Commentary

Loss of Newman/Haas Racing shocking

Updated: December 3, 2011, 4:12 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

Carl HaasSCOTT OLSON/AFP/Getty ImagesTeam owners Paul Newman, left, and Carl Haas built a team that won 107 Indy car races.

INDIANAPOLIS -- In these tough economic times, the Indy car racing community has come to expect attrition during the offseason.

But losing the sport's second most successful team is a big shock.

In a one-sentence statement attributed to team founder and co-owner Carl Haas, Newman/Haas Racing announced its exit from the Izod IndyCar Series on Thursday. Haas said the team could not continue to compete in the current economic environment.

Of course, there's much more to it than that. Haas and co-owner Paul Newman funded the team mostly on their own for the past five years, and Newman's support -- both financial and emotional -- was lost when the legendary actor/racer died in Sept. 2008.

An attempt from 2007 to 2010 to partner with Mi-Jack Products CEO Mike Lanigan as a succession plan didn't pan out; with 81-year-old Carl Haas in failing health and a $3 million upfront investment for new 2012 chassis and spare parts looming, his wife Bernadette had little choice but to shut down the Indy car program. NHR is likely to retain a few key people for special projects, and Carl A. Haas Automotive remains a major racing parts supplier.

Haas began selling gearbox parts out of his parents' Chicago basement in 1952 to support his sports car racing hobby. He eventually became the U.S. distributor for Hewland gearboxes, as well as full-on racing car constructors including Elva and, most famously, Lola.

Haas and Lola would be intrinsically linked for more than 40 years and for much of that period, he operated Lola's American factory team, fielding cars in the SCCA Can-Am and Formula 5000 series. In partnership with Chaparral founder Jim Hall, Haas/Hall Racing dominated F5000 in the 1970s, winning three consecutive championships with driver Brian Redman. That success continued in the "new" Can-Am, where Patrick Tambay, Alan Jones and Jacky Ickx all claimed series titles for Haas.

Haas' top competitor in the new Can-Am was often Newman, who co-owned Newman/Freeman Racing. Although they were anything but friends at the time, Mario Andretti convinced them to team up to enter the CART Indy car series in 1983. Haas naturally brought Lola into the picture, while Newman contributed his long-running Budweiser sponsorship.

It took Lola almost a year to get to grips with modern Indy car technology, but Andretti still won a pair of races in 1983 before grabbing six wins and the CART series championship for Newman/Haas in 1984.

NHR expanded to two cars in 1989 and for four years the team featured the dream lineup of Mario and son Michael Andretti. Michael really came into his own at this stage of his career, scoring 20 of his 41 career victories and the 1991 CART series championship.

When Michael Andretti left to compete in Formula One in 1993, Haas scored a coup by signing reigning F1 World Champion Nigel Mansell to replace him. Stepping into NHR's well-sorted Lola/Ford-Cosworths and with the experienced Mario Andretti as a teammate, Mansell delivered another CART championship to Newman/Haas.

"Newman/Haas is an outstanding racing team," wrote Mansell in his autobiography. "The mechanics are good enough to work in any of the top Formula One outfits and everyone in the team gave me the support and the backing I needed to get the job done."

Michael Andretti returned to Newman/Haas in 1995 and claimed 11 more race wins for the team. His successor as team leader was Brazilian Cristiano da Matta, who dominated the CART series in 2002 with seven race wins against what was beginning to become a depleted field.

Spurred on by the feisty Newman, NHR remained loyal to CART (and later Champ Car) until the bitter end. Sebastien Bourdais, a relatively unheralded 23-year-old Indy car rookie when hired by Newman/Haas in 2003, went on to dominate the Champ Car-sanctioned series, winning four consecutive championships from 2004 to 2007.

[+] EnlargeSebastien Bourdais, Carl Haas, Paul Newman
Darrell Ingham/Getty ImagesSebastien Bourdais, center, led Newman/Haas Racing in its last great period, winning four straight Champ Car titles from 2004 to 2007 for team owners Carl Haas, left, and Paul Newman.

"When I first arrived in the series I had never been a professional race car driver before," Bourdais recalled. "I learned a lot from a lot of very experienced people in the team. It's an extremely talented group of people working together extremely well and extremely hard with great leadership from Carl and Paul."

Because it was based in Lincolnshire, Ill., Newman/Haas was always somewhat of an outsider in the Indianapolis-centered world of Indy car racing. That may have worked to the team's advantage, because it fostered unusual loyalty among its crew with little turnover.

Key people like John Tzouanakis, Kenny Siwieck, Don Hoevel, Tim Coffeen, Colin Duff, Brian Lisles, Craig Hampson, Todd Malloy and Kevin Chambers all enjoyed long careers with NHR. Much of that was credited to Carl Haas, who despite a reputation for being odd or difficult, was one of the most trusted men in racing.

"Mr. and Mrs. Haas went above and beyond the call of duty to keep the doors open the last five years," said Coffeen, who joined NHR in 1989. "I am eternally grateful for the opportunities they gave me.

"I said at the team Christmas party a few years ago that this place is a family and that's what it is to me. Working here has been the best part of my life and it's because of Carl and Berni Haas and Paul Newman. It's been a lot of hard work and heartache at times but the satisfying moments have been tremendous."

The fact the decision to shut down Newman/Haas' Indy car program came so early should help those team members left looking for work. It will be interesting to see where NHR's highly skilled mechanics and engineers land and what impact they have on their new teams.

Also on the market now are two highly coveted drivers -- Oriol Servia, who finished fourth in the IndyCar Series championship last year and is considered an excellent team leader; and 2011 IndyCar Rookie of the Year James Hinchcliffe. Both are believed to have partial sponsorship packages, but it was not enough to persuade Newman/Haas to continue.

The book therefore closes on what was a remarkable race team by any standard. From 1983 to 2011, Newman/Haas Racing scored 107 Indy car race wins, second only to Penske Racing's 159. The team also achieved eight series championships, matching Ganassi Racing's total; Penske drivers have won 12 series championships.

"It was one of the premier Indy car teams for a long time," Mario Andretti said. "The success we had together will stand, even when doors close. It's going to be missed, for sure."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.