CHAMPCAR/CART: Run Lola Run

Run Lola Run - by Robin Miller After a string of bad luck -- and bad calls -- the beleagured chassis maker is on the comeback trail. Since 1997, Lola Cars International has had a tough time getting an audience with any CART teams, let...

Run Lola Run - by Robin Miller

After a string of bad luck -- and bad calls -- the beleagured chassis maker is on the comeback trail.

Since 1997, Lola Cars International has had a tough time getting an audience with any CART teams, let alone an order to buy one of its Champ Cars. A disastrous design in '97 and a complete lack of efficiency in '98 left the once-dominant car builder trying to get somebody to take a flyer on the '99 model.

But after Homestead and Motegi, it was obvious Lola had something to offer. Heading into Nazareth this weekend, the third oval-track event in the FedEx Championship, several teams have already met with Lola executive director Martin Birrane to talk about 2000.

"Yes, we already have four major teams talking to us about next year, but I don't want to tempt fate and divulge who they are," said Birrane after meeting with Pat Patrick of Patrick Racing during Long Beach. "I think we've made big strides and the best is yet to come."

Helio Castro-Neves, a last-minute substitute for J.J. Lehto with Hogan Racing, is responsible for getting the CART paddock's collective attention steered towards Lola. The protigi of Emerson Fittipaldi qualified fourth fastest and ran with the leaders in the season opener in Florida before being KO'd by electrical problems.

Then, on the fast Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, Castro-Neves started 18th. He came to life quickly and stormed into fourth place by Lap 62. A penalty for stopping under a closed pit sign cost him two laps, but he soldiered back to take ninth and turned the fastest lap of the race in the process.

"This is a great racecar, and we've only scratched the surface," said the 24-year-old Brazilian.

That was something nobody expected to ever hear again following a costly chain of events. After Michael Andretti won five times in '96 driving a Lola, founder Eric Broadley launched a Formula One project that imploded after only one race in 1997. The company was in financial ruin, and the '97 Lola champ car was a pig.

"When I read Lola had a problem, I was the first person to ring Eric Broadley," said Birrane. "He denied there was a problem, but a few weeks later I was offered a chance to buy it. The company was beyond redemption and had enormous debts brought on by the F1 debacle.

"A lot of people thought, 'What mad fool would do this?' But I looked at Lola and could see there was a business and a potential if things were done right." But timing hurt his CART program for 1998.

"It was September of '97 by the time I took over and way too late to keep any customers, because everybody already had a deposit down on Reynards for '98," continued Birrane, an Irish man who made his money in real estate. "I went to Fontana in '97 and was taken aback by the attitude of CART people towards Lola.

"The two most pressing questions I wanted answered were: Why is our Indy car so bad, and why do people hate us?"

Adrian Fernandez showed a glimpse of hope in a reworked Lola at the first Marlboro 500 at Fontana. But 1998 was left to a rookie named Arnd Meier and Gerald Davis' game, but underfinanced, team, Davis Racing. "I think we had a good car last year, but there was no way to prove it," said Birrane.

When chief designer Ben Bowlby was joined by veteran engineer Frank Dernie, the '99 Lola finally had some smart direction and three teams -- Hogan, EPSON Bettenhausen and Payton-Coyne -- that could properly display the product.

"Frank [Dernie] worked with Patrick Head for Frank Williams when they won everything, and I think he's one of the best engineers in motorsports," said Birrane. "There is very little left on this car from '97. Even the tub is different, and it's a credit to our staff."

The staff at Lola has swelled from 67 to 138 and, counting Formula 3000, Formula Nippon, sports cars and champ cars, Lola built over 70 cars last winter. "We're in the black now, and we're excited about the future," Birrane said.

Will it take bargain prices to get business back from Reynard and Swift customers?

"There's an old story about the best car being cheap at any price," chuckled Birrane. "I think we've got the best car."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers J.J. Lehto , Michael Andretti , Adrian Fernandez , Patrick Head , Emerson Fittipaldi , Frank Williams , Martin Birrane , Robin Miller
Teams Williams