Tough Journeys for Journeymen Drivers

INDIANAPOLIS, September 9, 2003 — It’s apparent there are more excellent drivers in our country than there are jobs, not an unusual occurrence.

The success that some of these hired hands, these journeyman, have achieved plying their trade as substitutes, or as fill-ins while teams decide what to do with their capital ventures deserves some mention.

For starters, why hasn’t anyone hired Alex Barron on a fulltime basis yet? Left in the lurch when Larry Blair’s two-year ownership experiment in CART and the Indy Racing League folded, the Californian has performed extremely well this season substituting for injured and/or unable to perform drivers.

Barron subbed for Gil de Ferran at Twin Ring Motegi and in testing prior to the opening of practice for the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. In fact, he was the fastest driver testing before Indy in April.

When de Ferran returned to Marlboro Team Penske (and subsequently earned his Indy 500 ring), Barron was picked up to substitute for Arie Luyendyk at Mo Nunn Racing after the Dutchman’s month of May ended with a crash the day before scheduled Pole Day.

Working with the same Panoz G Force/Toyota/Firestone package he’d utilized at Team Penske, Barron got the call and put the #5 Meijer car solid in the show on Bump Day. Coming from 25th grid spot, Barron finished sixth on the lead lap. Then he went back to pounding the pavement.

Felipe Giaffone had to crash out at Kansas in order for Barron to have another ride with Nunn’s outfit. Taking over at Nashville, where he had won the previous year, Alex started sixth and finished fifth. Not bad. The following race, he did even better, winning from sixth grid slot at Michigan in a thrilling duel with Sam Hornish Jr.

A gearbox problem that’s become common for Panoz G Force/Toyota runners of late stopped Barron in St. Louis; his fuel pump packed up at Kentucky and he pooched it in Nazareth. Then Giaffone came back and Barron was out of work again.

Eddie Cheever asked Barron to come over to Red Bull Cheever Racing and drive a Dallara/Chevrolet last weekend at Chicagoland in place of Buddy Rice. Unfamiliar with the package, Barron started 13th and finished seventh. Isn’t anybody following these results?

While we’re talking about competent American hot-shoes, why is Richie Hearn spending most of his time in Henderson, NV instead of on the IndyCar Series circuit? Part of the answer is that Hearn had a miserable month of May with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

Granted, he had a Panoz G Force/Toyota out of the Penske stables to drive for Bump, Carburetion and Race days, but without much time to sort out the car, thanks to foul weather, Richie finished where he started the Indy 500: 28th.

So that disgusted he threw his dirty fire suit in a closet after that race, Hearn needed plenty of track time to get up to speed last weekend at Chicagoland, where he drove the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet in relief of injured Vitor Meira. Thanks to a week earlier test, Richie had a clue where the track went and how the car worked. He parlayed that into MBNA pole position, his first since 1996.

After leading the 200-lap Chicagoland Delphi Indy 300 for the first 37 laps, Richie’s handling went south and then he stalled on the second stop, eventually finishing 14th, a lap down. Only winner Sam Hornish Jr. and lap leader Tomas Scheckter paced more circuits of the 1.5-mile oval. This guy can do it, team owners.

Bryan Herta last had a competitive, fulltime ride in 1999, when he toiled for Team Rahal. Herta did some part-time Champ Car racing over the proceeding three seasons and was looking to sports car competition in 2003, for lack of a fulltime CART or IRL ride. Then he got the call from Michael Andretti after Dario Franchitti wasted his back on a bike.

Herta didn’t get the chance to compete at Indy this season (bridge burner Robby Gordon did that), but he did work for Andretti Green Racing (AGR) in Texas, where he started ninth and finished fifth. While he thought that was the end of that when Franchitti returned for Pikes Peak, the Scot decided surgery was going to allow him to continue his career and opted to go under the knife at once.

The payback for AGR has been huge with Herta on board. While Bryan took the #27 Archipelago/Motorola Dallara/Honda to an okay finish of 14th in his first trip to the tough .75-mile Richmond oval from 8th on the grid, the following week at Kansas he gave AGR its second team victory in an acknowledged fuel economy contest.

Three so-so races followed that euphoria as Herta took 12th at Nashville (from 7th grid spot), DNF’d at Michigan with electrical problems and got involved in a shunt in St. Louis.

Back in the groove again, Bryan Herta has recorded three consecutive P3 podiums for Andretti Green Racing at Kentucky, Nazareth and Chicagoland. He’s got two more opportunities to win this year at tracks he enjoys: Fontana and Texas Motor Speedway. After that who knows?

Herta did have one CART experience this year at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where he scored two wins (1998-99) and might have won in 1996 were it not for Alex Zanardi’s famous “Pass” at the Corkscrew. This time, he drove for hapless PK Racing, who are now on their fourth driver of the season. Herta started 12th and finished 11th there.

PK Racing then hired Max Papis, another guy who has been left out in the cold recently. And another guy who is a veteran of Team Rahal, just like Bryan Herta. Italian Mad Max came back to the CART Champ Car series with PK at Portland and, while the team never did give him a Lola capable of qualifying well, Max managed to bring it home in the top nine in four of his seven races for Craig Pollock and Kevin Kalkhoven, scoring three 9th place finishes and fourth at Road America.

That wasn’t good enough. Max has performed better than any of PK’s other three drivers. But now it’s back to sports cars for Max Papis, and pounding the pavement looking for a NASCAR Busch ride or two.

What a shame these guys don’t have an opportunity to showcase their talents on a regular basis in the American open wheel arena? The journey is pretty tough for journeymen drivers these days. Talent is a terrible thing to waste and, it seems to me, that’s exactly what’s happening with this bunch.

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