Analysis: Carpenter, Fisher merger beneficial; also puts single-car teams on notice

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In a Verizon IndyCar Series world where several teams have acronyms – CGR, SPM, KVSH, BHA and RLL to name but a few – there’s been another new acronym added to the lexicon as of this weekend, with the announcement of CFH Racing for 2015.

C in this case is not for cookie, but for Ed Carpenter; the F for Sarah Fisher and the H for Fisher’s team co-owner Wink Hartman, who formalized their partnership going forward this weekend.

It means the end of the road for ECR (Ed Carpenter Racing) and SFHR (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing) as separate entities after this season’s finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

The process of merging the teams makes a lot of sense on paper, and at first reaction should be a general positive for both organizations.

Fisher and Carpenter are throwbacks in a sense; they have ties to the previous all-oval era of the IndyCar series, and both grew up racing short track and dirt track ovals before they made their debuts in 2000 and 2003, respectively.

Since then, their driving commitments have scaled back. Fisher stepped out of the cockpit of her own team after 2010 to focus on family and business; Carpenter’s full-time driving career was temporarily halted in 2010 but then reborn, a bit, when he drove for Fisher’s team in 2011. Together, they won their first race at Kentucky Speedway, in a popular upset triumph over Dario Franchitti.

Carpenter branched out on his own to form ECR in 2012, with Fisher then bringing Hartman in as team co-owner that year, and the team signing Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden to a three-year deal.

Both teams stand at the crossroads in 2014, which is why the move makes sense now.

For Carpenter this year, he opted in the best interest of his team, thinking in a business sense, to bring in a road/street course ace in the form of Mike Conway. And Conway’s delivered with a pair of wins in Long Beach and Toronto; Carpenter, with a win of his own at Texas, has won on his own.

Fisher, meanwhile, has continuously struggled to garner and maintain a primary sponsor for each of Newgarden’s three seasons beyond a handful of one-off races. Hartman, who’s provided financial stability for the team for three years, can’t continue to do this forever on his own.

So, we’re partying like it’s 2011 all over again as these two come together. Newgarden, a free agent, has impressed this year and the potential of him being part of this at least two-car operation is a good one.

Here’s Carpenter and Fisher, in separate interviews with MotorSportsTalk, on how they plan to move forward from here, with Carpenter offering a bit more insight:

“I don’t know if we envisioned (a second car) it happening like this, but we’re excited. We have a lot of respect for one another. It was a group effort to bring us together,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter admitted this came together “relatively quickly” but was born of discussions they’d had for years.

“You have all sorts of discussions, but this happened relatively quickly,” Carpenter said. “Going back to the 2013 season even, it didn’t really make sense with where each team was, with certain contracts. I don’t think either of us were interested back then. The stars are aligning right now.”

Fisher added, “We’re only going to get stronger from here.”

Both spoke highly of Newgarden.

“Josef has been so great for us as an organization, and we’re still working to keep him. We’ve built a stellar team,” Fisher said.

Carpenter added, “I think Josef’s a really special talent. I’ve been so impressed with how he has developed on a single car team. I hope we can get a deal done with Josef. I think I can help him a lot on the ovals. Hopefully Mike or whoever can come through on the streets too. But all of that is just speculation right now.”

The things to iron out from here, of course, are personnel, engine manufacturers, sponsorship and moving shops. It promises to be a busy time period and in some respects, having a “longer” offseason should help.

If there is a cautionary tale in this story though, it’s that single-car teams in IndyCar may soon be on borrowed time.

With this merger, it leaves just three teams who have fielded a single car full-time in 2014: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Bryan Herta Autosport.

Both RLL (National Guard) and BHA (Integrity Energee Drink) will have lost their primary sponsor by the end of the season. Foyt, fortunately, has enjoyed a healthy, long-term relationship with ABC Supply Co., and frequently mentions the possibility of a second full-time car.

Still though, the merger reduces the number of full-time teams from 11 to 10, and it also combines two of the three newest teams in the sport. Fisher founded her own team in 2008 and Carpenter in 2012; Herta’s team made its IndyCar debut in 2010.

The long-term problem IndyCar faces, if not the existing teams gaining more cars, is that there don’t appear to be any new teams entering on the horizon. And from that standpoint, it creates a domino effect where fewer seats become available, and fewer drivers get chances. The ones who do, as ever, largely need to bring budget.

Newgarden is now the last Indy Lights champion with staying power. Tristan Vautier got only one season before his funding ran out and Sage Karam has had only one appearance, this year’s Indianapolis 500.

So in this offseason, the CFH Racing announcement should serve as a wakeup call to the business model of sustainability for smaller teams in IndyCar, but it appears to be a boon for the organization in most aspects.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”