Tuesday, September 17, 2002
Updated: September 18, 11:46 AM ET
It's about the money
By Robin Miller
The official announcement Tuesday that Michael Andretti is taking Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan to the Indy Racing League is neither surprising (RPM2Night reported it last week) nor tough to explain.
Even though it's obviously a blow to Championship Auto Racing Teams and a boon to the IRL, this is all about money rather than the politics of open-wheel racing.
Andretti was able to buy Barry Green's existing CART operation and hire Franchitti and Kanaan because Honda brokered this deal with its considerable treasure chest.
Yeah, yeah, I've already heard from other owners that Honda might be giving Andretti and partners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree some free engines, but no way is any money changing hands.
It's quite possible American Honda won't spend the hundreds of millions it did the past nine years in CART, supporting teams and paying drivers, but it's absolutely sure this company is fronting the IRL's newest super team.
First of all, Andretti is too smart to spend his own money on a team and Green and Savoree don't have the kind of cake it takes to field three cars and 80 employees in a 42,000-foot shop.
Secondly, KOOL not only won't be throwing $50 million into the kitty like it did a few years ago, it's 80-20 the tobacco company is out of racing altogether.
My understanding is that Motorola will return as an associate sponsor, along with Archipelago, and 7-Eleven is coming back -- with or without KOOL.
But, remember this, if Andretti/Green had a major sponsor to replace KOOL there would have been a big news conference Tuesday instead of a press release.
Franchitti is one of CART's highest paid drivers, earning $5 million a year, and he isn't going to run 16 oval races for a penny less. Honda loves Franchitti and while it supposedly lobbied to halve his salary, he won't be taking a pay cut in 2003.
And Andretti isn't doing this for free, either, so Honda had to make him happy.
Already way behind Toyota in development of an IRL engine, Honda had to have Andretti, Franchitti and Kanaan to combat its hated rival. (Shinji Nakano is driving Adrian Fernandez's IRL entry with Honda power and doesn't exactly scare anybody on an oval). This factory Honda team was expensive, but absolutely paramount.
Honda can't afford to be humiliated by Toyota, which already has Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing.
As for the ramifications, CART not only loses its all-time winner and most recognizable driver, it also loses one of its two Americans currently in the FedEx Championship.
Speaking with the 39-year-old veteran a few weeks ago at Elkhart Lake, he acknowledged the resentment he'll receive from the CART paddock for going to the other side.
"I know everybody is going to hate me but this is about business," said Andretti, who will likely run Homestead, Phoenix, Nazareth and Indianapolis one more time before retiring. "My heart is in CART, but I can't run a team with my heart."
The economic balance of open wheel racing in this country has definitely shifted with Honda and Toyota leaving CART for the IRL and taking along its teams.
Chip Ganassi (at least three cars), Morris Nunn (two), Fernandez (one) and Carl Haas (one) mirror Andretti's situation. They all have sponsors but they also have an affinity for the finer things in life and free engines and money make those things possible. Other than Ganassi, they are reluctantly running in both series because, financially, it's the smart thing to do.
Tony George spent millions and millions of dollars propping up IRL teams the past six years. Now it's Honda's and Toyota's turn, except they won't be spreading the wealth with the IRL's needy or longtime teams. They'll be taking care of the CART defectors.
From CART's perspective, it would have been nice to see Andretti stay in his series with at least one car. But he's got a lot of mouths to feed and a payroll to meet so he simply followed basic motorsports economics.
Take the money and run.
Ganassi's current CART lineup figures to look quite a bit different in the IRL next year. He'll keep Scott Dixon and lose Bruno Junqueira, and Kenny Brack said last weekend he won't be in CART in 2003.
Ganassi will probably add Tora Takagi to keep Toyota happy, while Jeff Ward remains in limbo.
Brack will go back to the IRL or possibly NASCAR (it's rumored DEI would be interested in testing the '99 Indy 500 winner in a Winston Cup car). Junqueira is moving to Newman-Haas in CART, but now it looks like his lifelong buddy, Cristiano da Matta, is suddenly 50-50 to go to Formula One with Toyota.
Even though he lost Kanaan to Andretti, Nunn is trying to keep his one-car CART team alive for 2003.
Patrick Carpentier confirmed he's staying with Player's/Forsythe for 2003.