The Silly Season May Still Be Silly

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About a week ago, we learned that longtime race engineer Allen McDonald is leaving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM). McDonald has been with SPM consecutively since 2013. He was actually with Sam Schmidt after he bought Alex Tagliani’s FAZZT Racing after they closed at the end of the 2010 season, but McDonald took a one-year sabbatical when he went to Andretti Autosport for the 2012 season.

There he worked with James Hinchcliffe for a year before going back to Schmidt in 2013, where he has been ever since. When Hinchcliffe moved to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2015 to replace Simon Pagenaud, it reunited the pair and produced two wins for the small team that always seems just a little strapped for cash.

One of those wins came at the rain-soaked course at NOLA in April of 2015, just more than a month before Hinch had his near-fatal practice accident at Indianapolis. After missing the rest of the season, Hinch returned in 2016 with mixed results. That was probably partly due to being rusty and mostly due to the lackluster Honda engine and aero kit that was vastly improved for 2017. Still, Hinchcliffe produced three podium finishes on his way to finishing thirteenth in points.

This year was not very different. Hinch won at Long Beach and had two more podiums, but six finishes of twentieth or worse saddled him with another thirteenth place finish in points. Everything I heard though indicated that Hinchcliffe and SPM were both trying to negotiate a multiyear contract extension, so McDonald’s departure kind of caught me off guard.

McDonald told Racer.com that he was “…no longer with the fine folks at SPM. I’ve been there for five years and it was just time to move on.”

I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist. I think that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in July of 1969 and that US Government had nothing to do with engineering Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. I have also not bought into the latest inconceivable notion that is somehow gaining momentum; that we live in a world that is flat. But I’m catching myself trying to read between the lines with McDonald leaving SPM with no apparent destination. There has to be more to it than this.

Oddly enough, there isn’t a whole lot of chatter about this break-up. There was a lot going on in the sports and political world last week and of course the tragic situation in Las Vegas this past Sunday night, so there weren’t a whole lot of people paying attention to the engineering staff of IndyCar teams. But this is a fairly significant move. Good engineers are apparently in short supply in the IndyCar paddock. There are some that believe there is a greater demand for good engineers than for drivers. I’m not sure how much I believe that. There are average drivers, then there are the premier drivers. There aren’t a whole lot of top-notch drivers out there. If I’m starting up a team, I’m putting my resources behind a driver I can build my team around. But don’t ever underestimate the significance of a good engineer.

I know that championship drivers like Tony Kanaan, Sébastien Bourdais and Paul Tracy swear by their engineers. 2017 champion Josef Newgarden brought his engineer with him from Ed Carpenter Racing to Team Penske. It’s like the chemistry between a quarterback and a coach. When the chemistry is right and they are both on the same page, beautiful things happen. What happened with the Vols and Titans this past weekend is an example of what happens when everyone is not on the same page. My two teams were outscored by a combined 98-14 this past weekend, but I digress…

So what really happened with Allen McDonald? Was he fired or asked to leave? Does he already have a destination in mind? Not many people quit a job like that without another job lined up. If you listened to Trackside this past Monday night, you heard Robin Miller say he saw McDonald and Ed Carpenter having lunch the other day. Can we connect those dots? Or do McDonald and Hinchcliffe have something else in the works? Is that why Hinch has yet to sign a new deal at Schmidt?

Six weeks ago I would have believed that, but most of the good seats (and not so good seats) have already been filled for 2018. Dale Coyne has not yet said who would be in the No.19 car that Ed Jones drove this past season, but most people think Jones will be back there. The only really good seats left unsigned are the two seats at Schmidt, where Hinchcliffe has driven for the past three seasons. The only other seats unannounced are the second seat at Foyt, the second car at Harding Racing and the unnamed rides at Juncos and Carling, which are still a little tenuous.

Except, of course…the No.10 car at Chip Ganassi Racing, that has been vacated by Tony Kanaan – although Brendon Hartley has been widely reported to be in line for that car. But as we have all learned – deals are not done until they are done. And that’s assuming that Helio Castroneves goes to sports cars and Team Penske runs only three fulltime cars in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Could Hinch and McDonald snag either of those plum rides? Probably not.

It’s easy to get carried away with offseason theories. That’s what we do to keep the long offseason interesting. We haven’t even had our first frost yet, and we’re already running wild trying to start rumors. We are trying to make the silly season sillier than it already is. My rational side says that James Hinchcliffe will re-sign with SPM and McDonald will take his talents elsewhere. But I still say he had already cut another deal before he left.

George Phillips

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4 Responses to “The Silly Season May Still Be Silly”

  1. First of all, Hinch was taken out by others in wrecks at Texas, Pocono, Indy and Sonoma (althought the official reason was electrical). Watkins Glen and Detroit were mechanical ……. so you’re basing his results on not many race completions.

    Secondly, the importance of an engineer. Kanaan took his engineer to Foyt, but what exactly did the two of them accomplish over the last few years?

    So yeah, Hinch maybe loses his engineer but has it been wildly successful? I really have no idea.

    It’s apples & oranges here. Toss in the Penske shock program, aero packages, finances, different engineers and I can’t figure out who or what is going to determine 2018. Sounds like fun to me.

    • I watch NASCAR as well and sometimes the crew chief-driver combo is what makes the difference but sometimes not. I can remember a big talk about a mid level at best driver David Stremme, formerly of Penske and his crew chief reunited at a horrible team, people actually thought it would spark something other than 33rd place finishes. So I get it sometimes but more often, the grass can be greener on the other side of the garage.

  2. When George Bignotti rolled his tool chest out of the A.J. Foyt garage down to the John Mecom garage, it has been reported that much beer drinking was involved. Times change. Perhaps McDonald simply left his tablet in a cab, forgot it, and is now waiting for a eBay seller to surface. Silly? Sure. Tis the season.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    The fact that Hinch is still unconfirmed at Schmidt is interesting, but if something big is going on it seems those involved are keeping a secret better than most of the Indycar paddock. The snoopers and scoopers covering the series haven’t seemed to find much smoke on Hinch to anywhere but SPM as of yet.

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