Uncertainty Abounds At Newman/Haas
What was once an open-wheel dynasty has devolved into a mere afterthought in the minds of most fans of the IZOD IndyCar Series. Newman/Haas Racing has fallen into obscurity over the past few seasons, since they were the most successful transition team to come over from Champ car in 2008. Their rapid descent reached a new low in 2010; as their lone driver, Hideki Mutoh, finished lower in the points (eighteenth) than any other veteran driver that started every race.
This was just two seasons removed from 2008, when they won two races with drivers Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson. Many observers will say that their fall from grace coincided with the death of co-owner Paul Newman in late September of 2008. While I believe that is a contributing factor, I think it runs deeper than that. I’m not sure how much direct input Paul Newman had on the day to day running of the team. Although Newman was a racing enthusiast and did much more than lend his famous name to a team he invested in, his co-owner Carl Haas was much more heavily involved in the day to day running of the team. Carl Haas has been in reported poor health for some time. For three years, Mike Lanigan was a partner in the team, until his abrupt departure in May of 2010.
In all honesty, I’m not exactly sure who is currently running Newman/Haas Racing right now. I’m hoping that there is someone with their ear much closer to the ground on such things will set me straight, but a quick glance at their website would lead you to believe that Carl Haas is very much in charge. I continue to hear bits and pieces to indicate otherwise, so it begs the question – who’s minding the store?
Some reports had this team shutting down completely after the end of last season, but in October – it was announced that they had hired Phoenicia Sport and Entertainment to assist them in their outreach for new partners. That certainly gives every indication that they are committed to going forward.
This once-proud team was on or near the level with Team Penske for the better part of twenty years. Newman/Haas won the CART championship with Mario Andretti in 1984, Michael Andretti in 1992 and Nigel Mansell the following year. Against admittedly weaker competition, five of the last six championships in CART/Champ Car were won by Newman/Haas.
This is why it is so disturbing to see this team function as a shell of its former self. The rise and fall of this great team should serve as a warning to other great teams that a succession plan always needs to be put into place. Team Penske is set up to where Tim Cindric will eventually take over whenever time finally catches up to Roger Penske. The Captain shows no signs of slowing down, despite the fact that he will turn seventy-four next month. Still, he is wise enough to know that he won’t be around forever. If he wants his race team to carry on after he is gone, he knew he had to start grooming a younger successor. Chip Ganassi is only fifty-two (my age), but it may behoove him to start searching for someone to groom not knowing what the next twenty years might hold.
Although many of the main dominos have already fallen into place for the 2011 season, Newman/Haas has been relatively quiet. It’s fairly apparent that Hideki Mutoh will not be back with the team. They made some noise a few weeks ago when they tested Oriol Servia and James Hinchcliffe at Sebring. It sounded like a good fit – a savvy veteran like Servia, mentoring a promising rookie in Hinchcliffe. Hinchcliffe was interviewed on Trackside with Cavin & Kevin shortly afterwards and sounded very excited about the possibility. Since then, things have gone very quiet at Newman/Haas.
I’ve taken heat in the past for my support of Oriol Servia. Many believe him to be nothing more than an overrated journeyman driver. I disagree. I think he is a talented driver who can get the most out of a slow car. If he’s ever given a good car, he is capable of winning – as he did in Montreal in 2005. If Newman/Haas could come up with solid funding for two cars in 2011, I think this pairing could lead to a resurgence of this legendary organization.
The team has suffered from sponsorship woes since Newman’s death. The McDonald’s sponsorship was rumored to be lacking. In 2009, Robert Doornbos started carrying McDonald’s livery although there wasn’t anymore funding coming from the fast-food conglomerate. Prior to that the second car at Newman/Haas had been carrying token livery for Paul Newman’s “Hole In the Wall” camps.
Gone are the days when K-Mart and Texaco poured giant sums of money into this team. With Newman gone and Carl Haas in declining health, there is an apparent void in the search for sponsorship. Hopefully, the connection with Phoenicia can make some new long-term sponsor relationships materialize. That’s what it will take for them tio mount a comeback. If nothing happens soon on the sponsorship front, we may be witnessing the end of a run that has lasted almost thirty years. I hope that doesn’t happen.