Is Dreyer & Reinbold Stuck In Reverse?

The nature of sports makes inconsistencies over time inevitable. Competition breeds the desire and need to improve from one season to the next. With everyone trying to improve, some will improve and some won’t. Some teams will make great strides, while others will only make slight improvements. Then there are those who always seem to stay about the same and rarely move past the middle of the pack (Tennessee Titans). Conversely, some will backslide some seasons while others will make monumental plummets (Indianapolis Colts).

The same rules apply in racing. Over the past few seasons, the IZOD IndyCar Series has seen dramatic improvements among some teams (Newman/Haas), and only slight improvements among others (Andretti Autosport). Then there is the team that hasn’t quite yet had a plunge to the bottom, but their yearly backslides have been, well, disappointing at best – Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

There has been some bad luck involved. For the past two seasons, they have had one of their drivers sidelined for the remainder of each season due to injury. When Mike Conway was lost for the season after his frightening crash in the last lap of the 2010 Indianapolis 500, the team went through a carousel of five drivers that kept swapping in and out of the seat of the No.24 car. They followed the same pattern this past season among four drivers after Justin Wilson broke his back at Mid-Ohio.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing is one of the few surviving teams from the old “IRL era” before teams from CART began migrating over in 2002. The team has always carried a sort of underdog status. When they were formed in 2000, they were one of the few teams that ran the underwhelming Infiniti powerplant. However, driver and team co-owner Robbie Buhl raised more than a few eyebrows when he scored a victory at the 2000 season-opener at Walt Disney World in the team’s first outing. To date, that is the team’s lone victory.

Beginning in 2002, the team ran a second car for Sarah Fisher on a part-time basis. Sarah’s car became a full-time effort in 2003, but was scaled down to a one-off ride for Indianapolis in 2004. Buhl retired in mid-season in 2004, to focus on running the team along with co-owner Dennis Reinbold. Journeyman driver Felipe Giaffone was hired to replace Buhl for the remainder of the 2004 season.

Giaffone did not return for the next season. Giaffone’s presence with the team began an odyssey of forgettable hires that was a parade of many has-beens and wannabes. Forgettable names like Jeff Bucknum, Roger Yasukawa and Milka Duno raced at DRR, joining famous drivers like Buddy Lazier, Al Unser, Jr., Paul Tracy, Buddy Rice and John Andretti, that were all well past their prime.

In that time, Dreyer & Reinbold always seemed to have the wrong engine at the wrong time. There was never a good time to be running the Infiniti engine. Then they switched to Chevy just as Honda was beginning to supplant the bow-tie brand as the engine of choice in the series. They only switched to Honda when they became the sole engine provider to the league in 2006. Now that multiple engine providers are coming back next season, Dreyer & Reinbold has by default been forced to align itself with Lotus – predicted to be the weakest of the three manufacturers for 2012.

February brings many annual events – Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500. There is another February tradition we’ve experienced the last few years – the annual proclamation that Dreyer & Reinbold has made great strides in the offseason and should be much improved in the upcoming season. That has created a new fall tradition of remarking what a disappointment DRR was in the just-completed season.

Think how many times Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee have told us on Trackside that "Dreyer & Reinbold has hired (fill in the blank) which should really be a boost to their staff". Don’t blame Curt and Kevin – on paper, it always looks like DRR has opened their wallet and made the right moves in the offseason. Unfortunately, none of those moves have translated to results on the track.

The 2010 season looked to be their best shot. Justin Wilson had two second place finishes along with a seventh going into Indianapolis, where he also finished seventh after starting eleventh. Likewise, his teammate Mike Conway had three top-tens heading into the Indianapolis 500, where Conway led late in the race and was running in the top-five when he had his season-ending crash on the last lap.

It was how they handled the vacancy created by Conway’s crash that I disagreed with. For the remaining eleven races, there were five drivers rotating in and out of Conway’s car. I’m not sure if they ever had the same driver in the car for consecutive races. There was no continuity among the team. Feedback to the team and engineers differed from week to week because it was always coming from a different driver with a different perspective and driving style. Consequently, the No.24 car became a weekly backmarker. Whether it was coincidental or not, Wilson’s performance dropped as well. He finished a forgettable eleventh in points.

Did the team learn anything from that approach? Apparently not, because when Wilson broke his back this season at Mid-Ohio, they took the same approach as four different drivers took their turn in the No.22 car.

Perhaps sponsorship matters dictated this approach. I don’t know. But as an outsider looking in, it seems like a more logical approach would have been to hire a permanent replacement for each of those seats. There is not a shortage of very qualified drivers that would have been more than happy to take those rides on more than just a race-to-race basis.

Now, it has become very clear that Justin Wilson will probably not be returning to Dreyer& Reinbold for 2012. In fact, Wilson is probably the hottest commodity in this silly season. He has been named as a possibility for several seats, including the coveted ride in the GoDaddy car at Andretti Autosport.

Meanwhile, Dreyer & Reinbold is still searching for answers. They have cut ties with engineer and race strategist Larry Curry. They were apparently unwanted by Honda and Chevrolet and had to settle for Lotus. They have no drivers announced for 2012 and sponsorship has always been an issue with the team. Ana Beatriz will probably have backing from Ipiranga again. After her unimpressive rookie season, I’m not sure anyone is pursuing her so she will probably be brought back to DRR mainly for the cash she brings. But who else would choose to go to DRR, if they had any other options?

Quite frankly, if I were a driver with a choice – I would choose a normally struggling AJ Foyt Racing with a funded ride and Honda power, over an underachieving Dreyer & Reinbold team that seems to always make the wrong decisions.

That’s not to say they won’t hire another driver for 2012. Of course they will. But I think 2010 may have been the glory days for Dreyer & Reinbold. Since their founding in 2000, that may have been their best shot. They have quickly plummeted since the 2010 Indianapolis 500. Now they seem to be stuck in reverse.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Is Dreyer & Reinbold Stuck In Reverse?”

  1. Must agree on DRR,I also agree that If A J Foyt could get Justin Wilson, Justin could get the 14 car back to victory lane. Wilson could really help the 14 team. Wilson could also be really strong next to Marco Andretti, I am sure Andretti racing is looking at Wilson. No matter whast happens I believe Justin will get a better ride.

  2. Given that Justin Wilson is a talented driver on an under-performing team, I wonder how much that hurt Ana Beatriz’s rookie season as well. With wins on ovals in the Lights, I had hoped for stronger results, but she ran toward the back quite a lot in 2011. Maybe DRR will find their mojo next year, with whoever they hire to drive. Vitor, perhaps?

  3. George, I agree with your premise that in sports competition some organizations just seem to always struggle, no matter the effort. When it comes to DRR, the LA Clippers come to mind as being similar. At least the KV team is fast and competitive before they crash out in almost every race. You could almost make the case that even Dale Coyne’s team was more competitive–at least w/Bourdais in the car–than any of DRR drivers. I do not see their fortunes changing much next year.

  4. I’ll patiently wait for Curt and Kevin to proglaim that DRR has made great strides for the upcoming year and then I know Spring will be just 6 weeks away.

  5. I really hope not. It’s hard to drive that way.

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