Working Through The Growing Pains

When the Verizon IndyCar Series kicked off its season this past weekend, there were four new teams represented on the grid. I’m not sure when the last time that many new teams have started a season, but I’m going to guess it was the unification of 2008 when Dale Coyne Racing, KV Racing, Newman/Haas, HVM and Conquest Racing all came over from Champ Car.

Newman/Haas, KV and Dale Coyne eventually found victory lane in the Verizon IndyCar Series – some quicker than others.

While Robert Wickens showed that a rookie can show speed right out of the gate in their very first race, the four teams in last Sunday’s race all found their introduction to the Verizon IndyCar Series not so welcoming.

Three of the four teams had some level of experience in IndyCar before last weekend. Juncos Racing ran two cars in last year’s Indianapolis 500 for Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra, finishing eighteenth and fifteenth respectively. Michael Shank Racing ran Jack Harvey in three races in 2017. At the 2017 Indianapolis 500, Shank partnered with Andretti Autosport and Harvey finished thirty-first after crashing in Turn Three.

For the last two races of the season at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, Shank partnered with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Harvey posted a fourteenth-place finish at Watkins Glen and an eighteenth at Sonoma.

The new team that had the most success last season was Harding Racing. Although they were not in association with any established team, Harding put together a solid group that included Larry Curry and Al Unser, Jr. and added a semi-veteran driver in Gabby Chaves. Like the others, Harding Racing’s first race was the Indianapolis 500. Unlike the others, they came away with a Top-Ten finish. They followed that up two weeks later with an impressive fifth-place finish at Texas. Their third and final race for 2017 at Pocono was not as good. Chaves qualified eighth, but fought an ill-handling car throughout the race and hung on to finish fifteenth.

The team that made their very first start in the Verizon IndyCar Series was Carlin – and it showed. Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball had been teammates at Chip Ganassi racing for the past two seasons. Both had previous experience driving for Carlin; Chilton in GP2 and Indy Lights, while Kimball drove in Formula 3 for Carlin.

Trevor Carlin’s team has won championships in practically every ladder series they have been involved in, including Indy Lights when Ed Jones won the 2016 Indy Lights championship for Carlin.

Chilton and Kimball both struggled mightily at St. Petersburg last weekend. They qualified twentieth and twenty-first respectively and both drivers finished only one spot higher than where each qualified – Chilton finishing nineteenth and Kimball twentieth.

As unspectacular as that seemed, Carlin outperformed two of the other three new teams. Jack Harvey qualified nineteenth for Michael Shank Racing, but finished twenty-third after suffering a tire issue on Lap 38. Rene Binder for Juncos Racing lasted for 100 of the 110 laps, but ended up in the tire barrier. Binder had qualified twenty-third and ended up with a twenty-second place finish in the final standings.

The best performing of the new teams was, without question, Harding Racing – just like last year. Gabby Chaves qualified a respectable eighth on the grid and was the last car on the lead lap in a fourteenth-place finish. It wasn’t great by any means, but he stayed out of trouble and stayed on the lead lap. Not bad considering this was Harding’s first foray onto a non-oval.

So what does any of this tell us about what we can expect from these four teams? Well, not a whole lot, to be honest. I think it shows that Harding Racing was as solid as we expected them to be. Gabby Chaves is a good and underrated driver. With the leadership they have in place and the commitment from owner Mike Harding, I think they are going to be interested to watch this season, and will probably have better results at the end of the season that any of the four new teams.

Beyond this season, I think Carlin has the most upside. Keep in mind they were starting with a clean sheet of paper at St. Petersburg. Carlin had never entered an IndyCar race before last weekend. This was a learning experience for them. Their track record in other series indicates that they learn quickly. Trevor Carlin was not happy with Sunday’s results but he talked like they weren’t unexpected. He says they learned a ton from last weekend and that they generally don’t make the same mistakes twice.

Carlin and Harding Racing are the two teams entered for the full season. Michael Shank Racing and Juncos Racing are on partial schedules. Harvey will run six races for Shank this season, while Juncos is scheduled for an eight-race season split between Binder and Kyle Kaiser. Harding Racing and Carlin have veteran drivers, while Michael Shank Racing and Juncos Racing will have rookies in the cockpit all season.

So how did the four new teams fare? If I’m being kind, I give Harding a C+, while giving Carlin and Juncos a D, and Shank a D-. The only reason I rated Juncos above Shank was that Binder almost went the distance as a rookie with a rookie team.

But what we had confirmed is that it’s tough to come in and succeed immediately in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Not only does this series have a deep field of competitive drivers, the depth of the teams is strong too. A good team cannot succeed without a good driver and you can put a great driver into a sled and it’ll remain a sled. The good teams starting out will take a sled and figure out how to make it competitive. That’s where a good driver really comes into play. With feedback from an experienced and quality driver, a team can turn its fortunes around rather quickly – as long as they have the right personnel working with that driver. It’s a fine-tuned balancing act.

Watching these new teams struggle reminds us all how difficult it is to field competitive cars week after week, season after season. It makes you appreciate the accomplishments of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi racing and Andretti Autosport; who are the only teams to win the IndyCar championship since 2002. That level of consistency is amazing.

So as much as I will be following the race for the championship this season, I’m also going to be watching these four teams to see how much progress they each make from their modest beginnings this past weekend. It’ll be interesting to see who can work through the growing pains and who cannot.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Working Through The Growing Pains”

  1. I talked to a Harding crew member after the race. He said they had a fuel hose problem on the first pit stop that set them back

    • I’m actually not sure what happened to Chaves at the end of the race at St. Pete, but tracking him on Timing and Scoring all day, he ran between 7th and 10th basically all day long (minus pitstops rotations) up until that last stop. I have to wonder if that fuel hose problem was late in the race instead of early, because he ran around where he qualified, right up until the end, but then wound up the last car on the lead lap.

      Minus that late issue, I’d say that Harding deserves more like a B+ for their first road/street race.

  2. Steven Kilsdonk Says:

    Jack Harvey ran the last two races of 2017 for Schmidt after Aleshin left. Shank was not part of the entry to my knowledge.

  3. BrandonW77 Says:

    Not at all related to the article, but I bought one of the green folding chairs from IMS today. : ) They’re selling them on their website.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Harding’s success is remarkable to me because that team was not assembled from an existing race team the way the other 3 squads were.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    Not related, but I wish A.J. Foyt the best as he recovers from another bout with those damn “killer bees”.

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