The Cruel Realities Of Racing

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There is an old joke that goes something like this; Q. How do you make a small fortune? A. Start with a large fortune and go racing. While it may apply, chances are that none of those associated with the team formerly known as CFH Racing are laughing very hard today.

We had been hearing rumors all week that Wichita, Kansas businessman Willis E. (Wink) Hartman had suffered significant financial losses through his company Hartman Oil, strictly due to the steady plummet in oil prices. When he and Sarah Fisher Racing joined forces for the 2012 season to form Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (SFHR), Hartman was carrying most of the financial load. He had been a sponsor and financial backer prior to 2012, but that was the year that things got serious.

To put it simply, Wink Hartman was Sarah Fisher’s angel. When her team was struggling to stay afloat, it was Hartman who would come to the rescue in the form of a new chassis to replace one previously destroyed or simply additional operating capital. Beginning in 2012, Hartman was all in. Oil was trading at just over $110 per barrel, and revenues were high for Hartman Oil. As it turns out, even though Sarah’s name comes first, Hartman owns all of the new building the team built on Main Street in Speedway. He owns 75% of the team, while Sarah owns only 25%.

In the past few months, oil prices were at a high of around $53 per barrel in September. Since then, prices have dropped to around $28 per barrel just last week. Yesterday’s close was $33.22 per barrel. Last week’s low was right at one-fourth the price of what it was when Wink Hartman became part-owner of SFHR. It’s not hard to see why Hartman is suddenly struggling financially.

While we consumers are thoroughly enjoying gas-prices that are lower than we’ve seen in more than a decade, it has created a bitter hardship on companies in the oil and gas industry. While many celebrate the oil industry taking it on the chin and feel as if they are getting some long-awaited revenge against big business and “the man” – many businesses and families are in dire straights.

For the first time, IndyCar fans are witnessing first-hand that the steep drop in oil prices may not be a great thing for everyone. Yesterday afternoon, we learned that Hartman is indeed pulling out of IndyCar racing in order to focus on his suddenly struggling company. Hartman was quoted as saying "(Racing) takes millions and millions of dollars. It’s not wise for me to jeopardize what I’ve worked all my life to build over racing.”

Can you blame him? I can’t. I don’t know how old Wink Hartman is, but he isn’t young. I’d say it’s a fair bet that he’s older than me, which pushes him close to retirement age. I also don’t know the size of Hartman’s fortune, but it’s probably safe to say that it’s a lot smaller than it was before he went racing. As big a race fan as I am, I would never begrudge anyone looking to protect the security of their retirement instead of throwing millions more into racing. Most rich people got to be rich by making wise decisions. This is a wise decision.

But what about Sarah Fisher? She and husband Andy O’Gara first started her own team as an owner-driver in 2008 with ResQ Energy Drink as the sponsor. Her car ran practice for the Indianapolis 500 throughout the month of May with ResQ on the sidepods, but as the month wore on and the bills piled up – the check never came. She picked up many associate sponsors, including Hartman Oil, and qualified a respectable twenty-second. Two days before the race, Sarah picked up Text4Cars.com as a primary sponsor.

The race ended early for Fisher, as she was an innocent bystander in the Marco Andretti-Tony Kanaan incident that saw Marco take an unnecessary chance in Turn Three, sending his teammate Kanaan into the wall. The problem was that Kanaan took Sarah Fisher into the wall with him on Lap 106 and relegating her to a disappointing thirtieth-place finish. As she left the infield care center, a distraught Sarah Fisher sobbed in an interview with ABC’s Jamie Little that she wasn’t sure if they could come up with anymore money to continue after the ResQ debacle, a low-paying finish and a torn up race car.

But in July of that year, Nashville-based Dollar General stepped up to sponsor her for the Kentucky and Chicagoland races. That sponsorship lasted through the end of 2011. By that time, Sarah had stepped out of the cockpit for good and Ed Carpenter was her driver. After Ed moved on to form Ed Carpenter Racing, the newly formed and better funded Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing hired promising rookie and Nashville native Josef Newgarden as their driver.

The team soon relocated to their showplace shop on Main Street and SFHR was the shining example of a little team doing everything the right way as they competed with the big boys of IndyCar. Each year, Newgarden grew as a driver.

But the odds are stacked against small single-car teams in today’s IndyCar world. Consequently, two of the smallest teams – Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing – announced they would merge to form CFH Racing for the 2015 season. While Carpenter was the two-time defending Indianapolis 500 pole-winner and had won two races in 2014, he did not fare well in the newly formed team. His side of the team did not seem to come to grips with the new Chevy aero kit, while Newgarden’s side flourished – winning two races, along with two second-place finishes and a fifth on his way to finishing a decent seventh in the points.

On the track, the future looked bright on Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman’s side of CFH Racing; but off the track, things were already turning in the oil market. Crude prices were around $65 per barrel last May, but just before the end of the season – they fell to around $43 per barrel just before spiking back to $53 around Labor Day. Since November, oil prices have been in a free-fall ever since – forcing Wink Hartman to make his very difficult decision.

CFH Racing is reverting to the name Ed Carpenter Racing, with no mention of Sarah. Josef Newgarden will remain as the team’s only full-time driver and will switch from Sarah’s familiar No.67 to the No.21 for the entire season. If you’ll recall, Newgarden switched to No.21 for May the couple of times that Century 21 was their primary sponsor for the Indianapolis 500. Ed will still drive the No.20 car on ovals, but it is looking as if that car may not run the street courses this season.

I have never met him, but I understand that you may not meet a nicer guy than Wink Hartman in the IndyCar paddock. Like many of us, he took an interest in Sarah Fisher. He brought her little team much further than anyone thought possible back in 2008. But I don’t blame him one bit for cutting his losses for now. He leaves the door open for a possible return when the oil market goes back up, as we all know it will at some point. Whether or not he does remains to be seen.

Sarah Fisher is not going away either. She still maintains an office in the building that will soon bear Ed Carpenter’s name. There she will continue to work on future sponsorship deals for the team. In the meantime, she and her husband are busy opening their newest venture, Speedway Indoor Karting along with 1911 Grill in Speedway.

Yesterday was a sad day for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Not only has the series lost a full-time car on the grid and a possible third car in May, many good people in the IndyCar family have lost their livelihood. When Wink Hartman bought into Sarah Fisher’s team after Dollar General had pulled out following the 2011 season, who would have thought that the kind-hearted oil man from Wichita would have to pull out due to fallout in the oil market? I know I didn’t. I’m sure Hartman didn’t and most of all, I’m sure Sarah Fisher didn’t.

The racing world can be cruel at times, but so can the business world. This is a perfect example of the cruel realities of racing. My hope is that someday, we’ll again see Wink Hartman and Sarah Fisher on a pit box at an IndyCar race. Those are two people that the series could ill-afford to lose.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “The Cruel Realities Of Racing”

  1. I hate to see Sarah leave the series. She has always been first class and has been a terrific owner. I’ll miss her. As for Ed, well I have always felt the he, too, is a winner and is as dedicated as they come. I’m very happy for him and I look forward to seeing ECR develop.

  2. Sad as this is, the more worrying trend is that the field is consistently shrinking year on year in terms of full season entries. it was around 27-28 in 2011. Since then we have consistently lost 2-3 full time seats every year. This year there will only be 21 full time entries with 3 teams owning 52% of the full time cars. It’s a troubling trend that I see no sign of stopping. There will be plenty of entries for Indy (and there always will be) but sponsorship is harder than ever to get for a full Indycar season. The series really is in trouble and I think that it is suffering like it did in the 70’s when the emphasis was only on the Indy 500 by the top execs and the rest of the series races suffered second rate status (see Dan Gurney’s white paper that was the genesis of CART). I see the history repeating itself unfortunately. All that matters to the top brass is Indy and the month of May. Don’t get me wrong, Indy is very important, even critical. But the rest of the series is suffering a serious lack of business leadership and marketing vision. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were only 16-17 full time entries in a couple years.

    Just my opinion, of course. Your mileage may vary.

  3. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    The last driver/team link to USAC’s road to Indycar (not including George family ownership) is now severed. I’m sad to see it come to this. I’ll admit that I perhaps held out some faint, naive hope that one day the pendulum would swing back and Indycar would return to the oval roots based on short tracks across the Midwest and Southwest, but now, I think we’ll just continue to see CART3.0 or other various manifestations.

    With major Indycar teams continuing to see the benefits of sports-car and Formula E racing, one has to wonder, if those teams move away from Indycar, that the pendulum might just swing back…

  4. Tony George saw these days coming and tried to do something to reduce the cost of racing. That was one of the big driving forces behind the IRL. Unfortunately good intentions did not lead to the desired result.

    With the demands for safety we have today, the cost can probably be reduced but any decrease will likely be limited due to the various requirements. Still, Indycar is going to have to find a way to reduce the costs. And the only control they have is though their rules. Tough decisions are going to have to be made or the number of teams will likely continue to shrink.

  5. Wink is 69 or so now, as he gave his age as 64 in 2010 when he ran for Congress. I’ve always wondered how he could spin his investment in SFHR/CFHR into any meaningful ROI for his other interests–and how long he’d want to be involved strictly as a philanthropist given the original story was that he wasn’t a huge racing fan by any means. He also divested his arena football and indoor soccer teams in the past few years.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Knowing that Hartman attempted to bring back the Wichita Wings gives me even more respect for him.

      • Yeah, until this happened and I read more about him, I had no idea that he has been such a huge factor in Wichita over the years. He’s bought a couple of smaller banks that focus on community lending that appeared to be struggling and needed to merge to stay viable.

    • I’ve never figured how the ROI worked for Wink and therefore thought he just ran the team as kind of a hobby/recreational thing (not to belittle it, just as opposed to a business venture). Sorry to see Sarah out as a team owner, but it’s a mathematics thing. There are a lot of people out there who would make great owners/drivers, etc who never get the opportunity. At least Sarah got a bunch of years. I’m sure rather than be pissed it’s ending, Sarah is thankful for the experiences she got.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    The loss of Fisher, Hartman, and (possibly) a full-time entry are all tough pills to swallow.

    Especially Fisher, one of the most visible and individually popular owners in the series. I had very much hoped that her team would become a mainstay in the series. That she struggled to draw sponsorship for 4 years with both herself and Josef Newgarden as selling points indicates how difficult it is to solicit sponsorship in Indycar these days.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      “That she struggled … with … herself and Josef Newgarden as selling points indicates how difficult it is to solicit sponsorship”
      You nailed it.
      Andretti Autosport couldn’t find a sponsor to replace UFD/Live band and thus retain race-winner Hinchcliffe. A.A. couldn’t get full-season sponsorship for de Silvestro or race-winner Wilson.
      Penske doesn’t seem to have a surfeit of major sponsors if Penske Truck Rentals and “How to Train Your Dragon” show up on cars year after year.
      Where would Ganassi be if Target weren’t giving a hundred million dollars since 1994 for decals on cars?
      Where would Carpenter be if someone at Fuzzy’s didn’t have a particular interest in him?
      A.J. Foyt Racing is very fortunate to have LOYAL, supportive ABC Supply solely sponsoring TWO cars which don’t win races.
      Sad, sad, sad that Newman-Haas folded and that Dreyer and Reinbold is Indy 500-only … I don’t know how Herta Autosport stays afloat without an ‘angel’ investor like Hartman

  7. Timely and well written George. (no surprise there). This news is sad indeed. Sarah Fisher will bounce back to remain involved in racing in some way imo. If you have ever watched her early dirt track races on YouTube you know that you could never count her out. She was a terror on dirt and still runs at the Chili Bowl.

    Aside from the issues of what it costs to go racin’ these days and ever decreasing car counts, what also disturbs me is that the involvement of women in the sport continues to decrease. I can only relate to my long experience at the Milwaukee Mile, but I can tell you that there was a noticeable decrease in the number of young girls at the track with Danica and Simona gone.

    Sarah Fisher is a class act in every sense of the word and I wish her well.

  8. a bit ironic that this happened just after your blog on the survival of motorsports. indycar needs more owners to survive and grow. the sport needs to be cheaper, safer and get the auto manufacturers to participate more. how? I have no clue. But I think big changes must be made to adapt to a changing society or this expensive hobby will disappear.

  9. A real loss for the series. I have always admired Sarah as a driver and an owner. Will miss seeing her on the pit wall during race weekends.

  10. shutterspeeder Says:

    This wouldn’t happen if they could actually sell the team based on its value. But the series is so weak that’s not practical. It doesn’t represent enough ROI for a company. This is a country club, not a real marketable sport. It could be that way, but they don’t want to do what it takes to make it that. They like their country club just the way it is.

    Make the feeder series more than just a playground for rich kids and actually cultivate talent and sponsors properly.

    But that would mean making it into a sport where talent and results are what really matters. That means any driver that’s better would get ride instead of the rich guy’s kid. That’s just not going to fly with the people in the sport.

    Harsh truth.

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