When I'm writing about race teams, it's sometimes difficult to remember that they are not solely made up of the "figureheads" - the owner, the drivers, perhaps the crew chiefs. They are multicellular organisms made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of living, breathing human beings who defy the kinds of generalizations that are de rigueur amongst racing fans and media.
That fact is why I dislike being critical of racing teams in general, and calling attention to their deficiencies specifically. I know, for instance, that there is little a public relations person can do about the quality of parts a team uses, and that a tire changer cannot control what a driver says in public.
Yet when a team such as Andretti Autosport so publicly struggles - losing their most accomplished driver to free agency, losing sponsors to rival teams, and so forth - and people like me break down why that is, folks who should not bear the weight of blame sometimes do anyway. And that honestly makes me feel bad.
Racing, however, is a cold and harsh business and at its worst it rarely stops to question the cost of feelings or justice when it comes to image. The calculus that computes a company's investment in the sport does not take into account hard work that is sabotaged by luck, or context that casts a driver's departure in different terms than might be visible on the surface.
So it is with a measure of trepidation that I venture down this road. I can only say to those at Andretti Autosport who will be angry or upset with me that I am not trying to tell the whole story; rather, I am illustrating the difficulties that crop up when superficial impressions become treated as truth.
The first thing you should know about IZOD's departure from Andretti Autosport is that the deal was negotiated with Team Penske far in advance of Monday's announcement. Sponsorship deals of this magnitude are usually always concluded months in advance because of budgets and the lead time expected for promotions and so forth. Therefore, to cast the "defection" as a sudden, spur-of-the-moment deal would be inaccurate.
But since the deal looks sudden - and because it comes at a time when other sponsors like Meijer and 7-Eleven are leaving or scaling down - the deal appears a whole lot more disastrous than it normally would have. It lends a feeling of instability to Andretti Autosport that wasn't there previously. Suddenly, a team that has been a rock-solid foundational organization in IndyCar for the better part of a decade appears to be casting about for lifelines.
Again, this is not a value judgment about those who work for the team. But there are issues on the surface that lend an air of uncertainty to AA that cannot be ignored. The biggest star driver on the team (in terms of career accomplishment, anyway), Tony Kanaan, was let go in the off-season over salary and sponsorship questions. Danica Patrick is stuck in a self-imposed limbo, unsure of whether to heed the siren call of dollar signs in NASCAR or stay in her IndyCar comfort zone. Ryan Hunter-Reay impressed everyone last season but it remains to be seen whether he can be a team leader in his first full-season IndyCar deal.
And then there is Marco Andretti. In 2006 it seemed as though Marco was on his way to stardom in open-wheel racing. Indeed, the rumor was that he was being groomed for a Formula 1 career. His near-miss at Indianapolis his rookie season, combined with a victory at Sonoma, seemed to confirm that expectation.
But as time has gone on, Marco has looked more like Kyle Petty than Davey Allison. For those not familiar with NASCAR lore, Davey Allison was the reincarnation of his father Bobby - a driver who inherited the hunger, the drive, and the will to win in virtually equal measures from his progenitor. Kyle Petty, on the other hand, tantalized with promises of talent but failed to capitalize on them, leading many to question his commitment to a racing career among his many outside interests.
Considering the early promise of his career, Marco's recent mediocrity on the track is perplexing. Off the track, Marco is a marketer's dream if you're looking for attitude and lifestyle - trim, muscled, and with the trademark Andretti smolder, Marco is in his element when he is used as a figurehead for the "Race to the Party" lifestyle. But double dates with Paris Hilton and workouts with Ludacris don't translate to trophies and podiums, and more than a few people are starting to wonder if Marco's track vision isn't being impaired by the silver spoon jutting from his mouth. The question nobody will ask out loud is, "Is Marco a racer, or just a driver?"
Put all of that together, and you can see why questions might be raised among people responsible for multi-million-dollar motorsports investments. A potential backer could look at AA and see a generalized lack of focus - certainly, less of a laser focus than a man like Roger Penske employs on a daily basis. With Kanaan gone, Patrick waffling, Marco dallying, and Hunter-Reay still establishing himself as more than a journeyman, things look shaky in the driver department. Add in the well-publicized loss of sponsors and... well, it presents a bit of an image problem, don't you think?
It bears mentioning that one visit to the Andretti Autosport shop would - or should - be enough to dispel that impression. But again, impressions are made in racing largely based on the attitudes and actions of a minority that, by all rights, should not represent the whole. And last I checked, big companies did not sit down with the nice person who interacts with fans on Twitter when working out their sponsor budgets.
It's a real shame, too, because Andretti Autosport is the one team in IZOD IndyCar Series racing that has fully embraced the "Road to Indy" concept. Firestone Indy Lights drivers Charlie Kimball and Martin Plowman are bright young prospects, and developmental drivers Sage Karam and Zach Veach are nothing less than phenom-level talents. With so much ability and promise in the system, AA is arguably one of the best-placed IndyCar franchises for the future - certainly worth the investment of top-level sponsors.
The best-case scenario is that Andretti Autosport has sponsorship deals in the pipeline that simply have not been announced yet. As mentioned before, this kind of thing happens all the time in racing. For the team's sake, I hope that is the case.
For now, Andretti Autosport has an image problem. And however disconnected the perception is from reality, the fact that perception sells in racing makes this challenge a daunting one for a team that deserves better.