Friday, July 8, 2016

Smoking on a Big Cigar: Remembering Newman/Haas Racing

Modern-day IndyCar racing might be a back-and-forth battle between Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing with Andretti Autosport playing spoiler every few seasons but for almost three decades Newman/Haas Racing was a supreme team.

Carl Haas passed away on June 29th at the age of 86 and with it the second half of the quirkiest marriage in motorsports has left this earth. He and Paul Newman partnered and entered CART in the 1983 season with Mario Andretti as their driver. It took six races for the team to be victorious with the team's maiden victory occurring at Road America. Andretti would add another victory that season in Las Vegas and finished third in the championship. The following season Andretti won Newman/Haas Racing's first championship. 

Newman/Haas remained a championship contender throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Michael Andretti joined his father at the team and added a championship in 1991. Two years later, the team made the greatest signing in the history of motorsports when they landed Nigel Mansell, fresh off his World Drivers' Championship in 1992 with Williams F1, for the 1993 season. Mansell's moved stunned the Formula One paddock and the British driver took the CART title as a rookie. 

The team didn't jump to the IRL when the split occurred in 1996 and it held firm to CART/Champ Car even after Penske, Ganassi, Rahal and Team Green with new co-owner Michael Andretti switch allegiances in 2002 and 2003. After winning a title with Cristiano da Matta in 2002, the team added four more championships with Sébastien Bourdais from 2004 to 2007. After the merger, Newman/Haas was the first and only team transitioning from Champ Car to win during the 2008 season* and it took two races into the new arrangement for them to get back on top with Graham Rahal winning at St. Petersburg. Justin Wilson would score the team's 107th and final victory at Belle Isle on August 31, 2008. Paul Newman would succumb to lung cancer less than a month later. 

After the passing of Paul Newman, the team continued with support from both the Newman and Haas families. Graham Rahal finished seventh in the championship and had two podiums in 2009. Rahal was dropped for the start of the 2010 season and Hideki Mutoh ran full-time for the team. Mutoh's best finish for the team was 12th and Rahal returned for six of the final eight races and scored five top tens with his best finish being fifth at Toronto. 

The 2011 season saw Oriol Servià return to the team and James Hinchcliffe get his shot at IndyCar. Servià scored three podiums and arguably had a victory taken from him at Loudon after the kerfuffle that was Brian Barnhart restarting a race despite drivers complaining of rain and the windshield wipers on the pace car moving. Servià finished fourth in the championship behind Dario Franchitti, Will Power and Scott Dixon. Hinchcliffe won IndyCar Rookie of the Year for the 2011 season despite missing the first race of the season. 

Despite the team's success in 2011, the team would not move with IndyCar into the DW12-era. They didn't have to either. Both the Newman and Haas families poured their own money into the team for years. Newman was gone and Haas' health wasn't getting any better. It was a team that died peacefully and showed it could still throw punches with the big boys even at the end.  

While much of Newman/Haas' success occurred after the split, the record books are just as inflated for Penske and Ganassi. Newman/Haas remains second all-time in IndyCar victories by a team but never won the Indianapolis 500. Sometimes sports have those confusion circumstances. The same way Ted Williams never won a World Series, Johan Cruyff never won the World Cup and Pete Sampras never won a French Open, Newman/Haas not winning an Indianapolis 500 goes down as one of those oddity of greatness having a void in the trophy case that can't be explained. 

The Newman/Haas name is missed. The team hired the best drivers available and made it work financially. Consider that the team hired Alan Jones and Teo Fabi to be substitutes and Jones finished third at Road America in 1985, his only IndyCar start while Fabi finished sixth at Belle Isle in his only start with the team in 1992. Of the 18 drivers to have raced for Newman/Haas Racing, Hideki Mutoh is the only one not to have a top ten finish with the team. Even Alex Lloyd finished eighth in his only Newman/Haas start at Homestead in 2009. In an age where drivers are expected to bring the funding, the Newman/Haas mentality could turn an average team into a consistent threat. With the passing of Carl Haas, the motorsport world has lost the second half of a duo who would figure out what it took to win and not sacrifice quality. 

*- To be fair: Will Power and KV Racing did win at Long Beach in the 2008 season but that was the "final Champ Car race" with the IRL teams racing in Motegi and Champ Car at Long Beach that weekend.