Being A Super Team Is Not Always Good
Expectations will be soaring at Team Penske next season. Why shouldn’t they? Team Penske will be running four full-time cars for the first time in their history. In those four cars will be the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion. There will also be the reigning championship runner-up, who also happens to be a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. There will also be another “500” champion, who won the CART championship as a rookie in 1999; along with a driver that is considered one of the most promising up and comers in the series. Some might call this a super team.
That may not be a good thing, however. History has not always been kind when the term super team was applied to an IndyCar team.
The first time I can recall that term ever used was in 1972, the last time I attended the Indianapolis 500 until twenty years later. Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing fielded three cars for the 1972 USAC Championship Trail. One for two-time defending Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser and another for defending USAC champion Joe Leonard. The third was for the newcomer to the team; the already legendary Mario Andretti. On paper, this sounded like a dream team. In reality, the team struggled with the new Parnelli VPJ-1 Offy that originally started out with large dihedral wings protruding out of the side.
Leonard eventually repeated as champion that season, while Al Unser went winless and closed out the season with a fourth place finish at Phoenix to salvage fourth in the championship. Mario finished a disappointing eleventh in the 1972 standings, having also gone winless. Although Leonard repeated as champion, the so-called super team failed to live up to expectations.
There have been other teams put together over the years that looked great on paper, but never lived up to their hype.
When Mario and Michael Andretti became teammates at Newman/Haas in 1989, the only question was how many championships would be won with the famous father/son pairing. The answer was: only one, when Michael won it in 1991. Then reigning Formula One champion Nigel Mansell took Michael’s seat in 1993, when Michael went across the pond in his short-lived stint at McLaren.
This created another super team. Two former World Champions at Newman/Haas looked great on paper and produced immediate results in the first season. Mario won a race at the age of fifty-three and Nigel won the CART championship in his first season (I feel silly using the term rookie).
But the wheels came off the following year. The Lola chassis was a sled in 1994. The team was not big enough for the egos of Nigel and Mario. Mansell was famous for loving drama and he created quite a bit of it in his second season at Newman/Haas. Mansell finished eighth in the 1994 championship, while Andretti was fourteenth. Mansell returned to Formula One at the end of the season, while Mario retired from racing altogether.
When you think about it, that same season – Marlboro Team Penske had pretty much of a dream team with Paul Tracy, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser, Jr. Heading into 1994, Fittipaldi was a two-time former World Champion, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner (including being the defending champion) and a former CART champion. Little Al had one CART championship and his first “500” win under his belt. Tracy was the promising up and comer.
Granted, Al Unser, Jr. won the Indianapolis 500 and the championship that season, but the following season was a disaster. Tracy was at Newman/Haas, and Penske was a two-car team. Both Fittipaldi and Little Al failed to qualify for the 1995 Indianapolis 500. Fittipaldi finished a forgettable eleventh in the points standings, while Unser, Jr. rebounded after the May fiasco to win three races and score two more podiums and finish second in the standings. Still, the super team pairing had failed to deliver the expected results.
Some teams have evolved into super teams. When the lineup for Andretti-Green was announced for 2004, I’m not sure anyone envisioned what it would eventually became. Tony Kanaan had won only twice since moving up from Indy Lights in 1998. Dario Franchitti had been successful in CART, but was coming off of a broken back that caused him to miss most of the 2003 season. His health and mindset were both uncertain heading into 2004. Bryan Herta had won a race in 2003, subbing for Franchitti, but his career had been underwhelming after winning only twice in the prior ten years. Dan Wheldon showed promise, but was winless at that point in his career.
What evolved over the next two seasons was one of the most cohesive and successful teams I’ve seen in all the years I’ve followed this sport. If one driver won, they were all genuinely happy. There seemed to be no egos and they all worked well together for the betterment of the team. Over the next four seasons, AGR won three championships, two Indianapolis 500 victories and a total of thirty races. By the beginning of the 2008 season, Kanaan was the only one left, and he was gone after the 2010 season. The chemistry was gone and the results suffered. The next four seasons saw only six wins among the entire four-car team – a far cry from the thirty victories in the previous four.
Of course, sometimes super teams work. I go back to 1985, when Roger Penske had Danny Sullivan, Rick Mears and Al Unser driving for him at the same time. Heading into the season, the team knew that Rick Mears would run a partial schedule at best, as he was still recovering from his devastating feet and ankle injuries suffered at Sanair the previous year. By this time, Mears already had two “500” victories and three CART titles.
Though he couldn’t be counted on to win the title that season, Mears won Pocono and finished second at Michigan. But his teammates stepped up. Sullivan won the now-famous spin-and-win Indianapolis 500 that year, and Unser the last of his three championships. Looking back that Penske team of 1985 eventually accounted for nine Indianapolis 500 victories, seven CART or USAC championships and eighty-five CART or USAC wins among the three careers of Mears, Unser and Sullivan.
So how will the team dynamics function among next year’s four Penske drivers? That’s an interesting question and one that I have no idea how to answer. You have two drivers, Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya – who are nearing the end of their careers. Neither of them are coasting. They are both still hungry to prove that they can still win in the short amount of time they have left. Then you have two drivers in their prime – one the reigning champion, the other is the newcomer trying to prove himself.
There are those who speculate that Montoya and Will Power did not really care for each other that much. I’ve heard that Helio was sort of the buffer between them. Now throw in the love/hate relationship between Power and Simon Pagenaud and you have what could be great chemistry or a combustible situation. Can all four drivers set their egos aside for the good of the team? We probably won’t know the answer until this time next year. It will be fun to follow this latest version of the super team.