Challenging Times At Andretti Autosport

Michael Andretti being courted by Chevy has moved from the rumor category to the public knowledge category. It’s still in the talking stages for now, but many people seem to think it will happen. Most see it as a win-win between Chevy, who needs more entries in the Verizon IndyCar Series; and Andretti Autosport, which is not only in need of better results, but financial help as well.

Andretti Autosport ran Chevy engines in 2012 and 2013. During that time, their full-time drivers were Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe for 2012, while EJ Vizo was added to the mix for 2013. That two-year period produced the 2012 championship with Hunter-Reay and nine wins between Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe.

Following the 2013 season, Andretti Autosport switched to Honda; shortly after Chip Ganassi Racing announced they were leaving Honda and moving to Chevy. In the almost four seasons that have followed, Andretti Autosport has won eight races and no championships. But it should be noted that of those eight races, three of them were the Indianapolis 500. If you are going to win one, make sure it’s that one.

Winning three of the past four Indianapolis 500’s aside, this has been a lean period for the team that won four championships in eight seasons from 2004 to 2012.

While many ponder what has happened to Andretti Autosport on the track, I’m wondering what has happened to them in the conference room.

Do you recall the cars that won three championships in four years and one that almost won the Indianapolis 500 with a nineteen year-old Marco Andretti behind the wheel? They were flush with sponsorship – all of them. And they were names we had all heard of.

Tony Kanaan’s 7-Eleven car had no more room for any additional decals. It was the same for Dan Wheldon’s Jim Beam car, Dario Franchitti’s Canadian Club car and Bryan Herta’s XM Satellite Radio car. Not only did these cars have big-name sponsors that were household names, they had strong backing from associate sponsors like Argent Mortgage, Vonage, Gatorade, Hershey’s, Oreo’s, The Palm, Klein Tools and others.

Somewhere along the way, the search for sponsorship seems to have passed this team by. While sponsorship has always been a tough task for most teams, Michael Andretti seemed to have the golden touch that made his team immune to the sponsorship woes of even teams owned by Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi. When Team Penske lost the Philip Morris money completely for the 2010 season, two of the three Penske cars carried sidepods bearing the names of the team. Ganassi was still a two-car team at that time with both cars carrying Target livery, but many sponsors would rotate in and out on each car throughout the season.

That was also the year that Andretti-Green Racing was transformed to Andretti Autosport. With that name change came the departure of Michael Andretti’s two partners, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree. Those two went on to form Green Savoree Racing Promotions, which are the promoters for the IndyCar races at St. Petersburg, Toronto and are the track owners of Mid-Ohio.

Since that time, Andretti Autosport has brought on DHL, which has developed into a longtime primary sponsor for Ryan Hunter-Reay. But they have lost the primary sponsors 7-Eleven, which led to the departure of Tony Kanaan after the 2010 season; Motorola/Boost Mobile following the 2009 season; and ultimately Go-Daddy, which led to the departure of James Hinchcliffe.

Instead of the big-name sponsors we became accustomed to seeing on the Andretti cars, sponsors like .electric Energy Straws, Cinsay, United Fiber and Data, SureTone and a soon to be bankrupt hhgregg adorned the sidepods of the Andretti Autosport cars since Green and Savoree left.

This season, Hunter-Reay’s DHL sponsorship has been visible all season and appears to be very solid. But what about the other four full-time cars? Last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner has had NAPA on the sidepods for about half the races. Other races, he is running on the sidepods. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Takuma Sato, has Panasonic money which translates into an associate sponsorship – but he has been carrying #CheckIt4Andretti alluding to John Andretti’s colon cancer awareness campaign. Marco Andretti was slated for the doomed hhgregg sponsorship, but aside from a few races with United Fiber and Data on the car, he has been carrying the colon cancer hashtag as well.

Sponsorship is never easy. Although the economy has turned around considerably since 2010, it is not reflected in available sponsorship. Sports advertising is a different landscape than it was heading into the 2010 season; motorsports advertising even more so. That is evident in Chip Ganassi failing to find a new sponsor to replace Target after twenty-seven seasons.

But nowhere has a team lost the ability to attract new sponsors than the case with Andretti Autosport. Lack of sponsorship led to Hinchcliffe leaving after the 2014 season, and Carlos Muñoz departing for Foyt after last season. With three of their four full-time cars being unsponsored for what seems like the majority of races, their sponsorship portfolio is a shell of its former self from the glory days of a decade ago. Is this the new normal? Or is there something missing at Michael Andretti’s team?

My personal opinion is that it may never have been Michael Andretti that had the golden touch. He has the name and he obviously has a good head for business, but did he ever have the ability to actually close the deal? My guess is, no.

From what I gather in talks with those a lot closer to the situation than I am, the secret to their success as Andretti-Green Racing rested with Kim Green and Kevin Savoree. They have gone on to show their ability to attract sponsorship in the races they promote, while Michael Andretti’s promotional efforts folded with the Milwaukee IndyFest and the Grand Prix of Louisiana. Both of those failures were not necessarily Andretti’s fault, but the results are still there in black and white.

Some may say that I am attacking Michael Andretti, but I don’t think so. He has poured his heart and soul into not only his race team, but the series and sport as a whole. Some suggest that he is spread too thin with his IndyCar team along with his involvement with the Mazda Road to Indy, his Formula-E team and hos Global RallyCross efforts. That may be, but none of us are privy to Michael Andretti’s balance sheet. Although his recent results may be lacking on the track, he may be crying all the way to the bank. But blank sidepods are not a good sign. Perhaps Michael should follow the advice from Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in Magnum Force, who said "A man has got to know his limitations". Perhaps it’s time to find someone who can work the magic that Green and Savoree could.

So I’m hoping that the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season is a fresh new start for Andretti Autosport. They have obviously struggled to get a handle on the Honda aero kit at practically every track except for IMS. Perhaps the common body kit for next year will work in their favor. And the potential move to Chevy? Well, that’s anyone’s guess. Honda has shown vast improvement this season, while Chevy’s success has been pretty much limited to Team Penske. Some equate that success more to the Penske shock absorber program than the power under the cowling. Time will tell.

The Verizon IndyCar Series needs for Andretti Autosport to resume its role as one of the Big Three at all tracks. Next year could provide the bump they need. Let’s all hope so – not only for their sake but for the sport in general.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Challenging Times At Andretti Autosport”

  1. I started watching Indycar in 2007, which I think you could argue was the end of the Andretti Autosport/Andretti Green golden era. Since then they have been an incredibly up and down team. They’ve won a ton of Indy 500’s and the 2012 championship, but they’ve also struggled a lot. Sponsorship woes and driver lineup instability has definitely hurt them throughout the years. I preferred AA at Chevy, but I’ve got to think that the constant switching isn’t good for anyone.

  2. I think they are spread thin. Sato winning Indy was great but he is a crash machine. RHR should have gone to Penske long ago. Rossi just got his 2nd podium of his career and Marco needed to be gone to Uber as Paul Tracy said, long ago.

    I think them winning Indy throws a blind eye on the fact that they are dog slow the rest of the year. Time to dump Marco, go back to 3 cars and regroup. Would love to see them at Chevy with RHR, Hinch and Chilton next year.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    Don’t know much about Chevy power
    Don’t know much about Andretti’s woes
    But I do know that if Andretti-Green
    Could reunite in 2018
    What a wonderful world it would be.
    Apologies to Sam Cook.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Andretti’s struggles have a lot of factors (engine/aerokit woes, sponsorship issues, personnel turnover), but one that seems overlooked is the fact that the other two “big 3” teams are running more cars than they did back when Andretti was on top of the sport. Andretti’s 4 car teams once battled 4-5 Penske and Ganassi cars. That number has been 6-7 and now 8 in recent years. It’s probably not as big of a factor as being on the wrong side of the engine/aerokit battle over the past few seasons (AA’s last season with Chevy saw 3 drivers top 10 in points, 5 wins, 6 poles, and Marco finishing 5th (!!!) in the standings, results with Honda have been… less impressive), but it is worth noting.

    I will give AA kudos for #CheckIt4Andretti and The former is a very worthy cause and the latter sells the best looking t-shirts in Indycar this year. Now if they could only sell Marco’s old RC Cola hat, the one that said “maRCo” with the R and C being the RC Cola logo…

  5. Before you give Green/ Savoree so much credit if i’m not mistaken the Mid-Ohio , Toronto, St Pete are all tied to Honda . They leave were is Green/Savoree. I guess same thing could be said for AA as they have Honda keeping Rossi and Sato racing.

  6. SkipinSC Says:

    I find it a bit ironic that since Marco has finally “grown up” (and stopped blaming everyone else for his failures,) some among us think it’s time for him to go to sports cars, Uber, or whatever. I don’t recall hearing that chorus when he was blaming everything but his own inability to succeed.

    That said, IMO, Marco has been a boat anchor for years now. His last name is the only thing that has kept him employed at the only team that would give him a ride to begin with. In the meantime, they’ve lost some really GOOD talent, from Dario to Tony Kanaan. Hell, even as controversial as she was with the team, Danica Patrick was more of a sponsor magnet than Marco has ever been.

    I understand the nepotism and the legacy of his name, but aside from one win and a near miss in his first 500, Marco, for the most part, has been a disappointment on the scale of Kyle Petty.

    Make no mistake, the series needs Michael Andretti’s team and while we’re not privy to their balance sheets, I don’t hear Ryan Hunter-Reay shopping himself to other teams (or Alexander Rossi either.) They also have given a start to some pretty good talent in Indy Lights. But, I suspect some consolidation might be in order.

  7. Andretti need to pin back down to a two car team for Rossi & Hunter-Reay. Let Sato go to RLL and Marco go to sportcars.

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