MSR Needs to Change Their Formula

If you are close to my age, you probably remember Fast Masters – racing’s answer to the old PGA Senior Tour, which is no longer branded as such. I’m assuming having the word Senior in the name conjured up images of old men sitting around a country club, swapping old war stories (if there is anything really wrong with that).

Fast Masters was really a very interesting series, created for ESPN 2, when the secondary ESPN channel was trying to carve out its own niche. Unfortunately, it was one and done after it’s only season – in 1993. It featured former champion drivers that were all retired and over the age of fifty. They competed in identically prepared Jaguar XJ220s, which sold for about three-quarters of a million dollars each.

If you’ve ever heard some of the many Bobby Unser podcasts floating around out there, it’s hilarious to hear him describe what all went on in the six-round series, all on the old IRP road course. The drivers took it seriously and were very hard on their expensive equipment. Not surprisingly, Uncle Bobby won the championship that summer, and he never had to defend his title, because the expensive series never returned.

I mention this not only for nostalgia, but for a not-so-fair comparison to a current team that could pass for Fast Masters – Meyer Shank Racing (MSR).

Although MSR has fielded cars in the NTT IndyCar Series since 2017, they started slow. Jack Harvey only drove in the Indianapolis 500 for the 2017 season. In 2018, MSR ran Harvey in six races and in ten for 2019. It wasn’t until the 2020 season that MSR and Harvey were fulltime and ended the season a modest fifteenth in points. The team and Harvey showed some improvement the following season, with Harvey finishing thirteenth. Of course, the shot in the arm came when Helio Castroneves ran a second MSR car in the Indianapolis 500 and he won the race, becoming the first four-time winner in thirty years.

Castroneves ran five other selected races that season. The first race after the 500 was Nashville, where Helio finished ninth. That was as good as it got. In the final four races, Castroneves finished twenty-first, twenty-third, twenty-fourth and twentieth. Surprisingly, that was good enough to have Castroneves named to the second car that would be fulltime in 2022.

In the meantime, Jack Harvey surprised everyone by leaving the team that chose him to bring them into IndyCar racing. Instead, he left for the seemingly greener pastures in the newly added third car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLLR). To say the move didn’t go well would be a massive understatement.

Harvey’s replacement was the most recent Team Penske cast-off – Simon Pagenaud, who won the championship for Penske in 2016, and the Indianapolis 500 in 2019. But when Penske downsized to three cars after the 2021 season – Pagenaud was the odd man out and was suddenly available.

Castroneves and Pagenaud were both fulltime Penske teammates for three seasons, between 2015 and 2017; then were Indianapolis 500 teammates through 2020. Between the two of them are five Indianapolis 500 wins and one IndyCar championship. To reunite them in 2021 sounds like a dream team…on paper.

But in reality, something did not click at MSR in 2022. Pagenaud and Castroneves combined to finish fifteenth and eighteenth in points, respectively. Pagenaud did have a season-high finish of second at Belle Isle. Aside from that, his best finishes were a seventh, two eighths and two ninths. To make matters worse, Pagenaud closed out the last seven races with finishes of twenty-third, twenty-third, twenty-fifth, ninth, twentieth, twenty-third and seventeenth. That’s not exactly giving yourself momentum for next season.

It was worse for Castroneves, as the final standings might suggest. His best finish of the season was a seventh in the Indianapolis 500. along with an eighth at Mid-Ohio and a ninth at Long Beach. Everything else was so forgettable, it’s not even worth mentioning.

This tandem is returning in 2023. Granted, there are a lot more pieces to this puzzle than the two drivers – but they are the most visible. I can’t name all of the engineers in the paddock like some of you can, but the fact that I don’t have a clue who is engineering either car at MSR tells your something.

As much as I cheer for aging athletes, I’m not sure I would go for as old a driver line-up as they have at Meyer Shank Racing. By the time the Indianapolis 500 runs next May, Pagenaud will be 39, and Castroneves will be 48. In racer terms, Pagenaud is long in the tooth and Castroneves is ancient.

Since his last fulltime season with Penske, the IMS road course was the only non-oval experience for Helio until he drove in the 2021 Music City Grand Prix. That would account for his less-than-stellar on non-ovals, but he did poorly in the ovals other than Indianapolis also. The highest oval finish for Castroneves this past season, was a fifteenth at Gateway.

If you’ve followed this site for very long, you know how I’ve always been a fan of Helio Castroneves. But seeing him struggle through most of last season, reminded me of seeing Johnny Unitas limp through his final NFL season with the Chargers. It’s tough when our cherished athletes are the last ones to know when its time to walk away. Few do it as gracefully as Rick Mears did.

Most fledgling teams try to follow a formula with a grizzled veteran and a promising newcomer for a driver lineup. MSR chose the glossy resumes of two former Penske drivers with several Baby-Borgs between them. It probably sounds good for potential sponsors, but adequate funding is not really an issue with MSR.

In reality, MSR might be wise to keep an eye open for younger blossoming talent to fill the No. 06 car for 2024. Helio is already slated to drive that car for another year, but I’m having a hard time seeing Castroneves in that car beyond next season.

Quite honestly, I thought that Jack Harvey was in the right place at MSR. He is still young and learning his way. Although he had been with the team since 2017, he had only driven in 57 races for MSR, when he jumped ship for RLLR last season.

It has not gone well for Harvey in the No. 45 Hy-Vee car at RLLR. Unless there is a massive turn-around in his fortunes, it’s hard to imagine Harvey still being in that seat for 2024. Is it possible that Harvey could find his way back to the team he abandoned last year?

Just in the past couple of seasons, we’ve seen Tony Kanaan return to Ganassi after a bad breakup. Alex Palou continued to drive, knowing that things were getting ugly with his team away from the track. He will be the ultimate lame duck for the 2023 season at Ganassi. Oliver Askew even drove in a substitute role for McLaren at Belle Isle in 2021, after being unceremoniously kicked to the curb just the year before. Stranger things have happened.

I’m not sure that Jack Harvey will ever be a championship caliber driver, but I know for certain that he is better than the twenty-second place driver he was this past season at Rahal. I could certainly see the pairing of Pagenaud and Harvey producing better results than MSR or Rahal got out of the respective cars in question.

Whether it’s Harvey or a promising Indy NXT driver from nxt year (see what I did there?), I think making Simon Pagenaud be the undisputed leader at MSR would be a good move. If they are so-inclined, MSR can run a third car for Helio Castroneves for the Indianapolis 500, where he is still a true threat. But in my opinion, MSR needs to stop running their own version of Fast Masters.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “MSR Needs to Change Their Formula”

  1. Indycar needs guys like Kanaan and Helio but the issue is, they need seats to make new heroes and Tony and Helio continue to take those seats up. Outside of Indy only rides, neither belong in the series. Helio is embarrassing to watch at this point. MSR surely would be better with Ferrucci or Askew in that car, right?

  2. Even though he was already over 40 at the time, I thought Helio had a strong 2017 season and could have produced another solid full-time season or two with Team Penske if it would have been in the cards. With that in mind, I was excited to see him get another full-time shot last year. Of course, 2022 isn’t 2017. I know he’s in a MSR car, not Penske, but things change fast in the twilight years of one’s career. I’d like to see Helio do a couple more Indy one-offs, but it’s otherwise time. I hate saying that….he’s always been one of my favorites…..but all things must pass.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Pagenaud’s 2nd half drop off really puzzled me. Mid-season it looked like he was on the verge of advancing into the top 10 in points and then the results fell off a cliff with pretty much no on-air explanation.

    Helio’s season went about how most of us expected, unfortunately. I hope he can wring a few more good results out of the car next year, but finishing even as high as Pagenaud did this year in points seems a tall order. I expect the sponsors still like him quite a bit, though.

  4. Matthew Lawrenson Says:

    Jack Harvey has received an almighty season-long slagging at Trackforum this year. I don’t recall him getting much grief when he was at MSR, so I can only surmise it was from being in (what was probably in the latter half of the season) the neglected third car in a mostly underperforming team and, even worse, not being TF darling Santino Ferrucci. He really SHOULD do better in 2023, but if he doesn’t I don’t see much of a future for him in IndyCar.

    • Jack Harvey performed better at Shank in comparison with his performances this year while Ferrucci performed better than Harvey when he had a few races at Rahal.

      I respect Mike Shank enormously but was surprised he resigned Helio. 2023 has to be the last season for him. I don’t see Harvey going back but as you suggest anything is possible.

      How about Linus Lundqvist and Pagenaud.

  5. it is possible.
    Disney just rehired Iger.

  6. Actually Fast Masters was not on IRP’s road course, it was on the oval but there were a couple of twists to make it “road course lite.” For example, the cars didn’t go into turn one at speed, there was a dogleg they had to negotiate, but it was hard to pass there because it wasn’t 90 degrees, they didn’t have to brake enough. The actual road course at IRP was completely separate from the oval and was way too narrow. And most of it is there to this day.

    I didn’t miss a second of Fast Masters because AJ was running in it. It was a riot!

    • I went back and checked, and you were correct on the oval with an added dogleg, instead of using the IRP road course. However, I had no recollection of Foyt running in Fast Masters. I checked the participant list. 51 drivers participated in Fast Masters, but AJ Foyt was not one of them. – GP

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