Second Chances For Bulldogs & Dragons
This past Saturday, sports fans in the Indianapolis area were treated to two stories of second chances. First, Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs continued their improbable run to a second straight appearance in the NCAA championship game. Personally, I hope they are able to complete their unfinished business tonight as they face the UConn Huskies.
There was another situation that had similar storylines that probably escaped the notice of most mainstream sports fans. Paul Tracy signed with Jay Penske to lead the resurgence of a restructuring of Dragon Racing.
This is an interesting story and one that warrants a little dissecting in order to connect all the dots. Paul Tracy’s recent woes have been way too public and fully documented. He felt jilted by friend and employer (never a good combination) Jimmy Vasser of KV Racing Technology-Lotus, who kept Tracy’s sponsor and signed unemployed driver Tony Kanaan. Tracy quickly signed with Dreyer & Reinbold to drive in this year’s Indianapolis 500 with WIX Filters as the primary sponsor.
Kanaan was available after his longtime sponsor, 7-Eleven, left Andretti Autosport at the end of last season. In December, Kanaan signed with fellow Brazilian Gil de Ferran and his de Ferran Dragon Racing – the result of a merger between Gil de Ferran Racing and the fledgling Luczo-Dragon Racing that had been campaigning Rafa Matos since they became a full-time team in 2009. Previously, they had run Ryan Briscoe in an Indy-only effort in 2007, then Tomas Scheckter for a handful of races in 2008.
Luczo-Dragon Racing was a partnership between Jay Penske, owner of Los Angeles based Dragon Books and son of legendary car owner Roger Penske; and Steve Luczo, President and CEO of Seagate Technologies. Their first year, they had an affiliation with Team Penske, but they have stood alone since. They attempted to grow their small team the right way. They scheduled three races for 2008, but ended up running six altogether. Tomas Scheckter developed a nasty habit of breaking half-shafts and found himself unemployed at the end of the season.
For 2009, they committed to running the full schedule with Brazilian rookie driver Raphael Matos in the cockpit with rotating sponsorship between the Marines and the Air Force (which I always thought was an odd combination). Rookie mistakes dotted a season that also showed some signs of promise. Matos finished thirteenth in the points, with a best finish of sixth at Milwaukee.
For 2010, popular driver Gil de Ferran joined the ranks. He had two CART championships and an Indianapolis 500 win on his resume. It was believed he would take his fellow countryman, Matos, to the next level. It didn’t happen. The team struggled with inconsistency. Although Matos placed fourth in a couple of races, he didn’t finish well in others and finished the season a dismal fourteenth in points.
At the time, many – myself included, blamed Matos for the poor effort. Many of us had our eyes open last week when Matos stayed out of trouble and brought his AFS entry home in seventh place.
Meanwhile, De Ferran Dragon Racing did not retain Matos. He was let go in favor of veteran driver Tony Kanaan – a move that made sense for the team, if not for Kanaan. Then we learned that there was not enough sponsorship and Gil de Ferran chose to close up shop, leaving Kanaan without a ride for the second time in the off-season with just a few weeks before the season opener. Kanaan found his way to KV Racing Technology-Lotus just days before the first race. He picked up Paul Tracy’s GEICO sponsorship and drove his new car to a podium finish in his first race with his new team. With his KV ride officially gone, Paul Tracy signed his Dreyer & Reinbold deal a few days after the Kanaan signing. Confused? It gets worse.
I’m normally not a conspiracy theorist, but I’ve said before that there was more than meets the eye in the sudden collapse of de Ferran Dragon Racing. It seemed like Jay Penske and Steve Luczo had acquiesced control of the team to Gil de Ferran. Everyone unofficially referred to it as “Gil de Ferran’s team”. Gil de Ferran does not come across to me as a control-freak or someone that craves the spotlight. How did this happen?
What about Steve Luczo? Although he didn’t grow up with the sport like Jay Penske did, he seemed to have some passion for the sport. Was he no longer involved after the arrival of Gil de Ferran? His name had dropped off the sign in front of the building. I never heard about him going away, but he was suddenly invisible.
There were other questions when de Ferran suddenly closed shop in late February. Where was sponsor HP in all of this? I never heard anything about them going away. Davey Hamilton had brought them to the team and his plan was to run a few races for them again this year. He’s now back at Dreyer & Reinbold for those races – with HP. What happened there?
And my biggest question at the time was, where was Jay Penske? The front man for that team had suddenly gone silent. He was nowhere to be found. It seemed odd that it was up to Gil de Ferran to make the sole decision to close down the brainchild of Jay Penske and Steve Luczo.
Now we learn that Jay Penske has been working behind the scenes for the past month to resurrect his dormant team for at least five races and call it strictly – Dragon Racing. And to whom did he turn to lead the resurgence of this revived entity? None other than Paul Tracy.
It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Mr. Tracy, but I don’t deny that the guy still knows how to get around a racetrack. As strange as it sounds, I like the pairing. It’s an odd combo, but it makes sense. It’s odd because he knows of two teams he will drive for in the same season, before he’ll turn the first wheel this year. Stranger still, is that while Tracy takes a scheduled leave of absence from his Dragon duties, it is rumored that Penske may field former 500 winner Sam Hornish at Indianapolis. It’s one of the most convoluted stories you could find. It should end up on the “Bizarre Fiction” shelf at Dragon Books.
Jay Penske is trying to breathe new life into what is left of his team. I don’t pretend to know what happened behind the scenes. I’m not sure if anyone outside the organization knows. If they do, they’re not talking. But it seems obvious that something did – and it left the team in shambles. Now Penske appears to be going alone. If he succeeds or fails, it will have his stamp on it. He knows this is a second chance to get it right – or else. I never thought I would say this, but in these given circumstances – Paul Tracy may just be the right guy to go with. Tracy is a veteran racer who has proven he knows how to win. He has a loyal fan base – some might say ”blindly” loyal.
Most of us believe in second chances. Titans quarterback Kerry Collins was a complete jerk his first few years in the league. By all rights, he should have been out of the game long ago. But the light bulb went off and he finally seemed to get it. He dedicated himself to his career and to turning around his personal life. For ten years plus, he has been a model citizen and a better than average quarterback.
Al Unser, Jr. is still fighting his demons with alcohol. He is actually on at least his third chance, but most of us still pull for him even though he is no longer driving. Paul Tracy can be his own worst enemy. His mouth and Twitter keep getting him into trouble. Is he too old for a second (or fifth) chance? No.
So as we watch the Butler Bulldogs try and make the most of their second chance tonight, keep in mind that there is another second chance story brewing in the IZOD IndyCar Series involving the unlikely pairing of Jay Penske and Paul Tracy. One is trying to salvage his team, the other – his career.