INDIANAPOLIS, July 27, 2004 - The word of the week is "chemistry". In the world of motor racing, chemistry is a major factor for both success and failure.
Just take a look at some of the teams in the 2004 Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series and you'll get the drift on the haves and have-nots when it comes to the magic of chemistry.
When Michael Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree started Andretti Green Racing at the end of 2002, it was apparent they chose two drivers who genuinely enjoy each other's company, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti. Once Andretti vacated his seat at Indianapolis, young Briton Dan Wheldon was set as pilot #3.
All those plans went out the window with Franchitti's April motorbike accident and subsequent surgery, but somehow, the team continued to thrive through the summer, in no small part due to the sly sense of humor and remarkable talent of relief driver Bryan Herta.
The fast and witty California resident helped keep the team going, along with prankster Kanaan and they joined Franchitti and Andretti in ganging up on the hapless Wheldon, who got better at his racing chops the more he got picked on by his teammates.
What would AGR do with four drivers who could not only win and get along well, but with only three cars set to run? Get the marketing machine in turbo mode and find money for a fourth car for 2004, a move that's paying off in spades.
Thus far, Kanaan has three victories, Wheldon owns two, Franchitti scored his first last weekend in Milwaukee, where his best friend, the late Greg Moore notched his own first CART win in 1997. Only Herta hasn't been to victory lane yet this year, but the die is cast and he'll get there, eventually.
Another team rocketing to the top after a miserable first season in the Indy Racing League, Rahal Letterman Racing had to deal with a massive injury to driver Kenny Brack in the 2003 IRL season finale at Texas Motor Speedway. This team looked like it was in dismal shape at the end of 2003, but things change quickly in racing, don't they?
By taking on the services of Buddy Rice, with whom they had a previous agreement that was never quite consummated, RLR has, thus far managed to reap the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in addition to the Kansas title, and with Brazilian Vitor Meira hounding his teammate, RLR looks like they've thoroughly got their acts together.
Rahal Letterman Racing has gotten their chemistry on with two substitute drivers who had absolutely nothing cooking at the start of the 2004 season. Neither Rice nor Meira were considered prime in the talent pool for IndyCar Series rides, but together they have raised the game for RLR to the point where this group is the prime competition for AGR in 2004.
What's not good chemistry is the happenstance at Team Target, where 2003 IRL champion Scott Dixon is unable to rise to the top this year after an exemplary 2003 year that gave him, Chip Ganassi and Toyota Racing Development their first IRL crown. Ten days after the season ended so, too, did the hopes of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, when Dixon's intended teammate Tony Renna was killed in his first test for the team.
It all went downhill from there for Team Target, who have been unable, despite the addition of perky Darren Manning as Dixon's squadmate to succeed in 2004. It appears this four-time CART title-winning team has lost their soul. Two pre-race accidents for Dixon in Milwaukee last weekend, compounded by a separate Manning crash in the race is just emblematic of their difficulties.
Another Toyota team feeling the heat is Marlboro Team Penske, who could do little wrong the last couple of seasons, despite being unable to secure IRL championships. With the retirement of Gil de Ferran and the hiring of Sam Hornish Jr., it appears all the joy is gone. Hornish is much quieter than teammate Helio Castroneves (who isn't?) and these two competitors seem to be getting along as well as most of us expected - hardly at all.
What has happened to Pennzoil Panther Racing, who notched dual championships with Hornish at the wheel of a single-car Dallara/Chevrolet entry and nearly took a third last season? While they whipped Chevrolet into shape by demanding fixes to the boat-anchor Gen III Chevy Indy V8 engine in 2003, Panther has looked awful in 2004.
They've gone to mid-field since hiring Tomas Scheckter and taking on the Menards team as a second entry, and Panther Racing needs some kind of shot in the arm that they're not getting with the South African, did not get with rookie Mark Taylor in the second car and likely won't receive with his replacement Townsend Bell, who is doing a workmanlike job - but nothing special - for this former titleholder.
So often we forget that racing is both sport and entertainment. In Formula One, both the sport and entertainment factors have been negated as Michael Schumacher piles up the wins. He now has 81 on his career with nary a stoppage to be seen. While we can easily chalk up those victories to the German's immeasurable talent, it is also the chemistry he - and primarily he - has engendered on the Ferrari team.
Where once Ferrari were a moribund backmarker, they are now the class of the F1 field and that is due, in major measure to Schumacher's ability to meld a squad to his needs.
In so doing, he set the template being followed by AGR and RLR in the Indy Racing League, as the number of smiles in these two camps lights up the IRL paddock. It's amazing to see and watch the chemistry.
And that, dear folks, is what racing is all about. When egos get bigger than the challenge of winning, all is lost. Won't it be fun to watch Andretti Green Racing and Rahal Letterman Racing vie for the 2004 IndyCar Series crown?
(c) 2004 Anne Proffit