Panther Racing had always been the little team that could.
The team that had been one of the most successful in IndyCar series history was on the verge of folding in December of 2005. Sponsors fled, team members departed and equipment was auctioned off. But Panther Racing had always been the little team that could. When Team Penske entered in 2002, Panther took down the Pennsylvania-based powerhouse with Sam Hornish Jr winning the championship. Panther endured a couple difficult seasons after Hornish left, mainly as Chevrolet engines paled in comparison to the Hondas and Toyotas, but always put up a strong fight. And this year is no different.
To begin 2006, the team that was on life support picked up a driver in need of a lift, Vitor Meira. He was jettisoned from Rahal Letterman Racing not for his driving, but due to the team's need for more sponsorship. The IRL's seemingly eternal bridesmaid has responded to this shift with five podiums, including three runner-up results, and ten top-ten finishes from 12 starts. At 5th in the points, Meira stands only behind the quartet of drivers from Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, 70 points back of championship leader Hornish.
This is one thing in IndyCars I never had is continuity, which is a big part of winning races and winning championships,
Judging from Meira's perspective, he is just as alive for the title as anyone. "I think deep down everybody has this goal to win the championship," Meira explained in a conference call. "I'm sure that if I'm 100 percent, if I give my best on Sunday, if the engineers give their best on Sunday, if we can take 100 percent out of the car, it's going to be a good day."
Meira heads into this weekend's race at Sonoma as one of only two drivers to post top fives on both road/street course events, having finished 5th at St. Petersburg and 2nd in Watkins Glen back in June. "I know that Watkins was the last road course we had, but that was actually the beginning of our - of Panther Racing's kind of rise in the championship," Meira said. "Since there, we've been carrying the momentum, whether it was short tracks or even Michigan, long tracks."
As the team has ascended in competitiveness, there has been increasing sponsorship interest. The striking orange car has been adorned with several new logos the last several races, notably Lincoln Tech and appropriately-named Revive USA. "It went from everybody in the media telling us that we weren't going to compete at the first race, and secondly we were only going to make it to the second race," team co-owner John Barnes commented. "Here we are now with two races to go. We're in the process of doing the negotiations right now for '07."
And as for who would be driving for Panther come '07? "Panther can't see anybody driving the 4 car but Vitor Meira," Barnes stated. "I can tell you, it would cost me my house and home and everything else, my wife would divorce me if he wasn't driving our car. We all love him. We definitely think he'll be in the car for us next year."
Meira appreciates the stability, having driven for two teams previously in his IndyCar career. "This is one thing in IndyCars I never had is continuity, which is a big part of winning races and winning championships," he said. "I mean, you can name tons of drivers and teams that have been together for a long time, and that's a reason behind it. It's not just because they like each other, but because you can also do better work with a little more time and learn about each other and take 100 percent about everything."
Come 2007, assuming Meira will still be on the IndyCar grid to mount another championship charge, Panther will also be expanding into the Indy Pro Series. The team ran a car in 2003 for series champion Mark Taylor, who jumped to IndyCars in 2004 with minimal success. The Indy Pro effort is a partnership with the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, or simply, IUPUI. Not sure if the college offers a degree in racing survival, but if they did, then Barnes, Meira, and Panther Racing would be the professors.