(by George Phillips oilpressure.wordpress.com 6-9-09)
One of the most puzzling developments for the past year and a half is the rapid decline of one of the premier IndyCar teams – Andretti-Green Racing. By the end of the 2007 season, AGR had won three of the four previous IndyCar championships and captured two of the previous three Indianapolis 500 crowns. During this time, fans witnessed an almost nauseating display of team unity, as teammates would kiss each other in victory circle when one of them won. I always wondered what would have happened if George “Ziggy” Snider had ever approached AJ Foyt with a congratulatory smooch.
Since the 2007 season, Andretti-Green Racing has fallen into a sea of mediocrity accompanied by turmoil, poor results and finger pointing. It’s hard to determine one single event that has triggered this decline. In fact, it could be a cumulative effect of several occurrences that have taken place.
In the summer of 2002, Michael Andretti announced that he, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree were buying Team Green from Kim’s brother Barry. They were moving the team from CART over to the rival Indy Racing League for the 2003 season and would be Honda’s” works” team as Honda debuted in the IRL.
Dario Franchitti moved with the team and retained his familiar #27. Michael recruited rising CART star Tony Kanaan to join the team. This was also to serve as Michael’s move into retirement from driving. After Michael drove at Indy, the team would continue as a three-car effort with newcomer Dan Wheldon taking over for Michael in a #26 Jim Beam car. Wheldon actually ran Motegi and Indianapolis, finishing Indy upside-down on the north end of the track.
Prior to Indy, Franchitti had fractured his back in a motorcycle crash in Scotland. Robby Gordon was chosen to replace Franchitti at Indy, but Bryan Herta was tabbed for the remainder of the year to sub for Dario. Herta won the race at Kansas and was rewarded the #7 XM-Radio car as AGR expanded to four cars in 2004.
With the aid of the powerful Honda engine, AGR had quickly become a juggernaut in the IndyCar Series. By 2004, Wheldon was clearly becoming a force, taking his first win at Motegi on his way to three victories for the season. Franchitti regained his form after his injury and Kanaan had an almost magical run on his way to the IndyCar title.
The following year saw Wheldon win the Indianapolis 500, giving owner Michael Andretti his first trip to victory lane at Indy. Wheldon also won the 2005 championship that season giving AGR two consecutive titles. Along the way, the four drivers seemed to be best friends on and off the track. Practical jokes between the four were common and they all seemed to embrace the team concept. There was an undeniable chemistry between them, although they seemed to take it a bit far with the celebratory kissing.
At the end of the 2005 season, the first crack formed at AGR. Wheldon announced he would leave the team to join Target Chip Ganassi. The Ganassi team had fallen on hard times as they had been saddled with the Toyota engine. The second crack formed about the same time when Chevy and Toyota announced their intentions to leave. For 2006, Honda would be the sole engine provider for the series. This meant that there were no longer factory or works teams for Honda. This was a double-hit for AGR – not only were they not getting the “special” Honda parts for their engines, but Honda would be forced to no longer provide the additional funding they were providing to Andretti-Green.
For 2006, Michael made a curious decision. To replace Dan Wheldon, Michael chose his nineteen year-old son Marco to fill the seat in the #26 car. The move looked to be the right one at first, as Marco came within a few feet of becoming the first teenager to win the Indianapolis 500. Andretti would later win on the road course at Sonoma to become the youngest winner in IndyCar Series history. The season proved to be a step back for the team however, as Andretti-Green didn’t win the IRL title for the first time since their first season.
The team rebounded for 2007, but with challenges. Bryan Herta had been replaced in the cockpit with third-year driver Danica Patrick. Marco had six DNF’s in his first seven starts, quickly acquiring a reputation for boneheaded moves. He finished the season eleventh in points and had definitely regressed for his sophomore campaign. Tony Kanaan had his usual strong season, finishing with five wins and third in points; while Dario Franchitti won Indy and won the title.
While Franchitti was battling for the championship at Sonoma, Marco made what had become a typical Marco move and collided with Franchitti while leaving the pits. In typical Andretti fashion, Michael chose to blame Dario for the transgression. Franchitti’s response was that Michael needed to separate himself from his roles as father and car-owner. Dario left the team for Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team at season’s end.
Surprisingly, AGR tabbed rookie driver Hideki Mutoh to replace Franchitti. The face of Andretti-Green had changed dramatically for the 2008 season. The only remaining driver from that core that had so much chemistry just three years earlier was Kanaan. His teammates were a kid who was the boss’s son, a self-serving star of the league who had questionable driving skills and a rookie that could barely speak English.
In yeoman-like fashion, Kanaan pushed on through the 2008 season that saw him win only one race, yet he still managed to finish third in points. Marco made a ridiculous move at Indy, which put Kanaan into the wall while he was leading. Danica Patrick won a fuel-mileage race at Motegi that created an unbelievable amount of hoopla. She then followed that with her infamous march down pit lane at Indy, to do God knows what, to Ryan Briscoe. Marco drove a good race in Texas to put himself in position to win, but tangled late with Ryan Hunter-Reay. As is part of his DNA, he made sure the cameras knew it was not his fault. Mutoh kept his mouth shut, finished seventh at Indy and tenth in points – an admirable, yet unspectacular rookie season.
Four teammates with different agendas plodded forward through a notably unremarkable season, in 2008. Things finally came to a head in Edmonton. Kanaan was the only car on the pace throughout the race. As he came upon his lapped teammates, Danica and Marco, they inexplicably would not let him by as they waged their own battle. Kanaan pleaded over the radio to get them to let him by. Finally, Marco punted Danica from behind essentially ruining the day for both. At that point, Kanaan finally made it past. After the race, a team meeting ensued where Michael reportedly blew up.
The next weekend found Kanaan reportedly agreeing with Ganassi to replace Dan Wheldon, as Kanaan’s contract was expiring. When Michael got word of this, he knew he had to do whatever it took to keep his lone voice of reason on the team. Kanaan re-signed for five years.
Six races into the 2009 campaign finds Kanaan mired in seventh place. He was leading the points entering Indy, but two DNF’s dropped him to seventh. At Texas, Marco and Danica provided the only excitement late in the race, while racing for fifth and sixth. Danica seemingly held her line and raced him clean, but afterwards Marco complained that she was not being a good teammate and suggested she was the only team member not enjoying the camaraderie at Andretti-Green.
The wheels seem to have come off at AGR. The team that used to exemplify team spirit has now devolved into four individuals obviously going in different directions, while squabbling along the way. Consequently, AGR has practically fallen into obscurity, causing the big three to become the big two.
Is it lack of chemistry? Perhaps the original combination of drivers, were the only ones to have the chemistry to ever pull off a four-car effort. Is there a leadership void with Herta and Franchitti gone? Has the quality of team personnel declined? Kanaan has had bad cars almost all year. Why? Is Marco the problem? Is Danica? Do Marco and Danica compete for the team limelight? Is Kanaan strong enough to serve as baby-sitter while he tries to focus on another championship?
And what of the owners? Different reports last year said that either Kim Green and/or Kevin Savoree wanted out, yet they are still there. One thing is certain – there are more questions than answers. But until Michael Andretti starts being a team owner and stops being a Dad, the problems will continue…and so will the losing.