As the IndyCar season draws near we are not without controversy. The latest twist is a civil lawsuit filed by Panther Racing owner John Barnes against the entity acting on behalf of the advertising agency serving the National Guard account, Indy Car and Rahal Letterman Racing, among others. Predictably, Internet legal experts are quick to point out what a waste of human skin John Barnes is and how they also believe he is bitter, a blowhard, a cheat and all sorts of potentially slanderous epithets. As a racing fan the timing of the legal wrangling is unfortunate. National Guard sponsorship rode with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to victory at Daytona on Sunday.
What does it all really mean? For starters there is a very real possibility that a legacy team that began competing in IndyCar in 1998 could vanish. The DNA of that team is rich with pieces of a lot of other notable teams, including Team Menard and Dryer & Reinbold Racing. They made Sam Hornish, Jr. a champion in IndyCar and the list of drivers who have piloted their machines and the folks who who have worked on them is impressive. They have come painfully close to winning Indy a lot, including four straight second place finishes. Obviously they did a lot of things right.
The merit of Barnes’ claims is obviously fodder for a wider discussion, and the Internet gossip mill cannot help whispering scandalous claims about people not getting paid, subversion of Randy Bernard and all sorts of other tawdry innuendo. I am of the opinion that there are multiple sides to any such story. I am not ready to condemn Barnes. I remind myself (and you should too) that Bobby Rahal is involved, and would not any objective observer be able to cherry pick illustrious moments from his past as shining examples of sleaze? Barnes has been the victim of talent and sponsor poaching as much as anyone else. Eating the offspring of one another seems to be a hallmark of IndyCar, particularly among legacy ownership rescued/bailed out in the early 2000s.
We all know the Panther bid was higher than the Rahal bid, but how much do we know about the bidding process? Why is Panther not a part of the IndyCar leader program this year? What is the back story? Who knows what will be revealed? I doubt any casual racing fan will ever know. The only thing IndyCar generally ever releases publicly, particularly when something controversial is involved, is subterfuge, misdirection and happy talk.
As a racing fan abhorrent to the often seedy politics that once again pollute IndyCar regularly my concern is much more pure. I just really like what that team has accomplished over the years, and in many of them I rooted for them hard. Whether or not Barnes and company are able to continue remains to be seen (he says they will), but he has my admiration for making IndyCar compelling to watch through the years. Perhaps someday he will see his team win the 500, and that would be a great story.