Dale Coyne Should Finally Get Some Credit

As I watched Alex Palou take the stage after Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, I kept thinking how far he had come from his debut at Texas in 2020 when he was taken out by fellow rookie Rinus VeeKay. In less than sixteen months, he went from making his IndyCar debut in a hot pink and black car with no sponsorship on the sidepods in a car owned by Dale Coyne in association with Team Goh, to NTT IndyCar Series champion.

To be honest, I had never heard of Alex Palou until he was announced as driver of the No. 55 entry for the 2020 IndyCar season. That’s no real surprise, since I don’t follow any support or feeder series. I know I should follow the Road to Indy, but my attention span can handle only so much. I just wait until they make it into IndyCar, before learning anything about them. Note to self…I need to brush up on Callum Ilot before next season, since he has now been announced as the fulltime driver for Juncos Hollinger Racing for the 2022 season.

If I’m being more honest, I was shocked when Palou was hired by Chip Ganassi for the No. 10 car. The only reason that seat was vacant was because Felix Rosenqvist bolted for the No. 7 car at Arrow McLaren SP, in what I thought was a very curious move at the time. Rosenqvist had just won his first IndyCar race last season at Road America. He finished eleventh in the standings, but it seemed like things were coming together for Rosenqvist at Ganassi. This season, Rosenqvist finished twenty-first in the standings and is lucky to still have a ride for 2022.

Palou finished sixteenth last season for Dale Coyne. He had three Top-Ten finishes and one podium finish – a third-place finish at Road America. The rest of Palou’s 2020 season was non-descript with six finishes of fifteenth or lower. It wasn’t necessarily a bad rookie season, but it certainly didn’t scream that he should be picked up by the reigning championship team. When I first heard the hiring, I shrugged and figured it would end up about the same way that the Ed Jones hiring did for that car in 2018. That hiring was over in one season.

There is one common thread that runs between Jones and Palou – Dale Coyne Racing.

When Dale Coyne Racing (DCR) was formed in 1984, it was to give Coyne the driver, a place to race. He attempted to qualify twice for the Indianapolis 500, in 1988 and 1989. He failed to make most of the other CART races on the schedule, but finally made the grid at Mid-Ohio, where he finished fourteenth – in what ended up being his only race in 1984. Most of his 1985 schedule was made up of DNQs, as well. For 1986, Coyne even built his own chassis; the DC-1 but the results did not improve. In 1987, he bought a year-old March 86C. His two best finishes were a fifteenth at the Meadowlands, and a seventeenth at Road America.

1988 saw the first DCR driver not named Dale Coyne qualify for a race. Dominic Dobson qualified at Phoenix and finished twenty-sixth. In 1989, Coyne put four other drivers besides himself in his cars – Guido Daccò, John Paul, Jr., the legendary Fulvio Ballabio (that was sarcasm, by the way) and Ken Johnson.

Through 1990, it seemed that Dale Coyne’s low-budget operation was a haven for older drivers desperate for one last shot. Then in 1991, Coyne had a shift in philosophy – he would employ up and coming drivers that were just looking for a shot. Just a few of Coyne’s 1991 drivers included Buddy Lazier, Paul Tracy, Jeff Ward and Dennis Vitolo. One would eventually win the Indianapolis 500, two would win series championships, one would end up a fairly decent driver and one would become a punch line. I’ll let you decided who was what.

Over the years, Dale Coyne signed a lot of drivers – and I mean a lot of drivers to drive his cars. Some went on to great careers elsewhere, some had decent careers elsewhere and some faded into obscurity to never be heard from again.

Just some of the many names that drove for Coyne over the years included future team-owner Eric Bachelart, Johnny Unser, Robbie Buhl, Brian Till, Alessandro Zampedri, Franck Fréon, Christian Danner, Roberto Moreno, Michel Jourdain, Jr., Memo Gidley, Alex Barron, Tarso Marques, Darren Manning, Gualter Salles, Oriol Servia, Christian da Matta, Mario Dominguez, Katherine Legge, Bruno Junqueira, Mario Moraes, Justin Wilson, Tomas Scheckter, Alex Lloyd, Milka Duno, James Jakes, Sébastien Bourdais, Ana Beatriz, Mike Conway, Pippa Mann, Stefan Wilson, James Davison, Carlos Huertas, Tristan Vautier, Conor Daly, RC Enerson, Ed Jones, Santino Ferrucci, Alex Palou, Pietro Fittipaldi and Romain Grosjean. That’s probably less than half of the total drivers that have spent time at Dale Coyne Racing.

Just in the last few years, Dale Coyne Racing has served as a stepping stone for several drivers to move on to greener pastures. Justin Wilson moved to Andretti Autosport, while Ed Jones moved on to Ganassi. Just this year, Romain Grosjean parlayed his great season with a low-budget team, into a ride with Andretti Autosport. We already know what happened with Palou, after he spent the 2020 season with Dale Coyne.

My point is that Dale Coyne Racing is o longer the laughing stock that it was in the eighties and nineties. The team that sometimes struggled to answer the bell each season, won their first race when Justin Wilson carried the team to victory at Watkins Glen in 2009. Three seasons later, Wilson won again for DCR at Texas. Altogether, Dale Coyne has visited an IndyCar victory lane six times with four different drivers. The last win came in 2018 at St. Petersburg, with Sébastien Bourdais behind the wheel.

Dale Coyne has gone from funding a team so he could go racing himself, to a low-budget production with a revolving door of drivers that no one took seriously, to a team that can and occasionally does win races. No one will ever confuse Dale Coyne Racing with Penske, Ganassi, Andretti or McLaren; but performance-wise – I would put DCR in the same ballpark with Ed Carpenter Racing, Meyer Shank and possibly even Rahal, except that Rahal has won the Indianapolis 500 a couple of times and Sato has won a few times since Coyne has. But DCR is definitely ahead of Foyt, Carlin and Juncos.

Dale Coyne is often overlooked when it comes to IndyCar team owners. He’s not one for the limelight and would prefer to blend into the background. He doesn’t stage big productions with scantily clad women, like some bigger teams have in the past, to announce driver signings. His team usually just issues a press release, many times just days before the season starts.

Even though he may not be very visible, other teams have taken notice of the drivers he hires. I think Chip Ganassi used to see himself as having quite the eye for talent. He has plucked several drivers from obscurity over the years and placed them into his cars with mixed results. Nic Minassian comes to mind. I don’t think it is an accident that two of the last three drivers in the No. 10 car at Ganassi were hired directly away from Dale Coyne Racing.

Romain Grosjean was not an unknown quantity when he came to IndyCar from Formula One this past season. Still, no big-four team gave him a chance, even though they all had driver changes for additions or 2021 (McLaughlin, Palou, Rosenqvist and Hinchcliffe). Not every Formula One driver would even consider taking an IndyCar ride, much less a lower budget team. Credit Grosjean for not having too big of an ego, and for taking a ride with a mid-pack team. Like Palou, he has parlayed one year with DCR into a top ride in the series.

I’m glad that Dale Coyne has stuck with his team for close to forty years now. It would be easy to close shop after being a doormat for so long, and to put your time and money into something more profitable. But Dale Coyne is a racer at heart and does more with less, than any other team in the paddock. I think he brings a lot more to the NTT IndyCar Series than what people realize. I’m glad that other teams are noticing the racers that he is producing. It’s time he gets the credit he deserves.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Dale Coyne Should Finally Get Some Credit”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    Well said George and right.

  2. He hires the best driver available with a budget. Recently that’s been working out pretty well. He is not talent scouting and then hiring with a drivers salary but reacting to what’s out there. Constant engineer movements in and out cannot help with the team stability. I find his business model strange yet it sort of works. I agree the team fills a role and punches above its weight so credit where credit is due.
    The big question is how will they fare in the future if Indycar carries on with this upward momentum.
    McLarens budget will make every team need to spend more.
    What if Toyota arrive in 2024 with money to spend.
    Will be interesting to see which teams rise to the challenge and which fall away n

  3. billytheskink Says:

    George, how could you not include on your list the driver Coyne has probably entered the most? I’m talking about, of course, the legendary TBD.

    There’s a funny little aside in Autocourse’s CART 20th anniversary retrospective book, I believe in reference to the 86 Cleveland race (where he finished in the points for the first time), about seeing Coyne’s pit crew frantic and discombobulated because he was due for his first pit stop in the race and they had not performed a pit stop all season. His car had not lasted long enough for one at any prior race.

    But jokes aside, Coyne’s a clever guy (you have to be to survive as long as he has as a team owner) who, in addition to having a clear passion for the sport, seems to relish being an underdog. His role as Indycar’s Minardi can be endearing and frustrating at the same time; his team’s wins and podium runs earn extra celebration but it also seems like he’s just a few dollars and a little driver continuity away from building his team into something really great. Even so, he consistently puts cars on track and that has brought more than a few great drivers into the series (and some Francesco Draccones to chuckle at).

    OK, one more joke. I’m pretty sure Coyne ran Milka Duno in 2010 simply so she could break the record for most Indycar starts without a top 10 finish… a record that had been held by Dale Coyne himself, naturally.

  4. To me, the recent success of DCR is due (as you say) to Coyne being pretty good at assessing talent, but also to the wealth of talent that’s out there from which to choose. Hell, even Roger Penske couldn’t make a success out of Milka Duncan or Dr. Jack Miller.

  5. I had heard of Alex because of his one weekend in Formula 2 a few years ago. Having followed the series since American Scott Speed during its GP2 iteration, I was also familiar with Ilott and Christian Lundgaard (both highly talented), as well as past IndyCar drivers like Mike Conway and Luca Filippi.

    But I certainly never expected a championship run from Alex Palou this year.

  6. I am overjoyed to have the majority of the races on the big bird. We do then have to contend with the local affiliate and its choices, but so far so good here.

  7. Vic Lovisa Says:

    I didn’t like the timing of how Coyne parted ways with Bourdais but I suppose that’s just business. It’s pretty hard not to root for this guy’s team. Dale seems like a good guy, and how can anyone not admire this guy’s resolve?

    I am curious what you George, or any of the other readers think about this: For the past two seasons Coyne has had more success with what I still call the “19 car” than the Vasser-Sullivan supported 18 car. Is it as simple as having better drivers in the 2nd car than the team’s lead car, or is Coyne better off without the two Jimmys working with him? Just something I’ve wondered about.

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