Newman/Haas Drops A Bombshell
In the world of American open-wheel racing, there are old teams and bold teams but very few old & bold teams. First there are the old teams, which are made up of teams owned by Dale Coyne and AJ Foyt. Then there are the bold teams, teams that have won a lot of races and championships in the past decade or so, but don’t have the longevity that some teams do. That group would be comprised of Andretti Autosport and Target Chip Ganassi Racing (although TCGR, which was founded in 1990, is getting a little long in the tooth). That leaves the old & bold teams. Up until yesterday, that exclusive club consisted of two teams; Team Penske and Newman/Haas Racing. Now there is only one.
Thursday’s announcement that Newman/Haas Racing would not be participating in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series caught most experts by surprise. When I saw the subject line of the Trackside Online e-mail I received yesterday afternoon, I thought I was seeing things. After I read it, I was stunned. Who saw this coming? I sure didn’t.
Newman/Haas has had at least one full-time car on the grid in Indy car races since its founding in 1983. Chicago businessman, sports car enthusiast and Lola importer Carl Haas and actor Paul Newman joined forces to form a new team in CART featuring the legendary Mario Andretti as the driver. The team won a race in only its sixth start – at Road America. Mario Andretti would go on to finish third in the points for the fledgling team in its inaugural season. The following year, Mario won the 1984 CART championship in only the team’s second season.
Michael Andretti joined his famous father at Newman/Haas in 1989 as they expanded to a two-car team. Michael had his greatest years as a driver with Newman/Haas. From 1989 to 1992, Michael Andretti scored twenty wins and the 1991 CART championship. He was poised for even better things before he left CART and Newman/Haas for his ill-fated Formula One attempt with McLaren in 1993.
F1 defending champion Nigel Mansell replaced Michael at Newman/Haas for 1993. In his first race in CART, Mansell won the season-opener at Surfers Paradise in Australia. Had he not fumbled a late re-start, he could have won the 1993 Indianapolis 500. He still managed to finish third at Indianapolis. This set the stage for the remainder of the season as Mansell won five races en route to the 1993 CART championship. His aging teammate, Mario Andretti, picked up another win at Phoenix that season giving Newman/Haas six victories and the championship that year.
Things turned sour for Newman/Haas in 1994. Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell were bickering as Mario announced he would retire at the age of fifty-four at the end of the season. The team went winless for the first time in their twelve-year history, as they were saddled with the 1994 Lola, which was one of the prettiest and sorriest cars that Lola ever built. Its poor performance was only eclipsed by the 1997 Lola three seasons later.
The ’94 Lola came just as the Reynard was coming on to the Indy car scene. By the next season, Reynard had supplanted Lola as the chassis of choice. Since Carl Haas was the Lola importer, his hands were tied. The most memorable occurrence for Newman/Haas that season was when a stunned and dazed Mansell suddenly found the car of Dennis Vitolo sitting on top of his in the pit entrance lane at Indianapolis
By 1995, Lola had improved its car to some extent. Mario had retired, Michael had flopped in F1 and had spent a year developing the Reynard at Target Chip Ganassi, giving the team it’s first win ever. Mansell had left pouting and headed back across the pond to close out his career in Formula One. Michael returned to Newman/Haas and teamed with Paul Tracy who was in a one-year sabbatical from Marlboro Team Penske. The results were somewhat better as Michael won one race and Tracy won two. Michael clouted the outside wall coming out of Turn Four while leading at Indianapolis. After close calls in 1991,1992 and 1995 and the split that would follow the next year; Michael never got that close again to winning the Indianapolis 500 until his comeback year in 2006, when he led as late as Lap 197 and finished third.
The late nineties were lean years for Newman/Haas. They had abandoned the struggling Lola chassis in favor of the new Swift chassis. From 1997 through 1999, Michael Andretti won only three races, while teammate Christian Fittipaldi won once.
Newman/Haas stayed loyal to CART throughout the thirteen year CART-IRL split. Michael Andretti left the team following the 2000 season to go to Team Green (which he later bought and moved to the IRL in 2003). He was replaced by Cristiano da Matta; who won the CART championship in 2002, before moving on to Formula One the following year.
The following year saw the arrival of Sébastien Bourdais at Newman/Haas. After finishing a respectable fourth in points in 2003, Bourdais reeled off four straight Champ Car titles from 2004 to 2007. Bourdais had already announced he was leaving Champ Car for F1 for 2008, when unification with the IRL was announced in February of 2008. Newman/Haas would finally be joining all of the other major teams that had moved over to the IndyCar Series years earlier.
Newman/Haas was the only one of the “transition teams” from Champ Car to win a race. In fact, they won two. Graham Rahal won at St. Petersburg, while Justin Wilson won at Belle Isle in Detroit. Sadly, Paul Newman passed away in September of 2008.
Prior to the 2009 season, it looked as if Newman/Haas may not answer the bell. Funding and sponsorship was tight. They brought on Michael Lanigan as an investor, but things still looked bleak. Justin Wilson had moved to Dale Coyne and it appeared that Graham Rahal may be on a one-car team at Newman/Haas.
Suddenly, what appeared to be a one-car team was looking like a three-car effort. Robert Doornbos had brought family money in exchange for a ride in a second N/H/L car, and out of nowhere – it looked as if Milka Duno and her Citgo money might end up in a third car with Newman/Haas/Lanigan. By the time the season had started however, Milka was back at Dreyer & Reinbold and N/H/L would be a two-car team. Doornbos left the team in mid-season when his funding ran out and they hired Oriol Servia, who had already had a couple of stints at Newman/Haas. Rahal did well to finish seventh in a very underfunded effort for 2009.
It appeared that 2010 would be the low point for Newman/Haas. Michael Lanigan left the team under mysterious circumstances. They shrunk to a one-car team that was reduced to taking the Formula Dream money from Hideki Mutoh. The once-proud team that had won eight championships and 107 races since 1983 was now an irrelevant backmarker and a shell of its former self. Mutoh never placed any higher than twelfth and finished a miserable eighteenth in the 2010 points standings. It looked as if it was just a matter of time before this legendary team would be forced to shut its doors for good. Paul Newman was gone, Carl Haas was in poor health and the team had become an embarrassment.
Against all odds, Newman/Haas returned in 2011 for one last great flurry. Oriol Servia returned (again) to the cockpit and rookie James Hinchcliffe brought funding for a second car. They were strong all season long. Servia finished fourth in points and Hinchcliffe won rookie of the year honors. The resurgence at Newman/Haas was one of the major stories for 2011. There was no reason to think that they couldn’t continue their climb back to the top in 2012, especially if they were to be one of the coveted Honda teams. That all ended yesterday. A glorious twenty-nine year run ended in a quiet thud yesterday.
This is bad on several levels. First of all – after their strong push this past season, I think Newman/Haas was close to being a top-tier team again. To have one of the top teams in the series go out of business cannot help other teams looking to close sponsorship deals. It gives the impression that the entire series is hanging by a thread and would not be a good business investment.
Also, Servia and Hinchcliffe will get other rides. That’s not the problem. The problem is that this will provide a trickle-down effect. The two former Newman/Haas drivers will be taking seats that would have gone to second tier drivers. Those displaced second tier drivers will either go without rides for 2012 or take rides away from the third tier drivers that thought they may have something lined up.
We heard from Alex Lloyd on Trackside this past Wednesday night saying that he has some things working for 2012, but finding sponsorship is always tough. Well, after Thursday’s announcement – his job just got a lot tougher.
Just a day removed from this announcement, I’m still stunned. Many of today’s IndyCar fans were not even born in 1983, when Newman/Haas first landed on the grid. They have been a mainstay in open-wheel racing for most of my adult life…or at least when I started acting like an adult. To see this proud organization wiped away with a simple one-sentence statement from Carl Haas saying "The economic climate no longer enables Newman/Haas Racing to participate in open wheel racing at this time" is almost mind-boggling. It sounds as if they are leaving the possibility that they may run again at some time, but I doubt it. Once a team shuts down, it’s gone. The people scatter to other jobs and you just can’t get it back.
It’s been a tumultuous offseason, thus far. There is an ongoing investigation regarding Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident, the new car is having a few developmental hiccups, there was the organizational announcement we heard on Wednesday that I’ll discuss next week and now one of the top teams in the series is suddenly gone. I just hope the IZOD IndyCar Series and Randy Bernard can make it through the end of the year without any more bombshells. Once we get to January, we’ll not be too far away from the start of the new season. Hopefully, that should be enough to sustain us through this coldest of offseasons.