A Disturbing Pattern That Has Been Emerging

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If you are a fan of the show Curb Your Enthusiasm, you may have seen the episode of Larry David and Richard Lewis encountering a blind man on the street, who needed some help moving some furniture into his apartment. Giving the fact that he was blind, of course they agreed to help. When they got in there, they found him to be extremely rude, nasty and demanding; as he guilt-tripped them into helping him. As it turned out, he was simply a rotten person who treated people poorly. The point of the episode was that just because someone has a disability, does not automatically make them a saint.

This post will upset some, because I am going to venture into an area that most stay away from for obvious reasons. I’m going to be critical of Sam Schmidt.

We all know Schmidt’s story. He was a decent driver who finally excelled in the IRL when he got a good ride with Treadway Racing in 1999. He won his next to last race in his career, at Las Vegas, before closing out the season with a twenty-second place finish at Texas, dropping him to fifth in the standings for the 1999 season. That would be his last season to drive. On January 6, 2000; Schmidt was in a testing crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando. Schmidt has been a quadriplegic ever since, and was placed on a respirator for five months.

After undergoing grueling physical therapy, it became obvious that Schmidt would most likely remain a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Schmidt was only thirty-five at the time of his crash. He knew he had to find something he could do while confined to a wheel chair. He drew inspiration from successful Formula One owner, Sir Frank Williams – whose teams had won four World Championships in the nineties. Sam Schmidt Motorsports was born in 2001, with Davey Hamilton as the driver.

Hamilton, himself, was severely injured at Texas; so drivers Richie Hearn, Jaques Lazier, Alex Barron and Anthony Lazzaro took turns in the car to finish out the season. When the Infiniti Pro Series (which was eventually re-branded Indy Lights) began operations in 2002, Schmidt decided to concentrate his efforts there, while running an Indy-only program in the top series. Sam Schmidt Motorsports won their first Indy Lights championship in 2004. From 2004 through 2013, Schmidt won seven Indy Lights championships

Sam Schmidt was an inspiration to many. It would have been easy to just hide from the world or just give up. Instead, he confronted his disability head-on and proved to the world that he could still be successful in racing. He turned his own tragedy into a heartwarming and inspirational story.

But early on in my career as a lowly blogger, I began to hear disparaging whispers among many in the IMS Media Center about Sam Schmidt. The general gist of the comments was that you probably didn’t want to enter any business dealings with Schmidt, because you would probably come out on the wrong end. To say he was shrewd would be kind. He had the reputation of being a ruthless businessman, even a decade ago.

Since I first heard those comments, I’ve seen Schmidt buy Alex Tagliani’s FAZZT Racing Team, and unceremoniously dump Tags from the team he founded shortly thereafter. Was it his legal right to do so? Absolutely. Was it the right thing to do? Not in my opinion. I’ve also seen Schmidt wrangle sponsorship away from Davey Hamilton and cast away promising drivers like Tristan Vautier after one dismal rookie season.

To his credit, Sam Schmidt has been very honorable in his treatment of Robert Wickens after his terrifying crash at Pocono in 2018, that left him a paraplegic. I don’t know the particulars, but Schmidt has been extremely supportive of Wickens in his rehabilitation and recovery since the accident. It appears that Wickens has received the best possible care and is making great strides in walking completely unassisted at some point.

In my opinion, that was negated by his treatment of James Hinchcliffe last August. When Honda positively refused to do business with McLaren, they sought out either an association with a Chevy team, or a Honda team that might flip to Chevy. Schmidt was more than willing to end his thirteen relationship with Honda, in order to have access to McLaren’s deep pockets. Hinchcliffe had also had a long association with Honda that he was not as eager to sever.

Both parties said all the right things, but you knew this was not going to last. I was certain that Hinch would not drive for the new Chevy-powered McLaren team paired with Schmidt. Even Schmidt made it clear that Hinchcliffe would not be driving the car, but was still under contract to entertain sponsors on race weekends, while wearing a Chevy polo. It was going to be awkward at best.

When Hinchcliffe was shown on the cover of the ESPN – The Magazine “Body Issue” in a nude, but non-revealing photo-shoot; sponsor Arrow was not amused. From what I understand, Hinchcliffe was lucky to get to drive in the season finale at Laguna Seca for the team. He was officially unceremoniously dumped later in the offseason, after practically all the rides were filled for 2020.

James Hinchcliffe was almost killed in a Schmidt car at Indianapolis in 2015, due to a suspension failure. Hinch responded by putting his car on the pole there the following year. This was Schmidt’s way of thanking him for his dedicated service. Hinch is way too classy to publicly speak any ill-will about Sam Schmidt, but I always wondered what he would say privately after a couple of adult beverages.

This is why what happened on Monday didn’t surprise me.

Arrow McLaren SP, the team formerly known as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, announced that rookie Oliver Askew would not be returning to the team in 2021. Askew did not drive in the Harvest Grand Prix double-header earlier this month, due to lingering effects from a concussion suffered in a hard crash during the Indianapolis 500 this past August. He drove in the double-headers at Gateway and Mid-Ohio, but sought medical advice on his own.

According to Marshall Pruett of Racer.com, Askew’s handlers made some pointed remarks in an interview, questioning whether or not the team cared about Askew’s medical well-being. This went over with the team about as well as Hinchcliffe’s nude photo shoot did last year. Now Askew has been bounced for embarrassing a team that has many self-inflicted black-eyes over the years.

This time last season, I wished nothing but bad luck for this team that had acted so callous in kicking Honda and Hinchcliffe to the curb. I swore I would never cheer for their drivers again. But watching the young drivers, Askew and Pato O’Ward, start to emerge – I found myself pulling for the two black and papaya orange Arrow McLaren SP cars. Pato O’Ward is a true talent, and Askew brought a very calculating approach to the team. O’Ward had better results, but Askew was a true rookie. I’m not quite sure what they expected out of him.

Askew now joins Tristan Vautier as a reigning Indy Lights champion hired by Sam Schmidt only to be dumped after one season. I hope Askew has a brighter future than Vautier. After his 2013 season with Schmidt, Vautier got fill-in work with Dale Coyne in 2015 and drove in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 for Coyne. Other than that, Vautier has not gotten a sniff in IndyCar. I feel like Askew will not suffer that fate.

This appeared to open the door for Helio Castroneves to join the team. I like Helio and want to see him back in IndyCar, but not at the expense of a talented young driver like Askew. I thought Helio would be a good fit in a third car as an addition to their stable of drivers. I didn’t like the fact that he might be replacing one.

Helio Castroneves drove for image-conscious Roger Penske for twenty-one years without any significant incidents. Penske stood by Helio during his tax-evasion trial and supported him. The powers-that-be at Arrow McLaren SP appear to be very thin-skinned. Helio Castroneves wears his emotions on his sleeve. I wondered how long it would take Helio to be shown the exit, just like Hinch and Askew were. Had Askew’s departure been a one-time anomaly, I could accept it much better. Unfortunately this is a disturbing pattern that has been emerging with Sam Schmidt for years.

But late last night, we got the surprising word that Felix Rosenqvist would be leaving Chip Ganassi Racing to join Arrow McLaren SP to replace Askew. Chip Ganassi claims that Rosenqvist still has a year on his contract after this season. Yet, all signs point to Rosenqvist leaving Ganassi to drive the No. 7 car at Arrow McLaren SP in 2021. I’m not sure where that leaves Helio, nor do I understand why Rosenqvist is making this move. I sure hope he knows what he is getting into.

Sam Schmidt is an inspiration to anyone that is going through adversity. There are not many situations I can think of that are worse than the world Sam Schmidt has lived in for the past twenty years. The way he has overcome adversity is an example to us all. I just wish he would apply what he has learned through adversity, to his business tactics.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “A Disturbing Pattern That Has Been Emerging”

  1. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    I think I would prefer to eat Spam than drive for it🤢

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    A couple thoughts come to mind

    Rosenqvist possibly being elevated to Team Leader rather than not able to advance (Chip Ganassi Racing) beyond second fiddle…… ?

    Rosenqvist possibly offered the full-time opportunity (freedom) to continually charge for a first place race finish …. ?

    Rosenqvist not helping another driver finish first while (Rosenqvist) always being relegated (aka team orders) to finishing second……. ?

    Having the opportunity to drive for an internationally known team (not just a USA Team) with a world-wide Formula One heritage and become a part of that heritage ….. ?

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Given the news about Rosenquist, it would appear now that the Askew move was really made to clear a seat for Felix. Even so, and even as Rosenquist is probably an upgrade over Askew (at least in the near-term), AMSP’s timing and manner is simply awful just as it was when Hinch was let go… another defensible decision done in an indefensible manner.

    Rosenquist has been a low key disappointment this year despite his win at Road America, falling 4 spots in the standings and having that win as his only podium finish. Alex Palou also has one podium finish this year, as does… Oliver Askew. Perhaps Felix feels his poor luck this year might change with a new team and crew. Graham Rahal departed Ganassi several years ago because he felt that he didn’t quite get what the team promised him, perhaps Rosenquist has a similar story. Or maybe McLaren is simply tossing money around.

  4. Thankfully Helio is out of the conversation now with Felix moving over to take the seat. So many drivers trying to get a ride in Indycar, with Oliver being one of them now, I still have no clue who we still need to be recycling old washups like Kanaan and Castroneves especially now talking about them in good rides. I don’t mind them rotting their legacy in crapboxes as much, much the same as Johnny Rutherford or Gordon Johncock, not knowing when enough is enough, but Helio is far past a prime ride. Wish money would be keep him at SPAM for an Indy only thing in exchange for working with their younger guys, I don’t think Helio even has it for Indy anymore but appease him in exchange for some help with Pato and Felix. Full time though? Ugh, go away guys, give someone else a shot.

  5. While I understand the need to bring along younger talent in the series, referring to 20-ish year veterans of the series as “old washups” is totally disrespectful of the impact TK and Helio have had the series. These two bridged a gap from the darkest days of the mid-late 90’s to now, a time when the series struggled for an identity as well as recognition.

  6. Does Askew bring money outside of his Indy Lights check? There are more drivers than rides and unless you put up wins or fund your own car, you better be a saint on and off the track. If he or his team have a problem with the team it would be very wise to keep that in house. McLaren is on the verge of big things in IndyCar and it is a shame for Askew will not be a part of it.

  7. Jim Gallo Says:

    Since reading stories about all the changes at AMSP, I’ve been trying to piece this together as well.
    First thing, I know very little of the details and zero of the inner details.
    Questions that come to mind involve what is the real physical condition of Oliver and why did Felix leave such a highly rated team as Ganassi?
    Maybe the new AMSP is now on a level of Ganassi?
    And maybe Felix feels he would be the lead driver, not 3rd or 4th with Chip.
    The Jimmie Johnson factor? Where does that fill in?
    Helio is another wild card. He says he will have an announcement in about 4 weeks? What’s he holding?
    George, you are very right in your assessment of Sam. He has been a visible inspiration to countless individuals who face adversity I could never imagine. But behind the scenes, ruthlessness must abound. Possible bed judgment by Hinch and Oliver may have played into decisions, but really?
    Thanks for your insight here. Should be an interesting next few weeks to start with.

  8. I wonder how much say Arrow has. They seemed to be the ones most pissed off about Hinchcliffe doing the photo shoot.

  9. Bruce Waine Says:

    Photos shoots?

    What of the Danica photo shoots … ?

    Model or race driver …… ?

    Hinch dumped…… and yet Danica tolerated?

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