Dale Coyne: Villain or Victim?

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If you read Robin Miller’s mailbag this week on Racer.com, it was quite obvious that people were very upset with the way that Sébastien Bourdais was let go by Dale Coyne last month. They were equating it with the way that James Hinchcliffe had been kicked to the curb just a few weeks earlier by Arrow McLaren SP.

When it happened, I thought it was poor timing on Coyne’s part but it sounded strictly like a business decision – just like Spencer Pigot getting cut loose from ECR just a week or so earlier. But the way fans were vilifying Coyne in this situation, I began to rethink my position. To put it mildly, fans were upset with Coyne.

Since the open-wheel reunification of 2008, Dale Coyne has morphed into a lovable elder statesman type of role, who is known for squeezing the most out of every dollar from his under-funded team.

But many have forgotten about his partnership in the mid-nineties with NFL Hall-of-Famer Walter Payton that was named Payton Coyne Racing. Payton passed away in the fall on 1999, but just after his illness was announced in February of that same year, Payton sued Dale Coyne. Payton alleged that Coyne had sold a portion of Payton’s shares in CART stock, given to each team before the CART public offering at $16 a share. Just before the suit, CART shares were trading at over $25 a share – meaning that Payton Coyne Racing was holding shares worth over $18 million.

According to an agreement with Coyne on April 26, 1996; Payton was to receive 17% of the stock shares. However, the suit contended that he had not received a single share of the stock or a single penny from the sale of the stock which should have been over $3 million due to Payton.

To be honest, I don’t know how the lawsuit turned out. Payton died about eight months later and I seem to recall some type of settlement with his family – but twenty years removed has caused my memory to fade on the details. But perception is hard to live down. Since that suit was announced, it always caused me to think of Mr. Coyne as less-than-reputable. If the suit had no merit and it was an accounting oversight, then that should have been made known and just as public as the lawsuit in order to not cast Coyne in such a bad light.

Like everyone else, I have grown to appreciate what Dale Coyne brings to this sport. He is the perennial underdog and who doesn’t like rooting for an underdog – especially when they win occasionally? On a small budget, he somehow manages to get at least two cars to the grid for every race. Some years are leaner than others. I never quite understood how the Boy Scout sponsorship worked, but I don’t think it brought a ton of money to the team. He is the largest franchisee in the Sonny’s BBQ franchise and seemingly spent his own money plastering their name on the side of his cars for years.

When Justin Wilson gave Coyne his first-ever victory at Watkins Glen in 2009 – it was the feel-good story of the season. It also happened to be the only race of that season not won by a Penske or Ganassi car.

Since that first win, Dale Coyne racing has won five more times – most recently at St. Petersburg in 2018, when Bourdais gave the team its second consecutive season-opening win. But things didn’t go so well this season. The four-time champion went winless in finishing eleventh in the points. Honda decided that that wasn’t good enough to continuing supplying free engine-leases to Coyne; so Dale Coyne, Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan were forced to let Bourdais go in favor of a driver bringing his or her own sponsorship money.

The other thing that struck me from Robin Miller’s mailbag was how Coyne was getting all the blame for this, while co-owners Vasser and Sullivan were publicly unscathed. What about Honda? Why is no one putting any blame on them for their decision? Perhaps others remember the Walter Payton lawsuit and see this as an extension of Coyne’s business practices.

Personally, I don’t connect the two. The 1999 lawsuit was certainly not a good look for Coyne, even if there was more to the story to exonerate him. Even if he was totally at fault in that suit – I don’t think he is the villain in the Bourdais deal. It’s unfortunate, but it is the shady side of racing that has always existed to some extent. Remember when Paul Tracy brought Geico sponsorship to Jimmy Vasser and KV Racing for his Indianapolis 500 program in 2010? Vasser immediately snatched it away and kept it while putting it on Tony Kanaan’s car the next season. That, too, was slimy and caused hard feeling between Vasser and Tracy. But that’s how business is done in racing.

So is Dale Coyne the villain that canned Sébastien Bourdais late in the offseason so he could not get a ride, or is he a victim of circumstances? I think the truth lies somewhere in between, but closer to him being a victim of the circumstances cause by his small budget. With Honda pulling away free engine-leases, his margin for error was gone.

So I will defend Dale Coyne in this matter. Sure he’s to blame to some extent; but his business partners in Vasser and Sullivan, and Honda need to share the blame in this too. In the meantime, a great champion is deprived of getting to go out on his own terms. That’s the most unfortunate thing in this entire scenario.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Dale Coyne: Villain or Victim?”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Just remember that Dale said no to a trade of Seabass for Hinch about a month ago that would have let Seb continue racing for AMSP. If he had released him sooner he probably would have gotten a ride at AMSP. He also said no to Ganassi in 17 and 18 about letting Seb move there. I hate to say it but it was done without class and Dale should be ashamed. Still, it’s hard not to cheer for the Coyne team.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Coyne’s timing was odd, particularly if he knew that Honda was not going to support Bourdais’ ride for a couple of months. That would lead me to suspect that another source of funding for Bourdais’ ride fell through quite recently, but that is simply my own speculation.

    Barring additional news about how this all went down, I struggle to fault Coyne much in this. Late funding shortfalls have happened many many times in racing and they will probably happen again. It is very unfortunate for Bourdais, but it was also very unfortunate for Gabby Chaves, Graham Rahal, Oriol Servia, Max Papis, Sarah Fisher, Scott Dixon, Michael Krumm, Martin Basso, among many many many others when pretty much the same thing happened to them.

    Vasser and Sullivan are likely unscathed at this time because they are minority owners who have not, historically, put up their own money to field a car. Dale Coyne, to various extents, has done that in the past, and it is pretty easy to say that he should do so again for Bourdais. Even so, it is hard to ask team owners to spend their own money… if Dale did so every year he wouldn’t have two coynes to rub together.

    • I’ll go ahead and second every word of this. It’s times like reading some of the volcanic anger aimed at Dale Coyne that make me sort of glad that I only have a fraction of the time to follow the sport that I used to…

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    While reading the Alonzo article this morning in Racer.com made me reflect on your article George.

    Here we have two INDY Car drivers cast to the unemployment dust bin due to team”financial” issues: while other drivers, it may seem, just sit back and apparently pick – choose and the race car (poof) magically appears at the beck and call of the driver.

    Oh, yes, please what series would you like to drive in this month ? ?

    The realities of the INDY Car Race world…………………

    https://racer.com/2019/12/06/alonso-promises-indy-return-mclaren-and-andretti-strongest-options/

    • There are only 5 drivers ever who have scored more wins in F1 than that Alonso guy you speak of (plus there’s those two World Driving Championships). Being able to do a certain amount of “becking and calling” is sort of what guys with stat lines are able to do. It’s kind of the whole point.

  4. I love racing but these are the reasons it’s hard to call it a legitimate sport. The “BEST” are not always awarded a drive. Generally in other sports the “Best” are the ones represented on the field, court, Ice, etc…….😟

  5. It’s somewhat unforutnate for a fan to see Boudais lose his ride like this, but turning to Sportscars brings him closer again to having another go at winning his original home race, the 24 hours of Le Mans.

    It’s going to be interesting who is going to drive the #18 next season. My guess is it might not even be a full-time driver. That opens up the door to a lot of people. We’ll see how that turns out.
    If Coyne wants to have another go at winning Indy, an oval specialist of sorts would be a good choice. We’ll see how that develops.

  6. I wanted to wait until I had read Marshall’s article from this week on driver contracts before I commented. I guess contracts are not worth the paper on which they are written. Nothing is iron clad in racing. I’d understand if there was a performance clause, but I haven’t read anything about that in regards to Sebastien (or James for that matter). For me it is the timing of the firing/demotion that truly bothers me. And then to learn that Dale Coyne had refused to give up Seb twice (once to Ganassi and recently to SPAM to replace James). As I have been recently reminded by racing pals, racing is a business after all. Yes, it is, but it doesn’t mean I have to like these actions.

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