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Open Wheel Wednesday: Score One For The Little Guys … Or Two Or Three

Open Wheel Wednesday: Score One For The Little Guys … Or Two Or Three

Takuma Sato’s win last week in Long Beach was a real feel good story for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series. A.J. Foyt’s long-struggling team hadn’t won a race since July of 2002, when the team went to Victory Lane with Brazilian driver Airton Dare at Kansas Speedway. For the last road / street course victory for the operation, you have to go all the way back to October of 1978, when Foyt himself won at Silverstone in England. It was also the first IndyCar Series win ever for a Japanese driver.

Before I go any further, those are all wonderful things and I don’t mean to decrease the significance of any of them in the least. It really was a win that was a long time coming, for both team and driver and it was great to see. (Although I really wish A.J. had been present for the moment; instead, he was at home preparing for back surgery.) It was a David slew Goliath kind of day.

That’s when it hit me. I said those exact same words myself when I wrote the season finale MAVTV 500 recap last year. That time, I was referring to Ed Carpenter and his self-owned team, an operation that came together late in the offseason prior to 2012 and ran on a fraction of the budget of teams like Penske or Ganassi. Carpenter had one previous win, in 2011, this one at Kentucky driving for, of all people, the also underfunded Sarah Fisher Racing. It was, of course, the first victory for his fledgling operation.

Takuma Sato took the checkers first in Long Beach, one of three underdog drivers to stand atop the podium in the last 12 months.

What are the odds of this feat happening twice in what really amounts to a span of just a handful of races? But wait! Are you ready for this one? How about the Firestone 550K from Texas Motor Speedway last June? I didn’t actually say David slew Goliath, but I implied it in the first Highlight Reel point of my recap for that race. Justin Wilson got the win on that oval, driving for small-time Dale Coyne Racing. Wilson has seven wins to his credit, but Dale Coyne Racing has been around since 1984, mostly giving up-and-coming drivers a place to start, and had only one other victory in all that time, in 2009, also with Wilson.

Why does this trend keep happening? Honestly, I don’t really know. I’d like to say that since all teams use the same Dallara chassis, and engines are leased from the manufacturers who actually build them, that it takes money out of the equation more than in other series, perhaps. What difference does it make when your dollar doesn’t buy any better equipment than someone else’s? But I don’t think that’s true. While the equipment might be the same, teams like Penske or Andretti have the money to afford more personnel, the best and brightest out there who are worth top dollar.

If you want proof of that, take a look at what 2012 looked like overall. Wilson and Carpenter scored amazing victories, but the other 13 races were all won by someone driving for Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti Autosport. Having 40 team members, specialized and focused on specific tasks within the organization, just trumps having six who have to thrash around and have to do everything that the 40 do.

I think it’s something more intangible than that. Call it an alignment of the stars or the cosmos or fate or the fickle gods of racing. Or just simply call it the perfect day. That’s exactly what Sato called it.

“It was just a perfect weekend, to be honest. The team did a tremendous job. Pit stops, right calls,” he said after the race. “The power was great and I was comfortable in the car and able to push everything.”

Sato even went so far as to say it was easy. I’m pretty sure the word “easy” brought a collective gasp from the audience, but what he meant was it all lined up perfectly. The engine was good, the car was set up well, the team made the right calls in the pits – performing the stops without errors – and also made the calls needed to give him good track position. Sato, for once, didn’t turn into a loose cannon and overdrive his machine. It also probably didn’t hurt that guys like Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe made a day out of stuffing themselves into tire barriers.

The racing gods smiled on Sato in Long Beach. In the case of Carpenter, he’s just really strong on the ovals, and he also had the kind of day where the car was fast, the calls were good, and he got it done. In his case, he won with a whole host of the big boys nipping at his heels. Will Power wrecked but Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Hunter-Reay and gang were right there. He just beat them.

Wilson was the benefactor of a unique race. In order to break up the dangerous packs that plagued tracks like Texas, the car setup package required drivers to manage tires and fight the handling at times. The result was an “anything can happen” sort of event. Once again drivers like Franchitti, Dixon, and Power experienced issues and once again for Wilson, it just all came together.

Is there any one thing that allows the little guys to beat the powerhouses in IndyCar with something at least approaching regularity? No. Is there any guarantee that this trend will keep happening? No, but that means there also isn’t any reason it won’t. Indeed, it would seem Sato, Carpenter, and Wilson make a good case that it’s a possibility on any given Sunday, perhaps more of a realistic one than in other series like NASCAR or Formula 1. There’s no reason to think that, if Josef Newgarden or Simona de Silvestro are your favorites, they won’t be atop the podium when the day is over.

On a final note, it’s still very early of course, and it’s not unusual for points to look odd in any series after just a few races, but as of right now, Takuma Sato is sitting in second spot, nestled between Penske driver Helio Castroneves, who leads, and Ganassi wheelman Scott Dixon in third. Justin Wilson is not far behind in fifth. Maybe at the end of the day, the haves will still prevail over the have nots because maybe that’s what racing really comes down to, but never forget that sometimes the fickle fate of racing smiles on the little guys, too.

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Toni Montgomery
An editor for the Frontstretch since 2006, Toni heads up the open-wheel portion of the website along with its NHRA coverage. Creative Director for Open-Wheel Wednesdays, she’s also responsible for pre- and post-race columns along with special features highlighting IndyCar and Formula One. An award-winning writer for the Presbyterian Church, Toni freelances with both writing and web design in North Carolina.