Was it the Chicken or the Egg?

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We’ve all heard the question; Which was first, the chicken or the egg? There is a form of that question in all forms of sports – Is it the coach or the player that brings success? The Florida Gators had that rap for years. Steve Spurrier produced many successful quarterbacks in the nineties, and Danny Wuerffel even won the Heisman Trophy under Spurrier. The problem was that none of them experienced any tangible success in the NFL. It was determined by all the pundits that they were actually very mediocre quarterbacks that were a product of the system that Spurrier ran.

They’ve also been asking that question for years regarding the New England Patriots. Who was the reason for their success, year after year; Bill Belichick or Tom Brady? Now that they are separated, the early returns indicate it may have been Brady, last night not withstanding – but it runs a bit deeper than that.

The same questions abound in motorsports. As the championship battle between Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden wound down, I saw some people say that Newgarden was nothing more than a product of running for Team Penske.

My first instinct was to say that’s crazy. As I thought about it, I still think it was wrong to apply that way of thinking to Newgarden, but there are some other drivers that benefited greatly from driving for Team Penske, where they may have been afterthoughts driving for lesser teams.

In other words, in some case – the driver was actually a product of the system.

No offense to Ryan Briscoe, but he may be a perfect example of someone who greatly benefited from the equipment he was in. He drove almost an entire season in a third car at Ganassi in 2005, before a terrifying crash at Chicagoland ended his season with two more races to go. Granted, he had the woefully underpowered Toyota engine that season, but his only single-digit finish that year was an eighth at Nashville. He also had seven finishes of nineteenth or worse. He drove in a handful of races for Dreyer & Reinbold the following year. Other than a third-place finish at Watkins Glen, Briscoe’s other results were very unremarkable.

But after a sluggish start just after he arrived at Team Penske in 2008, Briscoe was suddenly a title contender. He finished fifth in points in 2008, winning two points-paying races along the way, and an exhibition race at Surfers Paradise.

In 2009, Briscoe came within a brain-fade at Twin Ring Motegi of winning the IndyCar championship. Although he ultimately finished third in ythe championship, he won three more races in 2009. By 2010, Briscoe’s status was again under scrutiny at Team Penske. He won another race that season, but there were whispers – lots of whispers. The 2011 season was where it all fell apart, and Briscoe did not win a race. In the 2010-11 seasons, Briscoe won one race while teammate Will Power won eleven. When Briscoe won only one additional race in 2012, with second consecutive sixth-place finish in points, The Captain had seen enough.

In five seasons at Team Penske, Ryan Briscoe accumulated eight IndyCar wins. From 2013 to 2015, Briscoe drove in thirty-three races for three different teams – Ganassi, Panther and Schmidt Peterson. In those thirty-three races, he had twelve Top-Ten finishes – with a best finish of fourth. Overall, Briscoe had 131 IndyCar starts, and won all of his eight wins with Penske.

I’m not picking on Ryan Briscoe. I think he is a good driver and he was great with fans. But I think he proves my point as someone who was able to be decent in excellent equipment. The thing is, Will Power proved that Briscoe could have done a lot better than he was doing on a top team. Once he was on other teams, he slipped back into obscurity and mediocrity. That’s an example of “a system quarterback”.

There are many, many other examples of drivers who won a few wins – not necessarily because of their talents, but because of the team they were with or the equipment they were in.

Who else came to mind as I pondered this list? Well, this will anger some and they will consider me insensitive – but hear me out. The extremely popular Alex Zanardi may well have benefited by the system he was in.

Before he was signed by Chip Ganassi to replace the departed Bryan Herta after the 1995 season, Zanardi was an unemployed Formula One refugee. Across four Formula One seasons, Zanardi ran in twenty-eight races. In those twenty-eight races, he scored a total of one point. One. Granted, most of that time was at Minardi and Lotus, which never set the world on fire in the nineties – but he was considered washed up when he signed with Ganassi prior to the 1996 season.

With the most preferred package of the grid – a Reynard powered by Honda, on Firestone tires – Zanardi flourished. He finished third in the points, but still behind teammate Jimmy Vasser – who won the championship by more than a race worth of points over Michael Andretti. In fact, Andretti and Zanardi were tied in points, but Andretti took second-place on a tie-breaker.

Zanardi fit well into the Ganassi system and went on to win the 1997 and 1998 championships in dominant fashion. Zanardi decided to give Formula One another crack and went back overseas for the 1999 season, where he would drive for Williams. On paper, Williams was a destination during the nineties; but this was not bthe same Williams team that dominated in the early nineties. Remault had left, along with designer Adrian Newey. It was a disaster for Zanardi, as he failed to score a single point in sixteen races.

In the meantime, Juan Montoya filled Zanardi’s seat at Ganassi and went on to win the 1999 championship as a rookie.

Zanardi returned to CART in 2001, but not to Ganassi. Instead, he went to second-year team Mo Nunn Racing to reconnect with Mo Nunn, who he had worked with at Ganassi. It did not go well. In fifteen races, Zanardi could only manage two Top-Ten finishes – a seventh at Twin Ring Motegi, and a fourth at Toronto. Eight of those fifteen races, saw Zanardi finish twentieth or worse.

In Race Sixteen, the accident happened in Germany. Zanardi lost his legs in a horrifying crash where he was fortunate he didn’t lose his life. Since then, he has become a sentimental favorite and an inspiration. He has won gold medals in the Paralympics and competed in Ironman World Championships. Zanardi now finds himself in another fight for his life, after suffering serious injuries this past June.

Although he is a role model the way he has fought through the adversity in his life, his two CART championships may have been because of the team he was with, the equipment he had access to and the overall system he was in. I hate saying it like that, but he never came close to flourishing anywhere else but at Ganassi.

The careers of Zanardi and Christiano da Matta are eerily similar. They both won CART championships with top teams, but chased the glory in Formula One. Christiano da Matta had better results than Zanardi – at least in the first year, but Year Two was pretty much a disaster. He had won the 2002 championship driving for Newman/Haas, after a couple of fairly forgettable seasons with Frank Arciero and Cal Wells. He returned to CART in 2005 with PKV Racing. He did win a race, but the following year he moved to Dale Coyne Racing and then RuSport. In a test session at Road America, he hit a deer. He suffered severe head injuries. He was hospitalized for about six weeks. Like Zanardi, his career was cut short due to a tragic accident. But also like Zanardi, da Matta found little success from the one team where he won a championship.

There’s an old saying in racing that you are only as fast as your equipment. I’m not sure that is totally true. In fact, there are many other examples on the other side of the equation. These are the drivers that never got that big break to be in top-notch equipment. Instead, they toiled away on smaller teams, yet somehow managed to squeak out a few wins here and there. Those are the drivers I respect the most – the ones who can do something with nothing.

Of the current drivers, Sébastien Bourdais comes to mind. Yes he won four championships driving for Newman/Haas; but it has been what he has done in the past few years that has gotten my attention. Bourdais actually made winning races a somewhat common event at Dale Coyne Racing, and that’s not an easy thing to do. His first full-time season in the IndyCar Series when he ran every race was 2013, while driving for Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing. He somehow managed to carry that team to twelfth in points.

The next three seasons, Bourdais drove for Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser at KV Racing Technologies; where he won at least one race each season he was there. In 2017, Bourdais moved to Dale Coyne full-time and won the very first race driving for them at St. Petersburg. Later in May, he was on a qualifying run where he was on pace to be the fastest qualifier. That’s when things went terribly wrong. He suddenly veered to the right and went straight into the wall – a crash eerily similar to that of Gordon Smiley in 1982. I was there that day and I’ll never forget how the entire crowd on hand at IMS went silent. That suddenly erupted into a cheer as the video boards showed a conscious Bourdais being lifted into the ambulance. Miraculously, Bourdais was back in the cockpit at Gateway and finished tenth.

The next season, he repeated his win at St. Petersburg. He carried that Coyne car to seventh in the championship. After an eleventh place season in 2019, Bourdais was dumped. I’m not sure if it was Honda or Coyne, but one of the best driver had not ride for 2020.

He made a deal with AJ Foyt Enterprises to run the first four races of the 2020 season. But when the start of the season was delayed until June, Bourdais was on the sidelines, watching Tony Kanaan and Dalton Kellett split time in the car. But he managed to find himself in the car for the Harvest Grand Prix and the season-finale at St. Petersburg, where he carried the perennially slow car of Foyt’s to a remarkable fourth-place finish.

Bourdais will be in the famous No. 14 Foyt car fulltime next season. This will be the ultimate test of how great Bourdais truly is. If he can turn the Foyt car into a contender to win each week, my hat is off to him. Even if that car finishes the season in the Top-Ten, that will be like a championship. Sébastien Bourdais will be forty-two when next season starts. He has the potential to turn this into his most impressive season yet.

Justin Wilson is another driver that comes to mind, who did a lot with very little. He gave Newman/Haas their last win in 2008, and Dale Coyne his first win in 2009. Most of his IndyCar career was spent with either a fading Newman/Haas team that was a mere shell of what it once was, an under-performing Dreyer & Reinbold or Dale Coyne Racing. He won his third and final race at Texas in 2012, while driving for Coyne. Hs best IndyCar season was 2013, when he carried that Coyne car on his shoulders to a sixth-place finish in the championship.

It appeared he had finally gotten his big break, when Michael Andretti signed him for a handful of races in his No. 25 car in 2015. He finished second at Mid-Ohio and was running well at Pocono, when he was fatally injured in a fluke accident.

Justin Wilson was one of those that we always said “If only we could ever see him in good equipment”. We will never know what he could have done, but his legacy is cemented for having done a lot with very little.

Wilson’s story is similar to Greg Moore’s, some sixteen years earlier. When going up against the best in CART, Forsythe Racing was considered mediocre to decent. He had split with Tim Green after 1994, but somehow the Players sponsorship made its way back to Gerry Forsythe, after originally going with Green. The big teams then were Penske, Ganassi, Team Green, Newman/Haas and Rahal. Forsythe Racing got lost in the shuffle.

But still young Canadian Greg Moore made a lot of people take notice with what he did on a smaller team. He won only five races in four years with Forsythe, but he earned every one of them – and in impressive fashion.

What other drivers fall into the “system” category? At first, I thought Danny Sullivan might, but he won before and after his time at Penske. Maybe you can think of great drivers who did a lot with nothing and never got that one big break in their careers. Maybe you can come up with one who fits both categories – you know, they did well with lesser teams but pounced on their opportunity once they got it. I can already think of one off the bat – the first driver mentioned in this discussion – Josef Newgarden.

It is an interesting discussion to ponder in the offseason. Does the driver make the team or does the team make the driver? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

George Phillips

2 Responses to “Was it the Chicken or the Egg?”

  1. Being able to work in, and being willing to work in a proven, successful system is almost always going to produce better long term results that being truly great at something because you are better than any system.
    The really special, long term results happen when the great person gets the opportunity to work in a proven system, and is willing to work within that system.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    One of the great challenges with this question is that a lot of very accomplished drivers simply do not give us large sample sizes of data away from the teams where they achieve their greatest successes. I have little doubt that Scott Dixon could win lots of races and compete for championships with several other Indycar teams, but he’s never really had a chance to prove that as all but 23 of his career starts have come with Ganassi. One might say the same about Rick Mears or Helio Castroneves, who made all but 11 and 39 of their starts, respectively, with Penske.

    To honest, Newgarden has quite a lot more to point to than Dixon does away from his current team. Newgarden won 3 races for Ed Carpenter and was as much of a championship contender as anyone not named Simon Pagenaud in 2016 while at Carpenter (and in spite of being injured in that awful wreck at Texas). Speaking of, Pagenaud is another driver who has proven himself away from Penske, winning 4 races for Schmidt and contending for the championship there 3 straight years with much of his funding coming from Ric Peterson’s pocket. In fact, Pagenaud finished in the top 5 in the standings on three occasions for Schmidt, as many as he has for Roger Penske. Will Power too has victories and a top five points finish away from Penske.

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