A couple of years back your humble host was at a baseball game for the home town Diamondbacks, and event of some significance because the team was saying goodbye to two longtime team members who had both played critical roles in the team’s World Series Championship in 2001. Both Luis Gonzalez and Craig Counsell were given pre-game speeches of love and affection, and were greeted with standing ovations each time they came to the plate. These were popular guys both on and off the field, and since they were both saying goodbye the team decided to make a big deal out of their exits.
Funny thing is, neither player was retiring, as both Counsell and Gonzalez – who are still playing today – were being replaced by upcoming youngsters who were anticipated to play better than the declining veterans. The organization made the unpopular move of not renewing the contracts of the two players, but since letting a couple of fan favorites go they thought a little goodbye party might help reduce the sting to the team’s fans.
Which is a plan not unlike the one Panther Racing is using this weekend. Browse on over the to the Panther Racing site right now and you’ll see a giant “Thank You Vitor” image along with a tribute noting the highlights of his tenure with the team, calling him “Our Winner”. It’s a nice touch, and as the team says Vitor would always be welcome back, just so long as he has a proper sponsorship package or they don’t have Dan Wheldon to driver for them anymore.
Like every other sport racing is largely a meritocracy, and the fact is that despite whatever circumstances would be to blame Vitor Meira still has zero wins in the IndyCar series. For those who haven’t been counting, that would be 15 less than Dan Wheldon, his replacement who’s going to look nothing if not interesting in a National Guard camouflage firesuit and whatever fashionable shoes he chooses. I suppose you can argue who is the superior driver, but the fact is Wheldon will bring more attention to the Panther sponsors as someone who has been an Indy 500 champion, an IndyCar series champion, and a one-time sparring partner for Danica who has made the talk show rounds. (You can also argue which of those is the most noteworthy.)
Which brings us to Vitor looking for a job and Panther looking to explain the reports that Meira was fired by email. To the team’s credit they’ve been responding to several questions related to this issue on their Q&A, saying that the email was a contractual obligation that he first receive written notice and that John Barnes called him. So be it, but it hardly softens the sting to fans who for years have seen Panther go beyond the usual accolades teams bestow upon their drivers by lavishing nothing but love on Vitor. Maybe because he hasn’t won or maybe because he’s certainly fan friendly, but I bet if you listen closely to driver introductions this weekend the cheer for Meira will be as loud as any of driver’s – especially Dan Wheldon’s.
That's the same Dan Wheldon who incidentally isn’t exactly getting a huge send-off from his current employer, although I'm sure either driver would take a signed contract over a tribute any day. Unfortunately though Vitor, like Gonzalez and Counsell, are now left with some kind words, some lovely parting gifts and some best wishes towards the future.
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