A Curious Choice

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For years I’ve made it clear that I don’t consider myself a journalist in any shape, form or fashion. I’m a blogger, which means that I’m a fan that writes about being a fan. I’m very fortunate that I get IndyCar credentials, but I always try to remember my place and never overstep my bounds when I’m at races. I realize those credentials can be taken away if I abuse my privileges.

Having said all that, I am very aware that even bloggers have to adhere to some standards if they are to have any credibility with their readership. I’ve been doing this for almost ten years and I’m fortunate to have built up a very loyal following of knowledgeable readers. This site may not have the largest following, but I’ll stack their knowledge and loyalty up against anyone’s. I feel like I have a pretty good reputation of at least being reasonable – even if someone has a totally different opinion than I do.

But it doesn’t take long to destroy a reputation that you’ve spent years building – Emerson Fittipaldi drinking orange juice in Victory Lane comes to mind. Patriots owner Robert Kraft has provided us a more recent example.

I’ve always thought that the reason so many of you have been coming here for so long is because I give my honest opinion. You may completely disagree with my opinion, but you know I always pretty well mean what I say. That’s why it pains me to write what I’m about to say. Some might ask why write it, just ignore the topic. If I was smarter, that’s probably what I should do. But it would also be disingenuous of me, since it pertains to the Indianapolis 500 and I’ve got some pretty solid opinions on it. If I’m going to freely come down on drivers I don’t particularly care for, I’ve got to be able to dish it out on the drivers I do. So here goes…

Today it will become official on what we learned Monday regarding Pippa Mann’s plans for this year’s Indianapolis 500. For the first time since her rookie “500” in 2011 when she drove for Eric Bachelart, she will be driving for someone other than Dale Coyne. From 2013 through last May, Pippa was entered in a Dale Coyne car. She qualified for each race until last season, when she and James Hinchcliffe were both bumped from the field.

I don’t think there is any bad blood between Coyne and Mann. I think their working relationship had simply run its course. Last year’s Indianapolis 500 was their sixth year together, even though she did not qualify. That’s a pretty long time in racing, especially considering that there were other races for Pippa at other tracks with Coyne interspersed throughout that time. Everything I heard through that time pointed to a good relationship between the two. I just think this was strictly a business decision for them to not be together anymore.

Pippa Mann’s new team for the Indianapolis 500 is just that – a new team. Clauson-Marshall Racing (is that CMR or C-MR?) will be making their first-ever attempt at the NTT IndyCar Series at Indianapolis. I never understood why rookies and rookie teams break in at the biggest race of the year. It seems like they should start at Gateway or some other oval and then graduate to the Indianapolis 500 the next season, but what do I know?

Clauson-Marshall Racing is partly owned by Tim Clauson, father of the late Bryan Clauson, along with Richard Marshall – a longtime friend and partner of the Clauson family. Bryan Clauson was Pippa Mann’s teammate in the 2016 Indianapolis 500 with Dale Coyne Racing. Less than three months later, Clauson was fatally injured in a midget crash at Belleville, Kansas at the age of twenty-seven.

Clauson-Marshall Racing has been a very successful USAC short track racing team. But in 2019, they will be making their first attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. They will be receiving some technical support from AJ Foyt Enterprises, which will help – but other than showing some speed last year, Foyt’s team has not been known for setting a blistering pace in recent years.

To the disdain of many older fans of the Indianapolis 500, not much of what is learned on the short tracks and dirt tracks throughout the Midwest translates to success in today’s modern Indy car. From the beginning of the twentieth century through the mid-sixties, fans would find midget and sprint car drivers to pull for all the way until they started driving the big cars that raced at Indianapolis. It was a natural progression.

With the British Invasion of the sixties came the rear-engine car. Suddenly, places like Winchester and Salem were no longer the proving grounds for aspiring Indianapolis 500 drivers. By the eighties, drivers who cut their teeth in Europe were suddenly showing up on the grid at Indianapolis. It didn’t take long for other than the occasional Tony Stewart, Sarah Fisher, Ed Carpenter or Bryan Clauson – for a driver with American short track experience in IndyCar was a thing of the past.

From what I understand, this will be the first time in thirty years that the reigning USAC sprint car championship team to enter the Indianapolis 500. Who was the last? According to Trackside Online’s Steve Wittich, it was Stoops Express Racing, with Steve Butler as the driver. They didn’t make the race.

Granted, there were fourteen drivers and even more cars that didn’t make that race, but I think it helps underscore just how tough the transition is from USAC to an Indy car in the Indianapolis 500, no matter how successful they are in USAC.

There will not be up to fifty cars entered for this year’s Indianapolis 500, but the general consensus is that there will be more than last year’s thirty-five. Most likely, there will be up to thirty-eight cars entered, meaning that as many as five cars will be going home.

This is the part that hurts to write; but with the deck already stacked against a brand new team coming in from another discipline – why would they choose a driver who failed to qualify for the race the last time she was in an Indy car, with a proven team?

There is the argument that Dale Coyne was spread too thin last May. They already had Sébastien Bourdais and an unexpected Zachary Claman DeMelo, a rookie who inherited the ride after Pietro Fittipaldi was injured at Spa. Added to that was Conor Daly and Pippa Mann in extra cars. Daly was having trouble getting up to speed on Fast Friday and perhaps they were throwing their energies toward his car, assuming Pippa would be fast enough. When the gun went off Saturday afternoon, it was Pippa who couldn’t find the speed.

I consider Pippa Mann a friend. She and I first started conversing via Twitter in 2010 and she and I visited twice just after she qualified for her first “500” in 2011; first just outside of her garage and again later in the Media Center. She had impressed me by qualifying for Eric Bachelart’s Conquest Racing, when his fulltime driver, Sebastian Saavedra, failed to make the race. She also did herself proud in the race, starting thirty-second and finishing twentieth.

Pippa was always kind to me and gave this site a lot of publicity in the early years. At Barber, she would come over to Susan and me in the Media Center and just sit and talk – most times about racing, other times just about life. We always had a good relationship with her. When I wrote an article that she liked, she would e-mail me and tell me. When I wrote something incorrect or that she disagreed with, she would e-mail me then too. Over the years, she told me a lot of behind-the-scenes info that I never shared here and never will. It was told to me in confidence as some good “need to know” information, but was never intended for me to ever print. I didn’t.

We don’t converse as much as we used to, but we’ve had no falling out. She’s now married and has a life of her own. Her career has also taken her to other forms of racing away from IndyCar. But she has been a constant at Indianapolis for the last several years. Even when she didn’t make the race last year, she was still doing appearances at the track on Race Morning for her sponsor.

That friendship is what makes this tough to write, and I hope she doesn’t take this personally if she reads this. But I think this was a curious choice – for both team and driver. Even though there are to be more cars since 2011 entered this year, there are still a lot more available drivers than cars. I would think that there are other available drivers that give a start-up team a better shot at making the field than Pippa Mann.

Conversely, I think there are probably other teams that would be willing to give Pippa a shot in one of their cars that have a much better chance at making the thirty-three car field than Clauson-Marshall Racing. Pippa doesn’t have the best reputation for keeping her car out of the fence in practice or qualifying, but she normally brings her car home in one piece on Race Day. Her last contact with the wall during the Indianapolis 500 came in 2013 when she finished thirtieth. Since then, she has improved her finishing position every year through her last race in 2017, when she finished seventeenth.

If Pippa Mann’s on-track results aren’t spectacular, her tireless efforts for sponsors are. I’ve already told you how personable I have found her over the years. That’s not because I’m so wonderful, she interacts well with all fans. She gets social media and is a savvy user of it. In doing so, she has created quite a brand for herself.

Normally, Pippa Mann doesn’t have a ride locked up until about mid-April. Perhaps that uncertainty has worn on her over the years and she decided to take a firm offer in February, rather than wait to see what was out there in April. It could be that she’s surveyed the landscape of available rides and figures this was her best option. OK, I get that. Pippa is now thirty-five and only has a few realistic chances left, so it probably makes sense to take a sure thing.

But what about Clauson-Marshall Racing? I know that Pippa and the late Bryan Clauson were teammates for one race in 2016, but was their bond that strong that Bryan’s father would hire Pippa three years later for their inaugural attempt at the Indianapolis 500? This is an important hire for them, in order to build their foundation for future years. Not making the race as a one-off driver can be a financial disaster, just imagine how much that’s magnified for a one-off team.

There are a lot of capable drivers out there with more recent IndyCar experience, and with better results. Gabby Chaves immediately comes to mind, as does Stefan Wilson. They both finished fourteenth and fifteenth respectively in last year’s Indianapolis 500. As far as I know, neither of them have rides for this May. I believe the aforementioned Zachary Claman DeMelo is currently without a ride for May also.

I’ve always said that if I won the lottery anytime soon and started my own team, Oriol Servia would be one of the first drivers I would call. His engineering degree would come in handy with a start-up team, and I believe he is still available for May.

Probably the most attractive driver still on the market for May is Carlos Muñoz, although I still think that he may wind up in a sixth Andretti car before it’s all said and done. I’ve never been a big fan, but I don’t think Jay Howard has any plans for May. Every one of these drivers I’ve mentioned drove in the 2018 “500”. Surely, Clauson-Marshall could get at least one of them to talk.

What about Saavedra? He is a lot more seasoned than he was when he got out-qualified by Pippa in 2011. I’ve not mentioned JR Hildebrand or Sage Karam because I think they will both return to Dreyer & Reinbold, but that has not been confirmed yet.

So it’s a curious choice for both sides. Maybe neither side wanted to be fishing for deals in March and April. I guess we’ll find out today if they have sponsorship in place. If so, and having a driver already locked up – all they have to do is prepare for the Indianapolis 500 with AJ Foyt’s team helping out. With all of that in place by February – that’s a huge piece of the puzzle.

So if you think I’ve been a little hard on Pippa in this post, let me say this – there will be no one cheering harder for this combo to succeed than me. If they made the field at the expense of five or so drivers and cars; that would be one of the biggest upsets in qualifying the track has seen in years. In a race already filled with storylines, this would be a big one.

So while I seriously doubt that will happen, I wish Pippa Mann and Clauson-Marshall Racing all the luck in the world this May. They’re going to need it.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “A Curious Choice”

  1. I agree George. I would think the team would have more success with a different driver. I’m guessing Poppa is bringing some sponsorship. This team will struggle.

  2. BrandonW77 Says:

    Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s definitely a feel-good story. Not sure if I speak for everyone but I’ve always felt that Indy fans hold Pippa and Bryan in a special place, they may not have set the track on fire but they are as passionate as anyone and were welcomed as family. So for the two of them to come together for the big race warms my heart. I just hope the Foyt partnership will be more of a help than a hindrance. Best of luck to all of them!

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    Lest we forget …….. Indy’s background is that of the one-off, perhaps obscure new team challenging the powers to be ………………

    It is such history that continues to evolve what the Indianapolis 500 what it has become to motor sports.

  4. BrandonW77 Says:

    Um, did the site suddenly get really small for anyone else? This morning it filled my screen as usual but now all of a sudden it has 4pt type and I can barely read it? This is across three browsers and two devices. Maybe it’s just something on my end…

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      N … A……..S…….C………A………… R……….. taking control of your devises………………………..

  5. I also consider Pippa a friend but I at least partly agree with George. I believe this partnership was formed mostly for sentimental reasons. And Pippa loves the race so much she works year round to be a part of it. They will obviously need to find an engineer and crew with IndyCar experience. They will probably be part time or older guys, but that’s the same situation she had at Coyne. It will be a challenge to make the race but not impossible.

  6. Pippa was sponsored by an organ donor campaign last year and that might be the connection to the Clausons.

    But yeah, I’d rather take Oriol Servia or Hildebrand. Both have engineering backgrounds and both are solid at Indy.

  7. Spot on, George. I too like Pippa (though I’ve not met her,) and wish her the best, but this grouping seems questionable at best. You KNOW how I feel about AJ, but that team has enough issues putting TK and Leist in the show, plus a potential third car in house. Their engineering has at times been less than stellar, and this is the area where the ownership group is going to need the most assistance.

    All that said, I do recall that AJ was the person who gave Janet Guthrie her first competitive ride at IMS, though she did not attempt to qualify. So, whatever Foyt Racing can give them, it will be the best they can offer. I guess I can only hope it’s enough.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I’m curious as to the driver (pun intended) behind this partnership. Is this Pippa simply assembling a ride from a chassis and engine partner (Foyt) and a group with a local shop and personnel (Clauson-Marshall) after raising the necessary funding or is Clauson-Marshall interested in the 500 going forward, perhaps as a future showcase for their short track drivers and sponsors? I lean towards the former, but would be very interested in seeing the latter come to fruition (it would need to be paired with an Indy Lights program at the Freedom 100, which almost any short tracker would have to contest before even thinking of running the 500).

    As far as the general question being asked here, I do not find Pippa to be a curious choice in general or for a new team. She is a 500 veteran and has a proven track record of shaking the money tree well enough to fund a car. There are plenty of drivers looking for a 500 ride, but I’m not sure the list who meet both of those criteria is all that long.

    In any event, this whole deal is far less curious than past head-scratchers such as Chase Austin/Foyt, Ryan Phinney/KV, Katherine Legge/Grace, and Tristen Gommendy/Schmidt… which is good, because none of those deals ever pulled into a garage.

  9. If I remember correctly, I believe last year she was using a road course car in speedway trim. I do not know the complete specifications, but I am sure this had a slight impact on the overall aerodynamics of the car. I just got the impression that last year her car simply was not good enough and driver skill was not to blame. If she gets the right set up, I firmly believe she will have a solid chance at qualifying and while we can debate about the driver, I think it is going to be the team that will impact whether Pippa Mann is racing in May or not.

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