Leaving the Three-Ring Circus Behind

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Who said the offseason was dull? There was enough going on in the IndyCar world this week to last us a month. As has been the case lately, the common theme is McLaren

It all started on Tuesday, when Taylor Kiel announced on Twitter that he was stepping down.

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When you hear or see an announcement like that, most people become skeptical and think “Oh, right…he got fired. No one would ever walk away from a job like that”. That was my thought when I first heard about it. But after listening to Trackside on Tuesday night and reading several different takes for the last couple of days, I’m convinced we should take Kiel at face-value.

For those that don’t know, Taylor Kiel was the one who has been on Pato O’Ward’s pit box, and helping to keep the excitable O’Ward calm with his soft calming monotone voice. Here is a photo I took of Kiel, in a press conference at Road America in June of 2021.

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Kiel started with the team as a teenager, when they were known simply as Sam Schmidt Motorsports – before Schmidt was reduced to only one letter in the team name. Kiel is the stepson of Ganassi’s Mike Hull, but wanted to learn the business without the cloud of nepotism hanging over his head.

Kiel is married to Katie (Hargitt) Kiel, formerly of NBC, and they had their first child last year. Stories this week say Kiel started out sweeping the floors. I had a job like that when I was a young pup back in high school at the local Cadillac/Oldsmobile/Honda dealership. I would describe it more of being a flunky. I swept floors, but I also cleaned out drains, mounted tires and picked up car parts. Basically, I did the jobs that no one else had time to do or wanted to do.

Some days were easier than others, but I sure learned a lot about how a car dealership operated. Obviously, Kiel learned a lot as well. He stuck with the team as they moved from Indy Lights into IndyCar and was named Team Manager in 2008. He was there when Canadian businessman Ric Peterson bought into the team in 2013 and the name changed to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, later to become Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

It was late in the 2019 season, when Schmidt and Peterson sold their souls to the devil. McLaren was looking to have their own IndyCar team, after partnering with Andretti Autosport and then Carlin. Honda had made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with McLaren after Zak Brown and Fernando Alonso had publicly trashed the auto manufacturer in Formula One. If McLaren was going to have their own team, it would be with a Chevy engine.

Ultimately, McLaren bought into Sam Schmidt’s team – which had been running Honda engines since its inception – with the understanding they would switch to Chevy power. Oh, and drivers Marcus Ericsson and James Hinchcliffe? Their services would no longer be necessary in the cockpit. Ericsson quietly moved on, but Hinchcliffe was still under contract to the team. Hinch also had a long-standing relationship with Honda. At this time, there were several Honda TV commercials starring James Hinchcliffe that were running.

While the newly renamed Arrow McLaren SP introduced their new driver lineup of Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, Hinchcliffe was told he would still be in a promotional role with the team – expected to visit their hospitality tents at each race weekend, wearing gear featuring the Chevy bow-tie, essentially ending his relationship with Honda. Kiel was there to witness all of this firsthand, also.

Kiel was a beneficiary during all of this, and rose up through the ranks – being named Managing Director in October of 2019. One year later in October of 2020, he was named President. Askew was quickly kicked to the curb and was replaced by Felix Rosenqvist, in a move that certainly caught Chip Ganassi off-guard. Rosenqvist had been Ganassi’s driver for two seasons and had just won his first career IndyCar race in July of 2020.

Fast-forward to the spring of 2022. The rumor mill placed Alexander Rossi at Arrow McLaren SP, and leaving Andretti Autosport. I attended a press-conference at Barber this past April, when Kiel was asked about the future of Rosenqvist, who had struggled mightily in 2021 and for the start of the 2022 season. Kiel delicately danced around the issue, without really saying anything. The non-answer gave every indication that Rosenqvist was toast.

Things really got crazy in July, when Ganassi’s replacement for Rosenqvist, Alex Palou, announced that he would be joining McLaren in 2023 – even though he was still under contract to Ganassi. Meanwhile Rosenqvist was resigned by McLaren, but everyone suspected that he was destined to their Formula E team. This doesn’t even get into the signings of various drivers overseas and the departure of Daniel Ricciardo from McLaren’s F1 team at the end of the season.

It’s safe to say that Zak Brown is not a very popular man in the IndyCar paddock, unless he is trying to recruit you. He has brought the Formula One cutthroat mentality to IndyCar. To the other owners, he is driving up the cost of doing business. Brown and McLaren are willing to pay whatever it takes to stockpile their team with good drivers, engineers and crew members. Whether they are under contract does not seem to matter to Brown.

Brown reminds me of George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees in the late 70s, when Steinbrenner was on a mission to buy the best players, no matter the cost. The only difference is that the Yankees won back-to-back World Series titles in the late 70s. Arrow McLaren SP has no championships or Indianapolis 500 wins on their resume. All they have to show for their three-ring circus is four race wins, a wake of ruffled feathers among other team owners and a steep drop in popularity among many fans.

Taylor Kiel does not seem to have a lot in common with Zak Brown, other than a desire to win. Kiel seems to be a very calm and rational young man, who doesn’t act on anything without thoroughly analyzing the situation. Brown comes across as outspoken, boorish and impulsive. He doesn’t seem to care whose toes he steps on, so long as he gets what he wants.

After everything I’ve read and heard this week, I’ve come to the conclusion that Kiel did not get fired. I think he had simply had enough. I think he looked around and saw nothing that resembled the team he went to work with many years ago. The team had grown and gotten competitive over the past few years, but at what cost? They have alienated themselves from the rest of the paddock and may be one of the most disliked teams by fans. I liked Oliver Askew and I like their current slate of drivers. But it is sometimes hard to root for them because of Zak Brown and the involvement of McLaren.

I don’t know this and I’m just speculating, but it would not surprise me in the least if Kiel finally reached his breaking point and decided he had had enough of the silliness going on at Arrow McLaren SP. He knew the way a successful team like Ganassi was run, growing up with his stepfather, Mike Hull, and what that looked like. He also knew that the madhouse he lived through this summer was not that.

Late Wednesday night, I saw a report that Taylor Kiel would be taking his talents to Chip Ganassi Racing in an unspecified role. Presumably, he will work underneath Hull, and will possibly be groomed to take his place, once Hull retires from the team after three decades.

Thursday we learned that if NASCAR’s Kyle Busch runs the Indianapolis 500 next May, Arrow McLaren SP is the most likely team and with Mernard’s sponsorship.

We also learned that Arrow McLaren SP had lured Brian Barnhart away from Andretti Autosport, with an unspecified title. Barnhart and Alexander Rossi had supposedly built a good relationship this past season at Andretti. But I have an idea that this will be a bigger role than team strategist. Barnhart will be reporting directly to Brown. This seems like an odd pairing to me, and it will probably be worth the cost of admission to see how this plays out next season.

Although I’m not a fan, I am very thankful to Zak Brown for one thing. He has made the early part of the offseason, normally a relatively quiet time, very spicy. Even though we are now two weeks into the offseason, I am not in need of topics to write about. I think I can always count on Brown to provide some very interesting subject matter, throughout the offseason.

Good luck to Taylor Kiel in whatever endeavor he chooses. I hope it is not as turbulent as what he just left. Good luck also to Brian Barnhart. He’s going to need it.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Leaving the Three-Ring Circus Behind”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Barnhart to McLaren? The “reality” show writes itself!

  2. Kiel’s leaving makes it one reason less for me to cheer for this team. that used to be a favorite team of mine.
    I was really happy for them when they ran as well as they did in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and thought they were building something really good so they could collect real results come next year. And now this.
    It will be interesting to find out which driver will have Kiel on his pitbox next.

  3. I thank you for blogging in the off-season.😁

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