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.

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah,  good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”