The Ugliness Of A Bitter Divorce
Throughout my professional career, I have come across many varying opinions of my performance and quirky personality from supervisors over the years. I have had some glowing reviews, while some managers just flat-out didn’t get me. But there is one common theme that has been echoed from every manager since I entered the career world over thirty years ago – I can read people very quickly.
I’m not always spot-on with my assessments when I first meet people, but I usually am. I can feel a positive or negative vibe from most people that others don’t. Most that meet the same person as I do, will disagree with the way I see them; but more times than not – they’ll come back to me and tell me I was right. I have a lot more faults than I have strengths, but sizing people up is one thing I do very well.
Such is the case with John Barnes. Back in the late nineties, I was more of a CART fan than an IRL follower. Quite honestly, I don’t recall seeing Barnes interviewed while Scott Goodyear was driving for him. But I can recall seeing him on camera many times when Sam Hornish was winning championships during his time at Panther. There was just something about John Barnes that came across as very unlikable to me.
As it turned out, my instincts didn’t fail me. At that time, it seemed most people were fans of Hornish, Panther Racing and John Barnes. Even within my own family, I was the only one that was not a fan. I wasn’t that crazy about Hornish, but I really didn’t care for Barnes.
Fast forward more than a decade. Hornish is long gone from Panther and IndyCar. He has been reduced to part-time status in the Nationwide Series. Meanwhile, Panther Racing lost a slew of sponsors as well as business partners in that time. While Jim Harbaugh is still a partner, local car-dealer Gary Pedigo, TV producer Terry Lingner and IMS President Doug Boles are no longer involved for various reasons. Pennzoil left after the 2005 season, which is the last time Panther has visited victory lane. South African driver Tomas Schekter was replaced by Brazilian driver Vitor Meira for 2006. The team struggled to stay afloat as sponsor names changed or dropped off of the sidepods on a weekly basis during that season. The team got a lifeline for 2007 with the Delphi sponsorship.
Then in 2008, Panther landed the National Guard as a sponsor with Meira still in the cockpit. When British driver Dan Wheldon became available for 2009, Barnes replaced Meira with Wheldon. The results did not change. Just as Meira was unceremoniously dumped, Wheldon suffered the same fate after the 2010 season. Also like Meira, Wheldon was still owed a ton of money by Barnes.
For 2011, Barnes finally hired an American to represent the US Armed Forces, by choosing popular rookie JR Hildebrand. We all know how Hildebrand crashed in Turn Four on Lap 200 of the 2011 Indianapolis 500, handing the race to his Panther predecessor Dan Wheldon. Hildebrand never seemed to recover from that moment, and was fired two days after crashing four laps into the 2013 Indianapolis 500.
From what I understand, this did not sit well with the National Guard. Although Hildebrand had spotty results, he was very popular with the troops he visited on a very regular basis. Apparently, the Guard was not consulted on this. Barnes reportedly made the decision on his own. He then decided to use the rest of their season as an audition for nothing more than foreign drivers for the 2014 season.
When the sponsorship came up for bids, Barnes asked for slightly more than $17 million for 2014. Rahal Letterman Laningan Racing won the bid by requesting $12.6 million. Barnes protested the decision, which threw everything into limbo for Bobby Rahal’s team. Barnes was notified on Jan 17 that he had lost his protest. On Feb 6, RLLR announced that the National Guard sponsorship was officially theirs. End of story, right? Wrong.
On Feb 19, Barnes and Panther Racing filed a lawsuit in Marion County, naming the defendants as Indy Racing League LLC (IndyCar), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing LLC, John Metzler (National Guard) and Document and Packaging Brokers Inc.
John Barnes has a public persona of a caring individual who gives unconditionally to the welfare of our military veterans. I have always commended him for his work in this area. What belies this persona is the multitude of stories we fans hear of his refusals to pay drivers that he owes money to, his constant griping and maneuvering behind the political scenes in IndyCar to insure that he always gets his way and his general demeanor of a pompous, arrogant and egotistical owner that is in chronic denial that his race team is any more than a mid-pack team.
Although Barnes may be in denial, there is no denying that he has a very high opinion of himself. A check of the Panther website shows his biography claiming that “John Barnes has earned his place as one of the most well-known and widely-respected figures in American motorsports through hard work and decades of experience.” It goes on to say “… the 28 race victories and three championships the team has collected in the past 12 seasons would not have been possible without his leadership, keen eye for talent and no-nonsense approach to the sport he loves.” Hmmm…
Of course, we have Barnes to thank for the ousting of former CEO Randy Bernard. Barnes didn’t care for IndyCar ruling in favor of Honda during the infamous “Turbo-gate” situation, so Bernard was the target of his wrath. He also didn’t like some of Randy’s other initiatives, mainly because Randy Bernard wasn’t Tony George, whom Barnes had pledged his allegiance to years earlier. Instead of publically airing his grievances with IndyCar and his dissatisfaction with Bernard, Barnes worked stealthily behind the scenes like a snake-in-the-grass to stir up discontent among his fellow owners. When he failed to get much support, he went over Randy’s head to Jeff Belskus and the board of Hulman and Company. He continued his efforts to engineer a coup until the board finally gave in to side with Barnes and cut Randy Bernard loose.
This board governs IndyCar, the same group that John Barnes is currently suing. Somewhere out there, I’m sure that Randy Bernard is smiling at the irony and thanking his lucky stars that he is out of this hornet’s nest.
I’m not sure what Barnes thinks will be accomplished by this lawsuit. Surely he doesn’t think that this will somehow rekindle his relationship with the National Guard and reunite him with his sponsor for the last six seasons. It won’t. If anything, it’ll make them wish they had left IndyCar altogether when they had the chance.
This is not going to be good for anyone. It will not end well. It will be like a messy divorce. Regardless of however this lawsuit goes, there will be no victors.
Panther Racing and John Barnes will suffer because they look like a bunch of sore losers. If I was a potential sponsor that was being pitched by Panther for 2015, after I noticed their record of poor results over the last decade; my first question would be – what happened to your last sponsor? When I am told by Panther that they left us after six years, so we sued them – I think I’ll pass.
IndyCar will suffer because it is just another black-eye that symbolizes that things are unstable over here. It hurts the perception among fans, media and potential sponsors. I know this won’t happen, but for argument’s sake – let’s say this ends up being the final blow that causes IndyCar to fold. Will John Barnes take pride in the fact that he drove the series he claims to love, into bankruptcy and threw the Indianapolis 500 into complete and utter turmoil? I’m not sure even he is that evil – at least I would hope not.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing will suffer. It is a litigious nightmare that they shouldn’t have to deal with – no matter how strong their case is. They should be focusing on pre-season testing and finding sponsorship for a second car – not putting together depositions.
The National Guard will suffer. Their motorsports sponsorship program is already highly scrutinized on Capitol Hill. This won’t help. Once their commitment to Rahal is over, they may just decide the nightmare wasn’t worth it.
My hope is that our troops won’t suffer. This is the one area where I will praise John Barnes. He has given time, money and effort to help programs like Wounded Warriors and Hire Our Heroes. Surely his efforts will not drop off due to this litigation. That would make him look like a hypocrite. I am hoping that is not the case.
It’s interesting to contrast the behavioral patterns of how different teams and owners handle adversity. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing has had three defections from key positions this offseason. Two left for Andretti Autosport, while one went to another racing division of Chip Ganassi Racing. Did Sarah and Company seek the litigious route and try to make life difficult for all involved? No. Instead, they rolled up their sleeves, figured out a plan and moved forward while wishing everyone well. Sarah Fisher goes about her business by doing everything with class and dignity. John Barnes? Well, you decide.
I would have to think that this pretty much does it for Panther Racing and IndyCar. Barnes appears to have no sponsor for 2014. No driver is signed and they were curiously omitted from the Leader’s Circle list that was released last week. I doubt that Barnes has a single ally in the paddock on this issue. He is ruining the potential sponsor pot for everyone and putting the focus on the wrong things just as the new season is about to get going. So long as John Barnes leads Panther Racing, I’ll be surprised if they ever turn another wheel in competition ever again – even at the Indianapolis 500 as a one-off.
Like IndyCar with Barnes, I went through an unwanted divorce eighteen years ago. It drug out for a year and a half before coming to a messy end. Like IndyCar with Barnes, I ended up being much better off because of it. I am much happier and ended up with who I should’ve married in the first place, when Susan and I met way back in 1977. Just as in a divorce, IndyCar and its fan base will be much better off without the malignancy that is John Barnes.
This rant is strictly my opinion, and I’m sure others will completely disagree with me. I may have angered some. For that I’m sorry, but I don’t apologize – if that makes sense. Like Barnes, I care for this sport and I see this suit as pointless and something the series doesn’t need. I just hope John Barnes doesn’t decide to sue me next.