Monday, February 20, 2012

Sarah Fisher Hartman (Ain't) Racing - How Did We Get Here?

The latest and possibly biggest yet hubbub of the 2011-2012 IZOD IndyCar Series offseason has been the ongoing struggle by Sarah Fisher and her crew at the newly re-launched Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing to get an engine to put in the back of their brand new DW12 Dallara IndyCar. As many other folks have documented (better than I could, I think, so I'll stop short on most of the particulars), SFHR seemingly has everything in place for this year: 2011 Indy Lights champion, all around hotshoe and sure-thing future superduperstar Josef Newgarden doing the driving, a new shop being built a mere couple of blocks south of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the aforementioned new chassis sitting in their existing shop, and, most importantly, an injection of cash from new part-owner Wink Hartman, which may (or may not, there are conflicting reports circulating) allow them to run the full 2012 season. The only thing missing is that noisy lump of metal for the back of the car. What happened? How did we get to this point?

Item #1: IndyCar estimated 25 cars as a rough upper limit for the 2012 season. In the middle of last year, who could have disputed such a thing? Or even in late-October, well into Chevrolet's, Honda's and Lotus's development cycle, could anybody have predicted 28-30 cars for the St. Pete race at the start of 2012 with a straight face? It seems hard to remember now, but only a few scarce months ago (six and change, to be exact) that aerokits for the new Dallara were delayed until 2013 because the team owners said that they could not afford the costs of developing their own aerodynamic packages (never minding the fact that most of the cost of developing them would have been carried by the manufacturers themselves, not the teams, and that there was nobody holding guns to the team owners' heads and saying "you have to purchase 15 sets of body work even if you can only afford two"...this is a totally different rant, though). Around about the same time, many of the team owners were claiming that with the introduction of new chassis and engines, and with the necessary turnover of spare parts, some teams would be in grave danger of even returning for 2012, aerokits or no. Fast forward five months...and we have a possible 30 teams for St. Pete? Wha? We'll come back to this in a few minutes...

Item #2: Chevrolet and Honda (and possibly Lotus) each commit to supplying 40% of that 25 car count. 40% of 25 is 10. Chevy and Honda quickly locked up 10 teams apiece. That's 20 cars locked in for 2012. Lotus...well, they did announce their program later than Chevy or Honda, but even though it wasn't that much later, it appears those crucial couple of months were more than their preparation abilities were able to stand, as far as being able to supply more than 5-6 teams for St. Pete (or, maybe it's that Lotus is having a devil of a time concentrating on any one form of motorsport, or even figuring out who owns them, but we'll ignore that for the moment). Anyway, Lotus is locked in for no more than maybe six cars at this point. That's 26-27 cars with engines at St. Pete, with GM and Honda recently saying that they'll take on an extra team or so.

Item #3: Related to Item #2, the budgets for the manufacturers were based on a set number of engines supplied from the outset. Yes, folks, it costs money to cast and machine extra parts, and it most certainly costs extra money to send extra support staff to each race to see after those extra engines (salary, airfare, lodging, food, healthcare, 401k, and on and on, multiplied by number of extra personnel). Take it from somebody who's been around various parts of the industry a bit, those incremental costs have ways of taking down entire projects. Two extra engines may equal an extra 20-25% out of pocket for GM or Honda, but when you're (allegedly, though I totally believe it) already supplying engines at a loss (not really a loss so much as what the manufacturers can write off as "marketing spend"), supplying a few more engines at an even bigger loss can get a program stricken by over-zealous beancounters in a heartbeat. Neither GM nor Honda want that, so they are sticking as close to their original budgets as possible.

Item #4: IndyCar and Randy Bernard are more or less out of room to negotiate. When the engine manufacturers are already doing you a solid by coming and playing at a reduced price that is allowing for even bigger car counts than last year's bumper crop, you can't really use a big stick to say "you have to dump even more money into this sport than we're already insisting you do before you even see the first dime of return on investment at the first race". Month Three of a (hopefully) multi-year arrangement is hardly the time to start calling in favors in the form of even more extra engines than what you've already done (Ed Carpenter getting an "extra" Chevy in the last couple of weeks and another potential "extra" Honda engine going to longtime Honda stalwart Bobby Rahal in a possible 3rd car TBA).

Item #5: Wait, what did you say about car counts again? Seriously, how did that happen? Yep, that's right. Breaking this down just a tad further, we did have several teams drop off the grid over the off season (two cars from Newman-Haas Racing, one from Andretti Autosport, probably one from Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, though the jury is still out on that last one), but we had several teams step up and shore up the car counts even beyond where we saw them in most of 2011. Ed Carpenter Racing (Chevy), Mike Shank Racing (yet to have an engine locked down, though it's believed that they'll be in the six or so Lotus count at St. Pete), Dragon Racing (locked in at Lotus, going from one part-time car in 2011 to two full-time cars in 2012) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (locked in with Honda, going from one part-time car in 2011 to two full-time cars in 2012) have seen to that. I'd argue that back in October, Carpenter, both Dragon cars (or, at the very least, one) and at least one of the Rahal cars were not even in the picture. Take any of those cars out of the equation, and SFHR has an engine to flog around Sebring or Texas today.

OK, so are we blaming people, then? Well, people love to blame other people, so here goes. As you can tell from above, I'm more or less absolving Randy Bernard and IndyCar from blame. They made the best guess they could at a 2012 car count with the info at hand in late 2011. GM and Honda have done their best to not just hold to their respective contracts with IndyCar, but to step up and handle extra teams. It's hard to get mad at them (though that certainly hasn't stopped the folks at TrackForum, in other blogs' comments and on's comments sections from doing just that...don't let the facts get in the way of your rants, people). Lotus certainly stands to take some blame here, since they're struggling to supply even 20% of the grid (though like I mentioned earlier, it's thought by some that they didn't sign to the same 40% deal that GM and Honda which case it's their call to do whatever they want). There's a rumor floating around (from the source that's always beyond reproach, TrackForum) that SFHR turned down a Lotus engine because they wanted a Honda or Chevy, in which case they might have wanted to do their homework just a bit better before losing Lotus's number (if this rumor is untrue, then my sincerest apologies to the folks at SFHR, because I am certain that you made the call you thought was best at the time, whatever the situation).

That's a whole pile of non-blame, huh? OK, OK, fine. For real now, two targets for blame here...

The IndyCar Team Owners. By playing the whole "we're so broke we might all go under before May 2012!" card, they caused IndyCar to underestimate the field size for 2012. The ICONIC Committee tried to make the sport cheap enough that people could come play. It worked, just apparently too well. The team owners plead poverty anyway, and now one of their own is without an engine as a direct result. Shame on them. The biggest target for blame, though...

$%^& Happens. Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes there really is no good reason for it, other than a confluence of about 20 factors that results in good times for everybody but one person or small group of people, who instead get an anvil falling out of the sky square on their noggin(s). The most popular personality in the sport gets the shaft yet again, through no fault of her own and the fans and the Series as a whole lose out.

There you go. It's not satisfying in any way, but it's the truth. Here's hoping Sarah and Wink can yet make this thing work out and we see them on the grid at St. Pete. We are all pulling for you.

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