Planning For The Future
With the NFL draft approaching later this month, sports talk radio is filled with all kinds of pontificating on how to build a football team. A perfect mix is to have a mixture of savvy veterans combined with budding stars of the future ready to move up when the veterans get too old to perform at a high level.
It’s the same with racing teams. Well, the top teams anyway. With apologies to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and the others; I think most would agree that the top-three IndyCar teams over the past fifteen years have been Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport. After all, those three teams have won every Verizon IndyCar Series championship since 2003 and all but three Indianapolis 500’s in that time frame.
In that same span, statistics would say that Chip Ganassi Racing has been the most successful. They have won seven championships and three Indianapolis 500 victories. Andretti Autosport has four season championships in that time to go along with five Indianapolis 500 victories. Curiously enough, Team Penske lags behind those other two teams with “only” three championships and four Indianapolis 500 wins.
One would think that the most successful teams in past fifteen seasons would be the ones that have positioned themselves to succeed in the future. However, that’s not the case – not on paper, anyway.
Each of the three teams has four full-time drivers and the aforementioned mix of veteran drivers and up and comers. But look at the order of each team’s success since 2003 and then flip it. The result shows which team is best set up for the future in my opinion.
Team Penske has two very experienced drivers in Helio Castroneves (42 in May) and Will Power (36). Those two represent three Indianapolis 500 victories and one championship. Helio is in his eighteenth season with Team Penske, far and away the longest tenured driver with that historic team. He may be as close as a year away from retirement and Power is probably within four or five seasons of hanging up his helmet. But behind those two are Simon Pagenaud (32) and Josef Newgarden (26). Those two represent the future of Team Penske.
Pagenaud is the reigning series champion and Newgarden has three race wins while driving for a much smaller team.
On paper anyway, it looks as if Team Penske is poised for continued success five, ten and fifteen years from now. The 2025 season sounds like something off in the distant future, but it is less than eight years away. Pagenaud will be forty and Newgarden will be thirty-four. If all goes according to plan, they will have both amassed a ton of wins and a couple of championships for each of them by then. Along the way, they will have brought in one or two of the new hot shoes of the day to keep that succession plan in place.
Andretti Autosport’s succession plan is not quite as clearly defined, but they are still set up to win now, as well as ten years from now. Their lead driver is clearly Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is now thirty-six. But their oldest driver is newcomer Takuma Sato, who just turned forty in January. The younger half of the team is made up of Marco Andretti, who is now thirty (believe it or not) and defending Indianapolis 500 champions Alexander Rossi who is only twenty-five.
Hunter-Reay is the unquestioned leader of the team. He is a former series champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner. Sato has proven he can go fast and he was able to put a car in victory lane at Long Beach a few years ago while driving for the much smaller AJ Foyt team. I’m not sure if Sato has any more race wins in him, but you can count on his car running up front occasionally.
Rossi is still learning, but I like what I see in him and think he has a very bright future in the Verizon IndyCar Series if he stays with it. He is Michael Andretti’s equivalent to Josef Newgarden at Team Penske.
Where Andretti’s future gets muddled is with Michael’s son Marco. Marco Andretti presents a problem for anyone trying to map out the future at Andretti Autosport. What started out as such a bright future for Marco has devolved to the point that Marco is considered more field-filler than anything else.
We all remember how close Marco came to winning the Indianapolis 500 as a nineteen year-old rookie in 2006. Later that season, he won at Sonoma and we all thought that a brilliant career was just getting started. Unfortunately, that was a good as it gets for Marco. Since that promising rookie season, Marco Andretti has won only one other race – and that was in 2011.
We all know that Marco isn’t going anywhere. He will stay at his father’s team until it’s time to retire. I wouldn’t fire my own son and I doubt that Michael will either. And quite frankly, Marco doesn’t have any other options. With his marginal results, no other team is likely to hire him. Therefore he is a fixture on the Andretti Autosport horizon for the foreseeable future.
Sato and Hunter-Reay will probably both be retired in the next five years. Marco will still be there as a thirty-five year old still trying to find his way. Will Rossi become the team leader by default? Possibly, or Michael may have to sign another driver deserving of a top ride. James Hinchcliffe, perhaps?
The future at Andretti Autosport is a little murky when compared to Team Penske, but we sort of have an idea of what things will look like five years from now, if not ten.
To me the biggest question in all of this is what Chip Ganassi racing will look like in five to ten years. Tony Kanaan is forty-two years old. He is a former series champion, an Indianapolis 500 winner, is still very competitive and usually runs near the front. But…he is forty-two years old. At best, he is year-to-year from this point. Scott Dixon is a four-time champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner. He is generally considered to be at the top of his game, but for how long? Dixon will be thirty-seven this summer.
With Dixon and Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing should be a threat to win at every track this year. But how much longer can they or will they go?
The problem that I see is the younger half of the team – the half that is to be their future. Charlie Kimball is thirty-two and Max Chilton is twenty-five. Between them, they have one win – Kimball’s one win at mid-Ohio back in 2013. In six full seasons, Kimball’s best seasons were 2013 and 2016 – both ninth-place finishes in points. The jury is still out on Chilton. His rookie season last year had a couple of bright spots on his way to finishing nineteenth in points.
In a little more than three years, Tony Kanaan could be long retired and Scott Dixon will be forty. Who will be leading the way for Ganassi? Will he and Mike Hull continue to ride Dixon as far as he will take them? Will they poach another driver away from another team or will they be counting on Charlie Kimball to suddenly turn into a championship driver? Quite honestly, I think Max Chilton has a higher upside than Charlie Kimball does, but I’d hate to be putting all my eggs in Chilton’s basket.
As good as a businessman as Chip Ganassi has proven to be over the years, I’m a little surprised that he has not come up with a better succession plan. I realize there is a designed difference between the two teams of Dixon and Kanaan and the teams of Kimball and Chilton. For one thing, the Kimball and Chilton cars are funded with sponsorship brought by the drivers.
Of course, Ganassi has had more trouble replacing Target than anyone would have thought. This weekend at Long Beach, Dixon will be sponsored by Kanaan’s regular sponsor, NTT Data. But the search for a fulltime primary sponsor for Dixon continues.
Among the top three teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the one that has had the most success over the past fifteen years is the one that appears to be the least likely to be able to sustain it. Chip Ganassi obviously needs to bring in some talent to his IndyCar stable. It might be the aforementioned James Hinchcliffe, or he may have to lure one of the top drivers away from one of his rivals. Perhaps he can spot the next Juan Montoya from the European feeder series or someone from sports cars. He’s going to have to, because I don’t see the two younger drivers stepping up their game enough to continue bringing the championships and Indianapolis 500 wins that they have grown accustomed to.
Team Penske went through a rough stretch in the mid-to-late nineties. Al Unser, Jr. had to sort through his demons, Paul Tracy fell out of favor and André Ribeiro lost interest in racing and accepted an offer from Roger Penske to run car dealerships in Brazil. The team resorted to journeyman drivers like Tarso Marques, Jan Magnussen, Alex Barron and Gonzalo Rodriguez, who was fatally injured at Laguna Seca in 1999. They were also saddled with inferior equipment in that time. The Mercedes engine was woefully underpowered, Goodyear was about to be chased out of the series by Firestone and the once coveted Penske chassis was suddenly a liability.
What did Penske do? He essentially revamped everything in 2000. He hired the seasoned Gil de Ferran along with the promising Helio Castroneves. He also lured Tim Cindric away from Bobby Rahal. He ditched his own chassis in favor of the proven Reynard. Gone were Goodyear tires and the Mercedes engine in favor of Firestone and the preferred Honda engine. The result? From 2000-2003, Penske won two series championships and three Indianapolis 500’s.
So a turnaround is entirely possible, if you have deep enough pockets to make the changes Roger Penske did. Chip Ganassi Racing made the change from Chevy to Honda this year. While some debated the logic of that at the end of last season, it is now looking like it could be a smart move with the resurgence of Honda last month at St. Petersburg. Dixon finished third, while Kanaan finished twelfth after running near the front most of the day.
Ganassi is still one of the teams to beat and are not anywhere close to the depths that Penske reached in the late nineties. But they should have started thinking about the future of their driver lineup before now. Don’t be surprised if they start making changes to the younger portion of their lineup by next season – or it may eventually be too late.