The Cruel Realities Of Racing
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.