deal with the team.
Was the timing of these two releases purely coincidental? Was there a purpose in having the two announcements come out almost simultaneously or was this just a rude and classless move on the part of Andretti Autosport?
Last month, when I said that this team was spiraling out of control, it was correctly pointed out that despite my opinion – AA had placed all four of its drivers in the top ten. I think that was accomplished in spite of itself. Andretti Autosport has been a team in steep decline since Dario Franchitti won their second championship in three years in 2007.
Some will point to the race at Sonoma that season, as when things began to unravel. Teammates Dario Franchitti and Marco Andretti tangled late in the race. Dario was trying to retake the lead while trying to win a championship. Marco made a questionable move that put Franchitti off into the grass, thereby damaging his suspension. Dario limped home in third place while losing valuable points to Scott Dixon, his chief rival in the points battle who won the race. Team owner, Michael Andretti – who also happens to be Marco’s dad – blamed Dario for the incident during the television coverage. Word has it that this didn’t sit too well with Dario. Some say that this was what put Dario over the edge in his decision to leave Andretti and the IndyCar Series for Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team at the end of the 2007 season.
Whatever the case, Dario’s departure certainly coincided with a quick decline for Andretti Autosport in 2008. By the next summer, the team was in disarray as Marco and teammate Danica Patrick made headlines for the wrong reasons and team leader and former champion Tony Kanaan found himself relegated to the role of baby-sitter.
I actually think the slide began before Dario left. When Bryan Herta was moved to the team’s ALMS program, Andretti Autosport lost one of the best IndyCar test-drivers in the business. Herta’s feedback on car setup was irreplaceable and his absence was duly noted by those within the team. Herta was later unceremoniously dumped from the team altogether, about a year later – serving as the scapegoat for their ALMS struggles.
When Michael bought out partners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree late in 2009, it was supposed to streamline decision making within the team and give Michael Andretti full control of the direction of Andretti Autosport. After going winless in 2009, results did improve on the track in 2010, as the team scored two victories – Ryan Hunter-Reay at Long Beach and Tony Kanaan at Iowa. But there were several whispers throughout the season that indicated that not all was well at Andretti Autosport.
Key personnel were shifted from car to car. While some key engineering staff had left over the last couple of years, the current crop of engineers seemed to have no clue at some tracks. Qualifying results were abysmal. Kanaan had to sharpen his knack for passing several cars at the start, since he was starting near the back at several races.
Immediately after the last race of the season at Homestead, we learned that longtime Kanaan sponsor 7-Eleven was leaving Kanaan’s team, although they would still be an associate sponsor on Danica’s car. A day or two later, we learned that IZOD would not be backing Hunter-Reay’s effort for next year. The four-car team had lost two well-known sponsors. All they had left with were Go-Daddy and Venom Energy Drink – not exactly the household name that 7-Eleven and IZOD were.
I understand that the two sponsors leaving were totally separate issues. IZOD never intended to sponsor a car; they only wanted to sponsor the series. But when Hunter-Reay, who has a personal service contract with IZOD, was without a ride – to their credit they stepped up and funded his program with AA through the first four races, then through Texas and ultimately for the entire 2010 season. It was no surprise when they backed out for 2011.
Kanaan had a good long run with 7-Eleven. Aside from Marlboro and Target, their relationship was one of the longest running in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Sponsors come and go, and we were hearing several months ago that their return may be questionable.
The problem I have with Andretti Autosport is that they convinced Kanaan to re-sign with the team in 2008 for a reported $3 million a year for five years; rather than sign with Ganassi. Given the success that Dario has had with that car for the past two years, you know Kanaan is kicking himself. Now he has no sponsor, the next three years he signed for are gone and he currently has no ride. How do you promise a driver $3 million a year when you don’t have the sponsorship nailed down? Granted, we were not in such dire economic times when the deal was signed, but did Michael think that sponsors would be lining up to cover that amount if 7-Eleven ever went away?
As usual, Tony Kanaan is saying all the right things. He says that if he landed a sponsor that AA is where he would try to go first. I’m just a little skeptical. There are some emerging teams out there that have brighter futures than Andretti Autosport. Kanaan helped build that team into the power it became in the middle part of the last decade. I’m sure he has strong emotional ties to Andretti Autosport, but he’ll be better off if he moves on. Although it is now believed that Kanaan may sign with Gil de Ferran’s team, I still like the idea of Kanaan at Panther. I think Panther Racing would give Kanaan his best shot at winning the Indianapolis 500, outside of Penske and Ganassi. Wherever he goes, Kanaan will realize how lucky he is to be out of the loony-bin that is Andretti Autosport.
What gets me is the timing of the two announcements. Regardless of the fact that it is the best thing for him, I’m sure Kanaan felt some sorrow as the release became official. Friday should have been Kanaan’s day within the walls of Andretti Autosport. They should have had enough respect for a guy who showed loyalty and gave that team everything he had for eight seasons, all the while doing it with class. But sometimes, class is wasted on the wrong people.
Instead, Andretti Autosport chose to turn Friday’s somber mood into a day of celebration, barely before Kanaan was even out the door. Could Hunter-Reay’s announcement not wait until Monday? Maybe we’ll learn something that will explain why it had to be done this way. If not, shame on Michael Andretti for having the poor taste of celebrating on the day he callously kicked such a loyal employee to the curb. Tony Kanaan deserved to be treated better than that. He had earned that right.