Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's all about the Money - Why Open Wheel Drivers Failed in NASCAR this year

By Lewis Franck

There's a saying “when someone says 'it's not about the money.' It really is all about the money.”

Just one year ago traditional NASCAR fans were upset because it appeared that an invasion of mostly foreign “open wheel” i.e. IndyCar drivers were going to take over their sacred stock car sport.

Team owners, seeking new markets, thought that if they would bring in the open wheel drivers they could bring in new sponsors. It did not work out that way.

One year later only Juan Pablo Montoya, the ex-IndyCar and ex-Formula One driver, and Sam Hornish Jr. were in the picture for a full-time ride. The reason – they both drive for the owners of their former IndyCar teams. Montoya drives for Chip Ganassi and Hornish, Jr. for Roger Penske, both are the most successful owners in IndyCar history.

At the Daytona 500 this February there were more previous Indy 500 winners than those who would run at the Brickyard in May. Montoya and Dario Franchitti were driving for Ganassi. Hornish for Penske, and Jacques Villeneuve for Bill Davis Racing. Other open wheelers Patrick Carpentier for Gillett Evernham Racing (GEM), and A.J. Allmendinger for Team Red Bull Racing.

Perhaps Mario Andretti who in the 1960s and 1970s successfully raced in and won in everything from dirt track sprint cars, to his World Championship for Lotus, is best to explain why they came over.

"From where I'm sitting, it is probably because of the money [in NASCAR]," said Andretti, who won the 1967 Daytona 500 two years before his Indy 500 win.

"Every individual would give you a different reason. I think the strongest one might be financial. It's not the only motivating factor but it is a strong one. And right now, the best chance to earn some money is NASCAR," he said one year ago.

Since “the split” in 1994 which divided (the now-defunct )CART from the Indy Racing League fans and, more importantly, big money sponsors deserted Indy-type – now called Open Wheel – series for the more stable NASCAR top-level Cup Series.

CART's problem was that top stars would go to Formula One, and in an effort to keep American drivers at Indy the IRL was formed; only its' stars, like Tony Stewart, ended up in NASCAR, because that's where the higher paying jobs were.

It turns out that the lack of money – due to the sudden decline in the US economy – hit the hardest of most of the teams with the open wheel “invaders”.

Also, lack of proper experience, that is running in the junior series for two years or more was another reason that these drivers had a difficult time making the transition to the heavy 3,400 pound cars.

Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cup Champion who drove for Roger Penske, explained to Francklyspeaking, “these drivers undeniably have a tremendous amount of talent. Because it takes many years to really understand these heavy NASCAR cars, being thrown right into one of these cars and expected to be competitive right off the bat is unrealistic.”

Kevin Harvick, the Daytona 500 winner in 2007, agreed (in a previous interview), “It just takes time to establish that foundation," he said. "A lot of people from the outside looking in say, 'Well, I race Formula One. There's no reason I shouldn't be able to race the Sprint Cup Series.' If you can get over the ego part of it, racing the Truck Series or the Nationwide Series, you'd be better off, I think."

Wallace added, “also, the downturn in the economy has killed these drivers' long turn prospects of succeeding in a stock car. With money so tight now and sponsors expecting immediate performance, it makes it especially difficult for these guys. I honestly think that if a sponsor would spend 2-3 solid years with these open wheel drivers, and understand that the first couple years would be investment years, then I think that victory and success in NASCAR would be more of a realistic long term goal.

Dario, Sam, Juan Pablo- these guys are all damn good.”

What is also interesting, and crucial, is that NASCAR's Big Four, Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Joe Gibbs Racing Motorsports, and Roush Racing chose to stick with NASCAR-trained drivers and they were the only teams to fill the 12 places in the ten-race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs. If you did not race for a fully-funded team you had virtually no chance of succeeding.

Jacques Villeneuve's attempt wasn't much of an attempt because he bought a ride at the struggling Bill Davis Racing, failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 and was not heard from, in NASCAR's Sprint Cup since then.

A disappointed Davis lamented "We've built a bunch of cars for him, have gone testing and spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel. But it gets to this point -- they thought they had a sponsor for the whole year; we had the cars decaled and uniforms made and like you've read 100 times before -- the check never came.”

Francklyspeaking enlisted the help of Ford Aerodynamicist, Bernie Marcus, who used to be an engineer at the ATS, Onyx and March Formula One teams. Later he worked with Bobby Rahal in his 1992 CART championship. There's probably no better expert, who has seen it all.

Montoya, hired by Ganassi after he was released from Team McLaren, seemed to be a win-win situation for NASCAR eager to exploit the Latin American marketplace. He's had relative success with wins on road circuits and, a second place in the Brickyard 400 in 2007 and the fall race at Talladega in 2008. Late this year Ganassi was forced to merge with Dale Earnhardt Inc. because he couldn't obtain sponsorship for the three cars he started with this year.

Marcus said “Juan has the talent to succeed in NASCAR, but Ganassi was such bad team this season, that he rarely had a good enough car to demonstrate his talent. Hopefully the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing merger will improve the teams technical staff and program, so that he gets the results he is certainly capable of.”

Hoping lightning would strike twice Ganassi hired Indy 500 and IRL champ, Dario Franchitti. Franchitti was injured (broken right foot) at Talladega in the Spring in the Nationwide race in an accident caused by an inexperienced driver. By July the Scotsman, married to actress, Ashley Judd, was finished because Ganassi couldn't find enough sponsorship to finish the year. That day 71 employees were terminated. He had only 10 Cup races with a best finish of 22nd.

Marcus explained “Dario struggled the most of all the Open Wheel Guys, and a lot of that is down to the Ganassi team being so bad, but he wasn't even close to Montoya anywhere and the biggest letdown was his inability to qualify the car at Sonoma, (one of two NASCAR Cup road races) where he should have been really good. But perhaps his luck, that had given him excellent drives without merit in the past, from DTM to CART to IRL, finally ran out. He clearly had no business being in NASCAR and took a seat away from a potentially young rookie.”

The parent company of GEM racing, which owned the Montreal Canadians in the NHL ,thought Carpentier, a competent IndyCar driver would help bring Canadian fans to NASCAR. Like in Franchitti's case the sponsors never showed. He was replaced by an American. He said “I’m the one getting the boot. It’s part of racing. I’m not pissed off. I kind of expected it. I still hope they find it (sponsorship).”

Marcus commented “Patrick did a very solid job for being in a tier 2 team, in which both the established drivers with a lot more NASCAR experience struggled mightily this year. In fact he out qualified them most of the time and had some decent race runs. It's a pity he got fired after the Talladega qualifying fiasco, for which he clearly can't be blamed. My feeling is they used him as a convenient scape goat. I believe that Patrick deserves to get another chance in a top team and he will get results. Talent wise he is the best of all the Open Wheel guys in my opinion.

AJ Allmendinger, who was a winner in the defunct Champ Car series, joined Team Red Bull in their first struggling year with Toyota in 2007. He, too, jumped over to NASCAR seeing that his team Forsythe Racing was going under. After two years he was let go in favor of Scott Speed. “AJ is a talented driver and we really enjoyed working with him,” said RBRT Vice President and General Manager Jay Frye. “He’s come a long way in just two years and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Allmendinger, who had one Cup victory in an non-points race, said “Cup racing it’s not easy. What happened to Dario and Villeneuve is going to make people wonder.You have to remember, Sam’s (Hornish Jr.) is only in his first year.”

Marcus thought he was under-rated “AJ struggled at first, but once he sat out those few races when (veteran) Mike Skinner drove his car, he came back and did a very good job, which he continued after he transferred to Gillett/Evernham.

He added “Red Bull, as a team, did the best job of any team where an Open Wheel Driver competed.

For 2009 former F-One driver, Scott Speed will be full-time at Team Red Bull. Marcus explained “Speed did a decent job after he replaced AJ for the last few races. He has shown that he has the ability to qualify the car well up the grid, but needs to improve his racecraft, which may or may not come with time. He wasn't too stellar in the ARCA series (a midwest based series using older NASCAR Cup cars), which he should have won hands down.

Over at Penske Racing, Hornish struggled with a non-performing Dodge, as did his teammate and former Champ, Kurt Busch, and Daytona 500, winner Ryan Newman. The American and Penske are committed for the near future. He said ““I would say it’s a struggle but I remember when I first started racing I ran a dirt oval and won I think the third race out and then I won five of the next six.”

Marcus added “Hornish is difficult to judge, since the Penske NASCAR team has been uncompetitive all year, except Daytona, where they pulled off a 1-2 finish and Hornish was top 15 also. It's hard to understand that Penske is so competitive in Indy Car and Sports Cars, but so uncompetitive in NASCAR. Hornish has the talent to succeed in NASCAR, he has shown flashes of brilliance, but unless Penske gives him better technical support, he will not be able to showcase his talent.”

At present only Montoya and Hornish have firm contracts, again, because of the two-way loyalty between them and their car owners, Ganassi and Penske, respectively. It's unlikely that there will be any new Open Wheel drivers, (barring Danica Patrick if she wants to switch) jumping over to stock cars unless they bring sponsors, because it is, after all, all about the money.