The Ugliness Of A Bitter Divorce

Over the years, I have not hidden the fact that I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan of John Barnes. So if you are, you may want to stop reading now and come back Monday.

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.

George Phillips


26 Responses to “The Ugliness Of A Bitter Divorce”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Clearly no one but the parties involved are privy to all of the facts of this case, but how one could expect to win a sponsorship with a request for 17 million dollars over 12 million is baffling… In my experience, the only group that has ever been capable of pulling that off with the federal govt., is Boeing Aircraft…

  2. Tony Dinelli Says:

    I sure hope this suit gets thrown out. The sponsorship dollar figures speak for themselves. Unless there was some written agreement by the NG for the $17M then I don’t see how Barnes has a leg to stand on.
    I’ve always like Sarah Fisher. She exemplifies the old American work ethic; and I will root for anyone that gets a little grease on their hands.

  3. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    I consider myself a ‘two sides to every story’ person, but it would appear the preponderance of evidence is well against John Barnes as a positive force. As many might say, ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’. I hope this ‘well-known figure of American motorsport’ goes away from racing for good, but somewhat forebodingly, I sense this isn’t the last we’ve heard from the malevolent haddock of the paddock.

    • I try not to worry about things I have no control over so I will reserve judgement on the issue here. However, I do admire a well turned phrase. “the malevolent haddock of the paddock” ranks right up there with “I had an epiphany by the asparagus” (Pressdog). Thanks for making my day.

      • dzgroundedeffects Says:

        Thank you very much for the compliment Ron! I, too, enjoy a well-turned phrase. On a rare occasion, they’re mine. In honor of that fact I shall celebrate with some Bushmills 16 tonight.

  4. Doug Gardner Says:

    He is a big baby. Just like most of the original IRL people. They took their ball and left. That ball being IMS. I am from Indy, live in Indy so it is always with mixed emotions in Indycar. The Indy 500 is my biggest thrill. This year will be 48 in a row. The 500 is paramount, but the 500 needs a supporting series. The Hulman family does not get that. Now Barnes can’t play so he wants no one to play. Remember Rahal was on the otherside of the fence when the split occurred. The only person who Barnes would have backed down from would have been AJ. He is just a big destructive baby. My goodness he tried to not pay Weldon when he was collecting all that money.

    • “He is a big baby. Just like most of the original IRL people.” Amazing comment. I would argue it was the CART people that made absolute fools of themselves, and caused the split, before going bankrupt. Twice.

      Main reason I am withholding judgment on this is because of the anti-IRL bias. I’ve seen this happen to others.

      • billytheskink Says:

        Given that “Positive Effects of the CART-IRL Split” is perhaps the shortest book in history, pretty much anyone who did or does any political grandstanding over the split looks pretty foolish today. That includes series officials, owners, drivers, and fans (including myself at one time).

        • Its not by accident that its often the former IRL officials that seem to always take so much heat. As exemplified by Doug’s comment. Thats why I try to dig deeper whenver that situation seems to arise.

  5. You really never know what’s what in situations like this. I used to report on courts as a newspaper reporter and that taught me that what you see on the outside is rarely the whole story. That’s not to say I like John Barnes, because I don’t, but this kind of stuff is what the courts are for, so I’m inclined to let it play out and not get bunched up. It is a big dice roll for Barnes, because a lawsuit like this is a PR nightmare. If he loses or it gets thrown out, that’s snake eyes for him. A lot of times plaintiffs name about everyone they can think of initially and many of them get quickly excluded from the case by the court. I’d be shocked if that wasn’t the case with Rahal. The big question for me is will people settle with Barnes just to make it go away, will the suit get tossed or will it go all the way? Lawsuits rarely go all the way to trial, so …

  6. Maybe this will be Barnes’ last hurrah. Let’s hope so.

  7. What’s worse is what this lawsuit communicates to future interested sponsors. IndyCar is not exactly in a position of power when it comes to leveraging outside corporate support. John Barnes not only represents Panther but unfortunately leaves a signature on the series as a whole. When future sponsors perform their due diligence before making the decision to be represented in IndyCar, how are they not going to hear about this debacle with Panther and the National Guard? I see this as doing only harm to the IndyCar series and their intended image. This is unfortunately unfortunate. Probably about the last thing IndyCar needs in this current climate.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I’d be willing to give Barnes the benefit of the doubt if this was one of the first dust-ups he had been involved in. I think this is closer to the 100th. We are at the point where anything Barnes tells us is dubious.

    I would hate to lose a car and a team, but if it comes to that, I would definitely be least disappointed to lose Panther.

  9. I have a hard time seeing how Panther/Barnes racing could A. win and B. be justified with this suit, especially with his history of not paying drivers. I dislike Barnes but we need all the teams we can get so watching him self-destruct is a major problem. I’m a bit worried about car count; I’m not sure Panther will make it to St Pete. And Honestly if I ran Indycar Panther wouldn’t pass another pre or post race inspection.

  10. As much as I wanted Simona to stay in indyCar, I’m sure glad she didn’t get involved with Barnes.

  11. sizzle chest Says:

    This is the best article you’ve ever written, good job!

  12. While I’m not particularly worried about what WE (the long-term fans) think, I don’t see how this “domestic disturbance” has any good effect on potential sponsors.

  13. The whole time I kept thinking “Barnes is going to sue George for this…” only to see that last sentence, haha. Well done.

    I think most people would agree with your assessment of John and his character. You’re right about the end result too. As soon as I heard about his lawsuit, I thought to myself, what is his objective here? Nobody is going to win, and everybody is going to lose.

  14. TimNothhelfer Says:

    I’m not surprised by JB actions…. I just wish I was.

  15. Well done, George. I am incredulous! I agree with several of you about waiting to see how this plays out. However when I think about all of the money being wasted on this lawsuit, it is galling. I hope Barnes will have to pay everyone’s legal expenses. It might add up to enough to fund a driver for at least part of a season. Sore loser!

  16. Jim Gray Says:

    I would say that John had a good eye for talent, how is used them is a matter to be discussed by others. I live close to Panther headquarters and have visited several times, each time I was overwhelmed by the graciousness of every single person! From the front desk lady (always a treat to talk to) all the down to the lowly person sweeping the floors, they all were willing to chat and laugh. The people in the organization have been known to be some of the best, but sadly, this is in spite of John Barnes. I can’t help but wonder how good Panther Racing would have been w/ a leader who wasn’t a complete jerk.

  17. Action Jackson Says:

    I find all of this encouraging. So, Barnes was the guy pushing the buttons behind the scenes to get Bernard terminated, huh? This enforces my long standing belief that the I M S board is inept and works alone in its attempt to bring this sport down. This is stupendous.

  18. Yannick Says:

    Over the last few years, I have kept hearing that IndyCar needs a “villain” and no one would step up except Barnes with his refusal to pay his former drivers and that other team owner who lost some bodily liquid on another person.

    These were the two “villains” of the 2013 season and now it looks like they both were defeated big time by the “good guys” since their teams won’t be participating in many races this year.

    So it’s no villains again this year, and I must say I prefer that.

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