Might Panther Racing be the Cleveland Browns of IndyCar?

3 Comments

Two years ago, Panther Racing were able to run a special one-off paint scheme for the IndyCar Series race at Sonoma Raceway adorned in the red and gold of the San Francisco 49ers.

Today, a Cleveland Browns livery might make more sense.

Because at times, Panther seems to operate about as functionally as the team on the Cuyahoga.

You see, the Browns are in the news today because CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Michael Lombardi left the team, and this comes only a month after the Jimmy Haslam-led organization fired new head coach Rob Chudzinski after less than a calendar year on the job. Haslam later said, also via ProFootballTalk, that the Browns aren’t a dysfunctional franchise.

Most NFL observers would say the Browns… well, are dysfunctional. And shifting back to IndyCar, most observers can see rather plainly that compared to the rest of the field, Panther is too.

It’s a mix of good and bad events that have happened over the last eight or so years with Panther that makes it appear dysfunctional:

  • BAD: There were reports that Vitor Meira and the late Dan Wheldon, who were Panther’s drivers from 2006 through 2010, weren’t paid in full for their efforts.
  • GOOD: In 2008, the team acquired the prestigious National Guard sponsorship and for six years through 2013 it has provided a great service in at-track activation, supporting the Guard heroes at each event.
  • GOOD OR BAD: Wheldon was a fantastic ambassador for the Guard, but like Meira before him, he wasn’t American. That didn’t sit well with some.
  • GOOD: To rectify the non-American situation, Panther hired JR Hildebrand ahead of 2011, and he almost won the Indianapolis 500 … when of course, he famously binned it on the last corner of the last lap and Wheldon swept through to the victory.
  • BAD: In 2013, when the team unceremoniously dumped Hildebrand after an early crash at the 500, the team abandoned its plan altogether. For a couple months after, you had the awkward situation of Hildebrand appearing in Guard-sponsored ads, all while either Ryan Briscoe or Oriol Servia was driving the Guard-sponsored car with no degree of continuity.

And now, we have today’s revelation from RACER.com’s Robin Miller that Panther submitted a $17-plus million proposal to the Guard for continued partnership into 2014, which was rejected.

All of this makes Panther’s future less clear now that at any other point in its history, which dates to its first year in the then-Indy Racing League in 1998.

Panther will still press ahead into 2014 with a single-car effort, albeit one with a significantly reduced operating budget.

It comes after a decade-long run of futility that, like the Cleveland Browns, makes you forget how good it was years ago.

Consider, from 1999 through 2003, Panther Racing won 14 of 63 races in the all-oval IRL (22.2 percent), with back-to-back championships achieved by Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001 and 2002. The latter of the two came in Team Penske’s first year in the series, after switching from the then-rival CART series.

But 2005 marked the team’s last race win, with Tomas Scheckter at Texas Motor Speedway. A year later, 2006, was the last time a driver finished in the top five of the points standings (Meira in fifth).

In subsequent years, the best position a Panther driver has finished in points has been: 12th (2007), 13th (2008), 10th (2009), 9th (2010), 14th (2011), 11th (2012) and 22nd (2013).

The Browns are still more futile, despite occasional flashes of success. Since returning to the National Football League in 1999 (only a year after Panther was launched), the team is 77-163 overall, with only two winning seasons, 9-7 in 2002 and 10-6 in 2007.

The 2002 season – like the last year Panther won a championship – was the only year the Browns have made the playoffs since coming back into the NFL (naturally, they lost to the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers).

It is said that if you don’t consistently adapt or improve your program to match your competition, you get left behind. And it’s not a coincidence that since the IRL fused into IndyCar, when the all-oval era ended and the road-and-street course heavy schedule began starting in 2005, that Panther has gone from lead dog to also-ran with only the occasional big result.

Mind you, this is still a team that finished second at IndyCar’s flagship race, the Indianapolis 500, for four consecutive years from 2008 through 2011. But aside of that, success has been fleeting.

And much like the Cleveland Browns, you wonder if Panther Racing will require a complete reboot to regain the glory of years past.

Al Unser Jr. back in IndyCar after a decade away: ‘Life is very good’

Getty Images
1 Comment

There’s been somewhat of a hole in Al Unser Jr.’s heart ever since he retired from racing in 2007.

It was a void, something was missing.

But now, after a decade away from racing, Unser has found the right medicine to fill that hole in his heart: he’s back in the racing game again.

No, he’s not driving again (although he does participate occasionally in vintage races), but the two-time Indianapolis 500 (1992 and 1994) winner is definitely back in the IndyCar world.

And he couldn’t be happier.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “Since I stepped out of the race car and retired from racing, there’s been something missing from my life, and it’s racing.”

Unser has hooked up with Harding Racing. The team competed in three races last season as a ramp-up for a full 17-race effort this season. While Unser’s official title with the team is “consultant,” he’s involved in so much more.

His main role is as a driving coach to 2015 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Gabby Chaves. But he’s also involved in so many other areas, including helping the team obtain sponsorships and much more.

He then added, “I’m involved in every sense of the word except actually driving the car. And I’m happy about that because I’m too old to drive the car.”

Unser, who won CART championships in 1990 and 1994, is now 55. He’s so involved with his new job that he even moved from his native New Mexico and has relocated to suburban Indianapolis.

Not only is it a new start for Unser, it also is for Chaves. After running all 16 races in 2015 for Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, he competed in just seven races for Dale Coyne Racing in 2016 and only three races for Harding Racing last season.

But he definitely impressed the team, with a fifth- (Texas) and ninth-place (Indianapolis 500) finish in the first two races and 15th (Pocono) in the team’s final run of the season.

That’s why when Harding Racing decided to go fulltime in 2018, Chaves was their pick for behind the wheel. And Unser was their pick to help guide him to potential stardom in the series.

“(Team owner) Mike Harding is definitely a person that when he decides to do something, he does it right,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “The potential for this organization is through the sky. We’re all working really hard here and we see the potential.”

And as for Unser?

“Life is good, life is very good,” he told IndyCar.com. “We’re back full force, eager and better than ever.”

Click here for the full story about Unser from IndyCar.com.