Random silly season thought

Posted by Iannucci | 9/02/2009 | , , | 11 comments »
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As Dale noted a few weeks ago, it's that special time of year for drivers to start shuffling around and making plans for next season. Looking to 2010 the uncertainty is even swirling around a former series champion like Dan Wheldon, who according to random speculation has already worn out his welcome with Panther Racing in his first season. A driver with as many wins as Dan came at a steep price for Panther, but aside from a 2nd place finish at Indy (and in truth, if you're going to have one podium finish the money involved makes that the place to get it) there hasn't been a lot of Return On Investment in the Wheldon contract other than that chortle-inducing "Do you think I'm your mother!" commercial.

Panther's sponsorship arrangements with the U.S. National Guard and others put them in a rare position of being able to actually select a driver entirely on merit, and presumably with Wheldon they thought they were getting the best available driver. He was certainly the one with the most wins available. However, with the IndyCar series schedule taking a right turn towards a majority of road and street courses, Dan's actual value as a driver - while still above average - looks to have declined almost as much as the Nielsen ratings for IndyCar races.

This is not meant as any offense to Dan who over the years has demonstrated ample skill and tire-thumping bravery, nor to Panther Racing who have made a successful career out of doing more with less, but any honest assessment can see this relationship ain't working for either of them. When the winless Vitor Meira years are looked upon as the good 'ol days you know the results are not meeting mutual expectations.

They don't ask me about these things, but if Panther Racing is going to continue with their National Guard sponsorship I'd like to suggest they take a long look at finding a talented young American to drive that car. Not to open a up a xenophobic can of worms here, but if the sponsor is a branch of the American military service it can come across as just a bit odd to ask a non-citizen to represent them. It's not inherently wrong, but it does run the risk of confusing the marketing message a touch.

So which young American does your humble host think Panther should zero in on for 2010? Well, Graham Rahal appears to have a good thing going with N/H/L, Marco Andretti probably wouldn't leave the family business just yet, Ryan Hunter-Reay is still under contract with Vision Racing, Ed Carpenter is...not going anywhere, and Danica Patrick is WAY outta their price range. Fortunately, there is one young American who's smart, personable, immensely talented on both road and street courses, and fits the National Guard demographic. He's even got an all-American name like "J.R.".

Oh, and his current team busts out this little "Captain America" doll after he wins.

Yes, I'm talking about the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, JR Hildebrand, who just became the first American to win that series title in 7 years. Again, I have nothing against foreign drivers (foreign drivers are FUN-tastic!), but this sponsorship and this team - who once featured an enormous American flag on their IndyCar - seem to be a little more focused on their American-ness than most others. If they can successfully develop a guy like Sam Hornish Jr into an ICS champion then they could do wonders developing the skills of JR, who might already a better road racer than Sam has ever been.

Just sayin' some things make too much sense. Quite frankly, Hildebrand looks like a special driver who shouldn't have to suffer the same career stall as many other former FIL champions. And as for Wheldon, I suppose in a perfect world he'd get back together with Tony Kanaan at AGR someday. But this is quite the imperfect world, is isn't it?

(Photo: TrackSide Online)


  1. The SpeedGeek // September 02, 2009 7:29 AM  

    You make too much sense sometimes. Of course, I wonder if Panther feels a little gunshy about hiring FIL-grad rookies since their Mark Taylor days...

  2. Leigh O'Gorman // September 02, 2009 8:28 AM  

    I was actually going to suggest Hildebrand until I got about half way down... and yes, I think he could be a star!!

  3. Badgerman // September 02, 2009 9:33 AM  

    Hello Jeff,
    I agree completely that there have been so many good FIL drivers left swinging in the breeze for the past several years, not to mention several from CHAMP car. Even more frustrating is the fact that there are several current IRL drivers who would be better off driving a cab, (for everyone elses sake), that have major funding. Unfortunately, with the financial climate the way that it is I don't see any of that changing any time soon. I certainly hope that JRH might be able to work something out, but if something is not done soon to bring competition back to IRL racing, JRH getting a ride may all be a moot point.... OK, OK ... I'll stop trying to cheer you up. Ken

  4. Leigh O'Gorman // September 02, 2009 10:58 AM  

    If a ride can't be found in the IRL, then what'd be worse than the second seat at USF1??

  5. JP // September 02, 2009 11:49 AM  

    JR would be an excellent choice for any ICS team that considered him. I am still holding out a little hope that AGR converts enough sponsors to field JR on 2010as they are a better ride to begin with. If Luzco were to find another sponsor and field a second car, JR would fit the primary sponsorship deal there also. Matos could pick up the new colors.

    I had a suggestion for AGR in one of my recent Posts. Now that JR has the Lights title wrapped up - wouldn't it be a grand gesture to field him in a 5th AGR car at Homestead??

    The last place I really want to see JR right now is in USF1. I am being selfish but ICS, relatively speaking, is just way more important to me than USF1. Rumors have Summerton headed there anyway. I just don't care about a series that fields utterly uncompetitve races, none of which are on my own continent.

  6. TJ // September 02, 2009 12:03 PM  

    Two words: Memo Gidley. Talented, American, has been an appreciated ambassador for the US Armed Forces before, awesome with fans.

  7. Ryan // September 02, 2009 4:21 PM  

    I like the Memo Gidley comment,... unfortunately, it will never happen.

    As for J.R. Hildebrand, ... he definitely deserves a shot and I have a feeling that he just might get one. Time will tell.

    As Jeff wrote, "some things make too much sense".

  8. Sean // September 02, 2009 5:55 PM  

    Buddy Rice would be my pick ideally for an American driver for that car.

    RHR will get the ride. I expect Foyt will make Meira his main driver again and dump RHR who has been underperforming, regardless of how much he talks about the importance of American drivers. IZOD will put pressure on IndyCar to get RHR a ride someplace, and I doubt TG will run a second car largely unsponsored, or replace Carpenter.

    There are too many experienced drivers (employed and unemployed) because of the split, which is why few people would take a chance on a rookie at the moment when there are so many underemployed experienced drivers someone could take instead. Most rookies will have to buy their rides, as indicated by all the rookies except Matos this year (I didn't think Conway was paying, but read somewhere that apparently he is?) Matos broke through but he had to win both Atlantics and Lights to do it. I don't see Hildebrand in IndyCar next year, whether he deserves it or not. If CART owners couldn't find a ride for Jon Fogarty or Alex Gurney, instead choosing ride buyers, and pretty much the same owners are doing the hiring now...

  9. Allen Wedge // September 03, 2009 8:59 AM  

    Hey Jeff, a great idea. Question though.. whatever happened to the Friday Night Lights pieces?

  10. Jennifer Coomer // September 03, 2009 9:10 PM  

    I like Dan and I love Vitor. But I very much agree with you that it just makes a whole lot more sense to have an American driver in a car covered with the American National Guard. It would be like having Bruce Springsteen sing "My Old Kentucky Home" at the Derby.

  11. Unknown // October 28, 2009 4:14 AM  

    You obviously have never had a race team or have raced. You need to do your homework. I am a friend of Dan's and also a owner of a race team. I'd like to see you go 200mpg+.