They were a formidable bunch in 2003, this Andretti Green Racing (AGR) team who began with the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series at the start of the season and captured a win in only their second race, with Tony Kanaan's #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda/Firestone challenger at the fast Phoenix International Raceway mile oval.
The first three-car team (at the time) to contest the full 16-race IRL season in search of a title, AGR put their hopes with a late-starting Honda engine, a new Dallara chassis and three drivers who had little experience in the IndyCar Series wars.
The initial plan, when Kim Green, Kevin Savoree and Michael Andretti brought Team Green from Kim's brother Barry was to hire Dario Franchitti as one of three drivers. Tony Kanaan was the second driver the team secured, as both Andretti and Green knew of the Brazilian's tenacity and competitiveness in the former CART series.
Andretti announced his intention to retire after the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, hoping to make an exit with the Borg Warner Trophy under his arm after leading more laps than any driver who had not won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. After Indy, rookie Briton Dan Wheldon would take over as the third driver, or so the scenario went.
Franchitti scorched those great plans with a motorbike accident on holiday in Scotland, and the search for another driver was on. Wheldon, who had done a good deal of Honda's engine development was the substitute for Twin Ring Motegi; Robby Gordon filled the Scot's seat for Indy.
The AGR trio settled in with Bryan Herta, who promptly went out and gave Honda its second victory of the season in a fuel mileage contest on the hot Kansas Speedway 1.5-mile oval and challenged for victories seemingly all season long.
When the opportunity came before the start of this year's16-race campaign to keep Kanaan (signed through 2008), Franchitti, Wheldon and Herta, the team jumped at the chance, despite having to deal with the logistics of running the first four-car team in IRL history.
Has it worked? Absolutely. This past weekend, on the same 2-mile California Speedway oval where the Brazilian won his Indy Lights title in 1997, Andretti Green Racing secured the 2004 IndyCar Series title with Kanaan, who has notched three victories, three pole positions, finished every single lap in IndyCar Series competition this year (2105), landed in the top five 14 consecutive times, in the top ten all 15 tries and led 884 laps, more than double any other driver in 2004 competition.
Second and third place in laps led belong to Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti, with 419 and 347 laps led, respectively. Wheldon currently lies second in the point chase, with his own three wins and two MBNA poles; Franchitti has two victories - on the short ovals at The Milwaukee Mile and Pikes Peak International Raceway. Only Herta hasn't scored a victory yet in 2004 but, as AGR's three owners will remind anyone, there's always Texas, where Kanaan notched his second win of this stellar season.
It would easy to be a bit giddy over this success - and Andretti Green Racing has done a formidable job of being giddy all season, reminding many of "Animal House" - but AGR is a group that's preparing to win its next races, not thinking about its incredibly short but triumphant past.
"It's the great attitude of everyone at Andretti Green Racing that's brought us success; it's the camaraderie within this team that's made it great," declared Savoree. There are 85 fulltime employees on the northside Indianapolis squad and it the "mad science" of the three owners and large corps of engineers, coupled with "great chemistry among our drivers" that has given this large operation such great results, Savoree opines.
Having Michael Andretti has a titular head hasn't hurt the chase for sponsors at AGR and two of them are signed to long-term contracts at this time. Klein Tools and Jim Beam were announced as continuing partners during the September Chicagoland contest and Andretti believes his "number one worry is to keep each sponsor happy" with the team's direction.
"We have to keep equal cars out there," Andretti confirmed. While he is a little bit surprised it's only taken two years to bring home a title, Andretti insisted the "management run by Kim makes it all equal. Everybody on our team has an equal shot to win and we work together as a single team," not four separate entities. "We have the common goal of working to make all four [cars] equal and capable of winning."
The one-lap shootout in the Toyota Indy 400 on Sunday had Andretti "holding my breath. People do strange stuff when there's a win on the line" but Adrian Fernandez, who came away with the victory (his third in the last five races!) kept it clean racing with Kanaan, who finished only 0.0183 seconds behind the Mexican against whom he's competed since 1998.
"I'm so happy for everybody, starting with Tony. In my mind, he's always been a champion," the 1991 CART titleholder said of the second driver he hired for his new team. "I raced against Tony and his hallmark has always been clean, hard racing. He's always aware of what's going on and his personality is just so great. He's a great guy," Andretti insisted. "And he and Dario are great friends, too."
Kim Green agreed with Andretti's assessment and indicated "our first business was to sign Dario and then go after Tony," despite the less than favorable results Kanaan had with Tasman Motorsports Group, Forsythe Championship Racing and Mo Nunn Racing leading up to 2003.
Green has to be "very, very satisfied. We certainly planned this [gaining a title] as a company and to put together a competitive program so quickly was an added benefit. We were very close our first year and everybody on the team worked so hard at this," Green acknowledged.
"At the start of the season we thought we had the opportunity to win with any of our drivers. These four drivers work so well together and Bryan [Herta] is certainly a catalyst in that. Michael, of course, is involved in all aspects of the business, especially with the drivers."
Green put together great people to help the program along, finding engineering talent that works well with the drivers and making sure each of the combatants has an engineer with whom they're comfortable. Kanaan continues with engineer Eric Cowdin, who worked with him at Tasman Motorsports, the Brazilian's home when he took the Indy Lights title. Finding the right 85 fulltime personnel is part and parcel of Green's challenge on the AGR team.
There will likely be a more formal celebration after the series finale on Texas Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile banked oval October 17th and it's probably going to contain pranks. Why stop now?
Already, Wheldon has moaned his prediction that someone on the team will toss him overboard when the Indy Racing League holds its victory cruise in November. Kanaan insisted it's now his job to make sure the likable Briton gains second place in the title chase over 2004 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner Buddy Rice, who lies 25 points behind the 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year.
For Andretti, the accomplishment of earning a title as an owner is, perhaps, even greater than his championship winning run with Newman/Haas Racing in 1991. Green, who worked with Andretti when he drove for Maury Kraines at Kraco and during his time driving for Team Green, realized that "Michael always gave 100 percent as a driver and he does the same in an ownership role. He is straightforward and honest and we work quite well together."
"Even though Michael is new to race team ownership," Savoree chimed in, "he has a lot of other successful businesses. He's a great leader; his skill sets were already there."
As a driver, Michael Andretti always seemed so single-minded in his intensity; the smiles didn't come terribly easy and he appeared to always be watching his back. The Michael Andretti who co-owns Andretti Green Racing with Kim Green and Kevin Savoree is a very different animal.
"I was always under such pressure to perform," Andretti acknowledged. "Now, I don't have to train daily and I don't have that pressure" that was present during his driving career. "I can't really say that I really had fun as a driver but I am having fun now!"
Winning championships and races (of 15 held to date, Andretti Green Racing has notched wins in eight!) can do wonders to keep attitudes high and pressures low. That's why Michael Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree always seem to be smiling these days.