Andretti team trying to turn it around
It's been a good news/bad news kind of year for Andretti Autosport.
Boosted by the addition of driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, the team formerly known as Andretti Green Racing found its way back to the Izod IndyCar Series winner's circle after a lengthy drought, with Hunter-Reay winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April and 2004 IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan scoring his first victory in more than two years at Iowa Speedway in June.
But with its four drivers ranking sixth, seventh, eighth and 11th in the IndyCar points standings, AA is still far from the dominant organization it was in 2004, '05 and '07, all years in which AGR drivers won at least eight races and the IndyCar Series championship.
After the first winless campaign in the organization's seven-year history, the team made major changes in the 2009-10 offseason; out went founding partners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, leaving former Indy car star Michael Andretti as the sole owner. Andretti immediately brought in veteran team manager Tom Anderson, who had an extremely successful career with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Fernandez Racing, to lead the renamed team.
Anderson found a big job on his hands when he arrived. Tension among returning drivers Kanaan, Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti was common in the past couple of years, and AA's engineering staff clearly lagged behind the pace-setting Ganassi and Penske teams that have made a mockery of the IndyCar field for the past three seasons.
"I wasn't here last year, and I only hear stories," Anderson said. "We're much more calm this year, from what I understand, than what we were last year.
"Obviously, we've fallen off the mark, and also, the bar has been raised," he added. "Penske and Ganassi continue to improve because they have a tremendous dogfight going on between them. The rest of us are still trying to catch up to them. Some of the other teams around this year have made gains. I think we've made a small gain from last year, but overall, it hasn't covered the whole spectrum of the races that we run."
Perhaps the most surprising element of AA's up-and-down 2010 season is the emergence of Hunter-Reay as the team's leader. RHR was acknowledged as a quality driver throughout his three-year Indy car career, but he was perhaps not expected to immediately outpace AA's star incumbent drivers in his new surroundings.
Hunter-Reay leads AA with five top-5 and nine top-10 finishes in 2010. He's sixth in the IndyCar points standings, followed immediately by Kanaan and Andretti. Patrick is 11th, a year removed from finishing a career-best fifth in the points chase.
Anderson acknowledges that Hunter-Reay has done an excellent job for AA this year, but he refuses to place blame for the Andretti team's extended malaise on the other drivers.
"I think Ryan is just doing a better job with the cars we are giving him," Anderson said. "We've got some things we're working on, and right now we're trying to focus more on the other three because Ryan and [engineer] Ray Gosselin are working really, really well together. We feel if we can find something the other three can latch onto and benefit them, then that will really springboard Ryan.
"Ryan is saying the same things about the car that the others are, only he is somehow driving around it. If you look at the telemetry data from the good laps that Ryan does, there's a lot of footwork going on there to make that car do what he needs it to do to get it around a corner."
Marco Andretti believes a "back to basics" engineering approach has produced better cars for the AA drivers this year, especially on road courses. Marco led the majority of the race at Barber Motorsports Park in April and has generally posted much stronger road racing results this year.
"We were trying to overengineer the cars," Andretti said. "That was a problem for two years, and now we're just trying to pull ourselves out of that mentality and say, 'We just need to make these things comfortable so we can drive them. We don't need to reinvent the wheel.' It comes down to what I've been saying the whole time: There's no magic to what Ganassi and Penske are doing."
Anderson refuses to subscribe to the notion that distractions outside the car are hindering the performance of Patrick and Kanaan. Of course Patrick has made headlines in 2010 for her halting attempts to transition into NASCAR, and Kanaan is emerging from a turbulent two-year period when he went through a divorce and seems to still be affected by his August 2008 decision to stay with Andretti, turning down the seat at Ganassi that eventually went to Dario Franchitti.
"Obviously, personal emotion plays into all drivers," Anderson said. "You can see emotion, and emotion is part of it. But do I think the personal schedules that either of them has is a distraction to their performance on the racetrack? I don't really think so. I think we're honestly missing something with the car.
"Danica and Tony aren't as congenial as normal in good years," he continued. "You know how drivers are: When you're not running good, you're not feeling good. They haven't been, but in no way do I believe that Tony and Danica are as slow as they qualified [20th and 22nd] at Mid-Ohio. When they do that, I know it frustrates them to no end, and I don't care what's going on in their family life, they're pissed when they qualify the way they did. It's our responsibility to get them a better race car."
Within the IndyCar paddock, the Andretti team has long been perceived as a somewhat closed society, and much of that image mirrors Michael Andretti's personality. As a driver, he was never particularly friendly or outgoing with the media or sponsors, and that kind of attitude seems to have rubbed off on his hired drivers.
When recently asked whether Andretti was able to use his own driving experience to help his current drivers, Hunter-Reay admitted that he had to work hard to tap into Michael's knowledge.
"He keeps to himself, on his own," Hunter-Reay said. "When you want to ask, we get it from him."
Anderson noted that although it's his responsibility to bring AA closer to the front of the field, it's not appropriate for him to try to stamp his identity on the team. One major change he brought forth was the parting of ways with engineering director Peter Gibbons, a 30-year Indy car veteran who had worked closely with Michael Andretti since 1991.
Technical director Tino Belli is believed to be another logical candidate for dismissal.
"We're changing things internally here to try and go after a more consistent package," Anderson said. "I knew it was going to be a challenge walking in because this is the first time in over 20 years I haven't been directly involved in hiring the majority of the people that I'm working with. That was strange just getting used to the people, knowing and understanding the systems.
"What you have to appreciate is that every team has its own personality. So it would have been totally wrong for me to try to come in and make this like one of the other teams I've worked with in the past. There are all sorts of things you learn once you get inside the building about pre-existing contracts, all sorts of things you are left to juggle. And in some cases, you can't move in certain directions because of pre-existing commitments. You have to be careful to judge, but I think at the end of the day, we are making progress here."
Kanaan, who barely made the field at Indianapolis and whose average qualifying position this year is a woeful 14.9, said he believes that AA is headed in the right direction. But he knows there is plenty of hard work ahead.
"It's one of the most winning teams in IndyCar, so we're not lacking anything," Kanaan said. "Honestly, I don't have the answer for you. I can tell you that we're nowhere near the team that we were three years ago. But everybody's working towards getting better, and that's all we can do. Everybody has a bad phase in racing, and every team does. I remember Ganassi a few years back, and I remember Penske a few years back. And I guess it's our turn. Hopefully we'll turn it around sooner than later."
Although he is wary of the final four 1.5-mile oval events of the year after this weekend's road race at Sonoma, Anderson said he believes Andretti Autosport is indeed on the right track. He just wishes the pace of progress would move a little quicker.
"The atmosphere here I think is good, and we're going in a good direction," he said. "But are we going fast enough to make a good showing before the end of the season? That's a good question. We might be a little bit behind on that. I certainly would have liked to have better results than what we've had so far."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
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