Mod's note.....silly season will be updated this time Thursday to reflect this story's impact......
Long a dominant team over in the American LeMans Series, owner Duncan Dayton is expected to field an IndyCar Series team in 2011 w/champion driver Simon Pagenaud as driver
---Duncan Dayton has never been shy about his interest to add an IndyCar program to his growing motorsports empire, and just days after winning their second consecutive American Le Mans Series title, he says Highcroft Racing is growing closer to joining the ranks of open-wheel entrants.
“It’s a bit premature to formally announce anything, but I will say we’ve always had our eye on the IndyCar Series. When Acura withdrew from the [ALMS] LMP1 program at the end of last year, we realized we needed to broaden our horizons and to consider something beyond the ALMS. The ALMS is our primary focus; we believe it’s the most demanding proving grounds of any series in North America or the world, for that matter, given the technology that manufacturers can bring to bear. The rather unregulated rulebook is very appealing to us, but the idea of participating in the IRL and the Indy 500 is something that is also important to us.”
Fielding a full-time IndyCar program would be a better fit for 2012, according to Dayton, but learning the ropes at select rounds in 2011 is what’s currently being explored. “We are aware that Penske and Ganassi have had almost a decade with the current cars and have built amazing ‘cookbooks’ of knowledge and setup info, so I think it would be difficult, at best, to be competitive straight away [next year]. We’d stand a better chance with the new car in 2012. We’d still be behind the 8-ball against these guys even then, but nonetheless, we’d probably have a better chance of success by starting from scratch like everyone else. Our primary focus for 2011 will be the ALMS, but we’re striving towards doing a couple of one-offs in IndyCar next year.”
Although securing Highcroft’s place on the 2011 IndyCar grid for a limited campaign is still a work in progress, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard says that adding a team of Highcroft’s caliber to the paddock would be a major boost to the series. “Having Highcroft in the IZOD IndyCar Series would not only be a compliment, it would be an honor. They are exactly the type of organization that we want in IndyCar; I’ve always said that we want the best of the best. With what they’ve achieved in the ALMS and how I’ve seen them represent their sponsors at the combined IndyCar and ALMS event this year, I think they’d find great value by expanding into open-wheel. We’re headed in an exciting new direction for 2012 and I think Highcroft could fit right in with the top teams in the series.”
With one season left before the current Dallara IR7 chassis is mothballed for 2012, Dayton says Highcroft’s 2011 plans would involve leasing equipment and joining forces with an existing team. “It makes a lot more sense to collaborate with someone to start with. To buy the car, build the equipment, build the spares then start testing and development independently of anyone else would be a daunting task, and one that probably had a limited residual value in terms of the leftover equipment. It would make more sense for us to partner with someone who has the equipment, knows the cars, and knows the tracks. No one is going to give us their race-winning setups, but certainly it would give us a better shot if we worked with someone who could give us something that was close. Our engineers can then work to get it closer.”
While Dayton wouldn’t be drawn on the IndyCar teams he’s been in contact with, he did state that his preference would be to create a scenario where his entire team was able to gain experience, rather than simply hire a team to run his driver for a few races. The 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series calendar is filled with four consecutive road courses prior to the Indy 500, leaving Highcroft without the opportunity to do an oval race in preparation for Indianapolis. Dayton expressed his desire to do at least one race as a warm-up to Indy, and with an ALMS conflict at Long Beach and the high costs of sending his team to Brazil, competing at the IndyCar season opener at St. Pete or at Barber Motorsports Park the week before Long Beach would appear to be their best options.
“If we were to do the Indy 500, we’d do a lot of testing beforehand. If we do the 500 with our crew, we wouldn’t want the 500 to be the first hot pit stops we do, so we’d want to go racing somewhere before then. There’s the opportunity to use a pit crew from another team but our guys are consummate professionals, and we’ve shown that we do the fastest stops on [the ALMS] pit lane, so our guys take that kind of challenge pretty seriously. They adapted amazingly this year where they went from four guys and two guns in the ALMS to two guys and one gun at Le Mans. They’d be up for IndyCar.”
Dayton added two major assets to his team in 2010, hiring Simon Pagenaud to partner with David Brabham in the team’s HPD ARX-01c LMP2 prototype, and signing the respected engineer Will Phillips to assume the role of engineering director. Pagenaud, one of the bright spots as a rookie during the 2007 ChampCar season, built a reputation in the ALMS and at Le Mans as one of the fastest and most complete young drivers. After spending two years working for Gil de Ferran -- who served as Pagenaud’s mentor – the rapid young Frenchman was snapped up by Dayton once de Ferran’s ALMS program wound down. One year later, Pagenaud is celebrating his first ALMS championship and is on the verge of helping Highcroft to take their first steps in IndyCar.
Based on what he’s seen this year and from Pagenaud’s previous open-wheel record, Dayton was quick to confirm the 26-year-old as his first choice for the IZOD IndyCar Series. “Absolutely. Obvious he has developed a very strong working relationship with Will Phillips and Ben Bretzman [Highroft’s race engineer, and brother to Eric Bretzman, Scott Dixon’s engineer at Target Chip Ganassi] and the rest of our team, he’s very comfortable with those guys and they all know each other’s needs. We’ve shown the ability to get the best out of the car for Simon, and I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he would relish the opportunity to enter IndyCar with Highcroft.”
The 2006 Toyota Atlantic champion says the chance to rekindle his IndyCar career with Highcroft would make for an amazing journey, but leaving sportscar racing behind is not his goal. He plans on driving whatever machine Highcroft puts in front of him.
“Sportscars are our first priority, but I have always shared Duncan’s passion for open-wheel racing. As I’ve said before, going to sportscars after ChampCar was the best thing that could have happened for me. I had just one year there and was very happy with what I accomplished, but you need a few years to reach your peak, I believe. I’ve been fortunate to continue my development in the ALMS -- I’ve grown so much as a driver and as a professional here.
“And now that we have achieved what we set out to with our championship in the ALMS, the challenge of IndyCar racing with Highcroft Racing could be interesting. As Duncan mentioned, it’s probably better to do a few races in the beginning to learn and then step up to a full-time program, but wherever he wants me to race, I’m happy to race. Driving for Duncan is my main goal.”
Pagenaud earned eight top-6 finishes in 2007 as Will Power’s teammate, but in his third year in ChampCar at that point and beginning to hit his stride, the Australian garnered most of the accolades and attention. The two went in opposite directions as Power landed at KV Racing for the 2008 IndyCar season and Pagenaud started his sportscar journey, but the two have remained close in the ensuing years. Having measured favorably against Power in ChampCar, the possibility of going wheel-to-wheel with him once again is clearly something Pagenaud would enjoy.
“I’m good friends with Will and what he’s achieved is absolutely fantastic. I’m sad he didn’t win the championship and I know he will win many more in the future. He’s only continued to improve since we were teammates in 2007; the level of performance by him this year was amazing, and I can say I have also improved a lot since 2007. The opportunity to compete against him and the other top drivers would be fascinating – especially with the right team, and I believe Highcroft Racing can be that team in IndyCar racing.”
Like Dayton, Pagenaud knows Highcroft would face a steep learning curve in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but with so many veteran open-wheel crew members on the team, he’s positive they would get up to speed faster than most new teams entering the series. “With Will, we saw how big of a difference the right team made for him, and if Highcroft Racing does do this, I think we have a very bright future in front of us. It is not easy; not at all, but with Duncan, the mechanics and the engineers, all of the right ingredients are here. Maybe not everyone in open-wheel has seen Highcroft or knows what the team is like, but I can say this is a world-class team. The people here are just so good. As a driver, this is the most exciting part. You do not have to look at the other teams and wish you could have the right people or the right equipment.”
Finding the funding for Highcroft’s IndyCar aspirations is at the top of Dayton’s list, and despite some alarming news this week from the IndyCar paddock, he hopes his Connecticut-based team’s track record of securing and developing sponsorships in the ALMS will carry over into open-wheel. “I think the environment for finding sponsorship is a challenging one, no doubt. With 7-Eleven’s announcement they are pulling away from Andretti Autosport, it only showcases how hard it is. That was a huge surprise. But, we’ve had success in finding sponsors for the American Le Mans Series by over delivering. Whether that’s in marketing, PR, VIP hospitality or on-track performance, the results we’ve had have given us a platform to maybe offer something different – something over and above the normal package. We try hard to make our sponsors feel like they’ve been given the kind of experience – like being on the field with Derek Jeter and the Yankees – that others can do too, but we like to think we’ve shown a track record of regularly delivering at that level for our partners. That’s our goal for the IRL.”
Part of Dayton’s desire to add IndyCar racing to Highcroft’s offering is to diversify his company. Like Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi, building Highcroft Racing into a multi-dimensional operation with team competing in at least two full-time series is his ultimate goal. With the ALMS as his base, the ever curious team owner says that he and his team would grow bored if they didn’t challenge themselves with a new form of motorsport.
“That’s absolutely the case. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Roger and Chip and what they’ve done with their organizations. They’ve set the standard for all of us in motorsports to aspire towards. Clearly we have a long way to go to earn anything like what they’ve spent decades achieving. I can be brutally honest and say that we are not there in any way, shape or form, but our goal is to try and get there. Winning our second ALMS championship was incredibly tough and rewarding this year, and wanting to add IndyCars to our team isn’t a reflection on anything that’s lacking in the ALMS. Not in any way.
“We intend to be in the ALMS for many years, but clearly finding a new discipline and finding what it takes to be successful in that new discipline intrigues us. And if we do find success in IndyCar, it will only make our ALMS program that much stronger. And in the opposite direction, what we’ve learned over the last four years with HPD and with Wirth Research would only increase the speed at which we learn in the IRL. Everybody on the team is excited by the prospect of a new challenge.”
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