So… Sarah Fisher has a Honda engine and Michael Shank has a Lotus. This little factoid has sent shivers and shakes through the indycar fan base. Questions of what is right, what is fair, and what is acceptable behavior from INDYCAR have persisted in the weeks since the announcement. Honestly, I really have no opinion one way or the other; I just think some questions, and to a lesser extent unbiased opinions may have slid through the cracks before immovable stances were taken.
As always, I am not privy to the inner workings of the INDYCAR machine, but I cannot accept that they played a “huge part” in getting SFHR an engine. Although there are more issues at hand than just Fishers team being gifted an engine, the rawest rub seems to be that Michael Shanks operation was passed over… again… by INDYCAR in favor of a stalwart team.
Before thrusting my #enginechair manifesto on you; we should first know some facts concerning the issue at hand.
1. Rahal had two signed engine leases from Honda, one seat confirmed for a full season and one unused engine lease waiting on the right financial obligations to be used.
2. SFHR has the reigning Indy Lights champion, new cash infusions thanks to Wink Hartman, and plans for a beautiful race shop in the shadow of the new Dallara plant on Main Street Speedway.
3. MSR has a signed engine lease from Lotus, interest in signing Paul Tracy and his two million in Honda money, and a successful shop to run his new indycar team from.
4. All teams have the prerequisite DW12s needed for a full assault on the 2012 INDYCAR schedule and all teams have the support personnel to contest said season.
5. Rahal signed their second Honda lease to SFHR, ensuring their participation in the 2012 season.
Why didn’t INDYCAR force Rahal forfeit his engine to Shank; allowing Fisher to take over his Lotus lease and insure two rides for the 2012 season? I think the fatal assumption in this entire case is the idea that INDYCAR can make the owners or manufacturers do their bidding. I do not deny the fact that the back room of INDYCAR, owners and manufacturers is in fact a snake pit. But it has been the sanctioning bodies continued stance that they are letting the manufacturers make their own supply decisions. INDYCAR, it seems, may have given the manufacturers too much power.
The lease was Bobby Rahals to do what he wanted; forfeiting included. I see two possible scenarios following Rahal forfeiting the engine. Either, he simply signed the lease over to Sarah Fisher, or the engine was returned to the pool and Honda was allowed to decide what team would come up the big winner. The only way I can see INDYCAR having any sort of power over these decisions was some sort of pressure levied to RLLR to make a decision about the second seat. Sign a driver, or sign the lease over. But what could INDYCAR really do? Fine him for not signing a driver?
Regardless of route, the outcome was the same; Sarah Fisher had her engine, and Shank was left to deal with his Lotus. If the Honda lease went to Michael Shank Racing, it is nearly certain that Paul Tracy would be signed and his Honda Canada money would partially fund his farewell season.
Nearly certain… PT and MSR would still have been short on cash for a full season. As early as Monday of this week, Shank admitted that even with the Honda engine he could not guarantee participation open testing this week in Sebring. MSR has been quiet on if there are even other sponsors to support his 2012 campaign. MSR plus Honda did not equal a guaranteed full season assault. Nothing changes for Shanks team with the addition of a Honda engine; it only makes the dream a bit easier to obtain.
SFHR had everything in place to run the full season. Her continued courting of Walgreens is not a private subject, but if she can’t land them as a main sponsor nothing changes. The team was primed for a full season. With the Indy Lights champion waiting in the wings, a fully funded car and big plans on the horizon, all she needed to know was who to make her engine check out to.
Enter Honda to save the day. They had two choices, both of noble cause but one has a better outcome than the other. If MSR had been given the Honda and assuming they could contest the full season with PT and give him the farewell tour he absolutely deserves, what about 2013? PT retires and there is no guarantee that the Honda Canada money doesn’t go with him. MSR could be in a similar situation next year; looking for cash and fearing they will miss the grid. This is not a positive long term possibility.
By having an engine, SFHR lock their long term participation into place. A known viable team, fully ready to contest the season is saved from oblivion and a young rookie gets his shot at the big time. But Why not give Shank the Honda and SFHR the displaced Lotus? Because, even with the Honda, Shank was in no place to guarantee his participation in the 2012 season and beyond, but SFHR could. Honda, either through Rahal or INDYCAR, signed the most viable team available, without reworking other manufacturer contracts.
No one knows how much of a fight Lotus would have put up to keep MSR. They signed their contract; they have to sleep in their bed. Fisher never turned down a Lotus lease, and was never guilty of waiting too long; she was left standing when all other chairs were spoken for. Why would we thrust Shanks bad decision to sign with Lotus on Fisher and possibly doom the team in 2013 and beyond? Maybe waiting was the right answer; a hard lesson for new team owner Michael Shank to learn, but an important one nonetheless. I really want Michael Shank Racing to succeed; with the job they did on Ganassi in Daytona proves they deserve to be here.
I think the right decision was made regardless of the path taken. It was a decision with an eye to the future and that is never a bad thing. The possible loss PT; the final relic from the CART era, would be an immense blow to the hardcore viewership and a great injustice served to a great champion; but it’s not about us, it’s about them. Not having young Josef Newgarden would be an even larger blow to the possible new fans picked up this year. They have a fast, young rookie to root for now and I would trade that for an aging champion on his farewell tour any day.