The Struggle To Stay On Top Of The Mountain

Two and a half weeks ago, Sébastien Bourdais scored an improbable victory at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Some may ask why I would use the word “improbable” to describe the feat of a four-time IndyCar champion. The reason is two-fold. First, it’s because Bourdais scored the win after starting from the back of the field in last place. It took Bourdais only thirty-seven laps to make it to the front. Once he got there, he stayed. The other reason is because his new team, Dale Coyne Racing (DCR), is not used to winning very often – especially after starting in the back.

To be more precise, when Sébastien Bourdais took the checkered flag in St. Petersburg, it was only the fifth win since the formation of Dale Coyne Racing in 1984. That stat is a little misleading. It might be more factual to point out that the team didn’t win its first race until 2009, when Justin Wilson won at Watkins Glen. That was twenty-five years in CART, Champ Car and IndyCar before ever winning a race. Now they’ve won five in less than eight seasons. That’s what I call marked improvement, and I’m not being sarcastic.

For at least another week and a half, Dale Coyne Racing can enjoy its lofty perch atop the points standing, which is a place they’ve never been before in their thirty-four year history. Drivers from the Big Three teams of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport finished right behind Bourdais, but that doesn’t matter – Bourdais finished first, and rather comfortably I might add.

I am not naïve enough to think that one race tells the story of the season and that Bourdais and Coyne are going to win the Verizon IndyCar championship. But they could.

As has been mentioned here before, team chemistry is a very underrated thing. Although many grew tired of seeing it on display, there was great chemistry among the Andretti-Green set of drivers from 2004-2007. In all the years I’ve followed this sport, I’ve never seen any team get along like the foursome of Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta. Maybe not then, but this group ended up accounting for six Indianapolis 500 wins between 2005 and 2013.

They also won three of the four championships from 2004 to 2007. Obviously talent had a lot to do with it, since all but two of those Indianapolis wins came with different teams. But they were all AGR drivers when they won those championships between 2004 and 2007.

So if you are underestimating the hiring of former Bourdais engineers Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson at DCR, you are making a big mistake. As Bourdais mentioned in victory lane at St. Petersburg, the gang is back together.

If you underestimate Dale Coyne as a car owner, you are also making a big mistake.

There have been times when Dale Coyne and DCR were a good punch line. No one ever confused Dale Coyne with Roger Penske. While Penske has never been known for wasting money, he’s never been afraid to spend it. Dale Coyne throws nickels around about as freely as manhole covers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s cheap. Coyne just doesn’t have anything close to the budget of most of his fellow owners.

You and I are not privy to seeing the books of Dale Coyne or any of the other car-owners, but I would be willing to bet that Coyne has the smallest budget compared to any of the eight owners in the IndyCar paddock. I have nothing to base that on other than my own observations, but I have an idea I’m not too far off from the truth.

Yet, somehow Dale Coyne has managed more or as many wins since 2009 as the teams of AJ Foyt Enterprises (1), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (3) Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (5) and Ed Carpenter Racing (5). I would say it is the general opinion in the paddock that Dale Coyne can do more with less than any other owner in the paddock.

It’s not always pretty and it’s never easy. Last season was a disaster for DCR. Conor Daly competed as a rookie for Coyne and even though he had some bright moments, he finished eighteenth in points. That was the good news. The bad news was that his other car was a revolving door of drivers that included Luca Filippi, Gabby Chaves and RC Enerson. His four-car lineup for the Indianapolis 500 consisted of Daly, Chaves, Bryan Clauson and Pippa Mann. Going into the race, Mann had more Indianapolis 500 starts (four) than any of her teammates. She also finished higher (eighteenth) than any other Coyne drivers that day.

Dale Coyne was infamous for not announcing his driver lineup until about a week before the opening race. This year, Coyne had Bourdais and rookie Ed Jones under contract before Christmas. Just yesterday, Coyne broke tradition again by confirming Pippa Mann for his third car at Indianapolis this coming May. Most years, Pippa is still trying to lock down her deal with Coyne by the end of April. With Coyne only running three cars for the “500” and Pippa having two full months to prepare, that bodes well for her chances to have a very solid month. That’s not the only thing that signals better days ahead at DCR. The hiring of Hampson and Boisson tells us that Coyne is serious about results. Were he not, he would be content to hire desperate rookies that couldn’t land anywhere else as he has been known to do in the past.

But that is one thing that Coyne does best. He has been given many future stars a ride, long before their big break came along from owners with much deeper pockets. He gave a young Paul Tracy a shot at Long Beach in 1991, months before Roger Penske put him in a car at Michigan later that summer. But for every Paul Tracy, Buddy Lazier and Robbie Buhl in DCR’s history, there are five times as many Dennis Vitolos, Guido Daccòs and Andrea Monterminis who have become mere footnotes in IndyCar history – albeit some of them comical footnotes.

Since Dale Coyne Racing was founded in 1984, there have been a total of eighty-two drivers in the cockpit of a DCR race car – and that counts Dale Coyne himself, who drove full-time from 1984 through 1988 and then very sporadically from 1989 to 1991. His best finish? Twelfth at Cleveland and Sanair, both in 1986.

Although he has hired Bourdais for this season, he is still bringing on rookies – signing reigning Indy Lights champ Ed Jones for 2017. Although Bourdais got all the headlines in St. Petersburg, Jones drove a very solid race, finishing tenth – although he would have finished much higher had it not been for a botched pit stop on his last stop that was not of his making.

So will Dale Coyne Racing finish the season where they are right now, atop the Verizon IndyCar points standings? Probably not. The championship will most likely go to a Penske, Ganassi or Andretti driver. DCR just does not have the resources available to them to sustain that kind of success while holding off the big three teams. But I do feel confident in saying that Coyne and Bourdais will be in the mix all season. They could win another race – which would be another first for Coyne, a multiple race winner in one year. When it’s all said and done, I predict that Bourdais will finish in the Top-Five, meaning he’ll beat out many of the drivers from the much bigger teams.

Think back to 2009, when all but one race was won by either a Penske or Ganassi car. Remember how boring that was? And who won the one race that the big teams did not? Justin Wilson, driving for Dale Coyne. Remember how refreshing that was? It was unusual to see Dale Coyne in victory lane that day, because he had never been there before. At St. Petersburg, it was no longer unusual – just refreshing. Is it possible that Coyne and Bourdais make winning so common that it is no longer even refreshing? Stay tuned. It could be a fascinating season.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “The Struggle To Stay On Top Of The Mountain”

  1. I believe that this year is going to be a big year for Coyne. He now has a terrific team that has the experience running for championships.

  2. Indyspeeddmon Says:

    I love underdogs and scrappers. I don’t think they’ll be within sniffing distance of the championship but to see them vastly improved makes me smile and look forward to seeing what they can do from here on out.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    There is definitely a good chance of Bourdais and Jones giving Coyne his best season ever and a fair chance that Bourdais will win another race. There is a fair possibility too that Bourdais will struggle for consistency and Jones will make rookie mistakes, sending the team back down around where it was last year.

    They will need to be competitive on ovals, where they have not been in quite some time, and will need to find consistent qualifying speed.

  4. Brian McKay in Florida Says:

    DCR needs to stop fouling up pit stops.

  5. S0CSeven Says:

    Ya know, Hinch and SPM qualified up front and did a GREEN FLAG PASS FOR THE LEAD and got super royally screwed on a yellow flag relegating him to the back.

    Bourdais & Coyne did nothing except call a smart early fuel stop and he was relegated to the front ….. based on what? Blind luck?

    And Bourdais’s the guy who gets all the print ………. something wrong here. Very, very wrong.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Not that you don’t have a point, but it is worth pointing out that Bourdais also made a green flag pass for the lead.

  6. I’d like to see Bourdais (and Jones) do well this season. Having Sebastien win at St. Pete in what was Justin’s car in the old days did make me very wistful.

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