You'll forgive the tardiness of this commentary, I hope. As you probably know, Indiana has been living out its own mini-Ice Age for the last two months, and I had taken the family south to Cincinnati for a few days' relaxation at Great Wolf Lodge. Unfortunately, we were stuck down there thanks to some nasty ice and assorted winter weather, and so I had plenty to catch up on once we made it back. Sitting high in Turn 1 at IMS, watching the line drivers take seems a long way off just now.
Of course, IndyCar has pushed on, and one of the big stories has of course been the final, final placing of the National Guard sponsor with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Graham Rahal. That's obviously fantastic news for the Rahal crew, who is looking as formidable as they've been in a long while heading into this season. The sponsorship brings over $10 million to the team (though some sources have cited the National Guard funds much higher). If they do have a solid veteran in that 2nd car (as it seems they likely will) who works well with Rahal and the team, the sky's the limit.
At the same time, however, somewhat lost in all this is the impact on Panther Racing. Panther has already lost some staffing in the offseason, and there's no denial that this is going to hurt them. At the same time, though, they've been moving ahead with their own plans, and they've tested Carlos Huertas now throughout the winter.
Huertas, if confirmed in the seat, marks a sea change for Panther's fortunes in a number of ways. He'd be their first full-time driver in a long time without at least some American open-wheel experience. He's also the first driver since 2008 not to have the National Guard as the primary sponsor. Additionally, he's an unknown quantity, driving by himself, in a series that sees more and more multi-car teams dominating the discussion.
That doesn't mean that's what will happen if it turns out to be Huertas taking the wheel of the #4 car this year. But one would also have to admit, it also isn't an optimum recipe for success.
I haven't always approved of the way team John Barnes has conducted his business, and I have rather vocally disapproved of how despite a great deal of funding and some excellent drivers, Panther just can't seem to compete in the series at-large. I'm also not a fan of how some of their drivers have been released, from Vitor Meira to J.R. Hildebrand. But that also doesn't mean I want Panther Racing to go away, or not be competitive in 2014.
Huertas, whose main experience comes in Formula Renault 3.5, has won a race, but his results have been mixed, besides. There's no way of telling just what that means for his IndyCar experience, but Carlin Motorsport has been the seat of some very good drivers over the years. Formula Renault also is not a very constant predictor of IndyCar success. The drivers who have completed and won in that series range from Sebastian Vettel and Bertrand Baguette to drivers who simply vanished from public view.
In reading a history of the Ford Motor Company the other day, I was struck by a line which essentially stated the Ford did its best work in crisis--that only when the losses had mounted, and the product looked shaky, did they produce new cars and new innovations to press forward. With the National Guard gone, sponsor questions remaining, and an unproven driver potentially behind the wheel, I wonder if Panther has it in them to do the same now?
There's still a lot unsettled in IndyCar for 2014, and there's still over a month before the flag drops at St. Pete. Yet I can't help but feel of all the questions still waiting to be answered, just how Panther Racing fares in the new season might be among the the most insistent.