August 28, 2000, Indianapolis, Indiana: Their bios read like parallel lives: born in Latin America, raised by working-class fathers, won their first races driving in the Toyota Atlantic series -- team owner John Della Penna and his driver Memo...
August 28, 2000, Indianapolis, Indiana: Their bios read like parallel lives: born in Latin America, raised by working-class fathers, won their first races driving in the Toyota Atlantic series -- team owner John Della Penna and his driver Memo Gidley even share Northern California as the place they call home. In the glamorous, high-dollar world of CART, Memo and John are struggling together to compete against better-funded teams, pursuing a simple yet elusive goal: victory.
During an interview last Saturday at Road America, this year's "Supersub" was asked whether he'd replace his 10-year-old pickup with a shiny new one if he gets a full-time ride next year. Gidley shook his head.
"I'm not in racing for the money. The only thing I want out of racing is to win," Gidley says. "There is no feeling in the world like winning, and once you've been recognized as the best on a certain day, you just have to have more of it."
"I know the feeling," chimes in Della Penna, also shaking his head. A few hours later, CART's only Latin-American owner waxed philosophical about his two decades in racing. "We've won in every series we've entered, except CART. I started as a driver in Santa Clara, racing club events in Toyota Atlantics. Then we won national Atlantics events with Jimmy Vasser behind the wheel. After that we won in Atlantics and the IRL with Richie Hearn. The final frontier is a win in CART, and I want very much to accomplish that. But in our four years here, our story has often been a day late or a dollar short."
The phrase rings true for Gidley as well. Changing economics in the racing business have increasingly favored drivers who carry their own sponsorship. Those drivers tend to hail from outside the USA, bringing companies from their home country who crave access to the North American market. This trend has left aspiring American drivers with few open-wheel options, so Gidley spent the first part of the season playing the only card he had, determination.
"I was driving myself to every CART event and walking up and down the pits, just to show the owners that I have the desire to do whatever it takes," the second-year driver explains. Gidley's efforts paid off in April, when he got the chance to sub for the injured Patrick Carpentier in three races with Player's/Forsythe Racing.
No one understands Gidley's struggle better than Della Penna, who had to let go his longtime driver and friend Richie Hearn last year after losing sponsorship from Budweiser. "I just couldn't raise enough domestic sponsorship to run the 2000 season, so I looked to my original country of Argentina for new options. In the end, it was a choice between shutting down our team, or replacing an American driver with no sponsorship with an Argentine package of driver Norberto Fontana and sponsor VideoMatch."
In the midst of all these changes, Della Penna secured the best equipment package of his four-year CART career: a 2000 Reynard chassis powered by the much-improved Toyota RV8E engine. The Della Penna Motorsports team started the season with high hopes but earned just a single championship point in the first 10 races. Driver Fontana suffered multiple hard hits on oval tracks, sponsor VideoMatch disappeared after only four races, and race engineer Diane Holl left the team as the halfway mark approached.
Della Penna spent the late spring scrambling to replace VideoMatch with a new sponsor, eventually finding the Latin American division of DIRECTV, which came on board in early July at Cleveland. Having solved the business crisis, Della Penna turned his full attention to his on-track situation.
"I decided to take over the technical direction of the team with the help of Brian Ma, who had been Diane's assistant," he says. "Her departure forced me to get back in the trenches and figure out what was going on with the racecar, which is actually my favorite part of owning a race team."
With his Argentine driver feeling apprehensive about the upcoming 240 mph lap speeds at Michigan Speedway, Della Penna contemplated a third major change for the team.
"I really don't want to take anything away from Norberto, but we needed some more experience in the cockpit in order to try to salvage the second half of the season," says Della Penna, who decided to hire Gidley for the oval races at Michigan and Chicago. Although Gidley had run only 13 career CART races, the young driver was coming off a career-best finish of eighth on the oval at Rio de Janeiro in April, and had logged over 800 miles of testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.
According to Della Penna, "Memo came in with a lot of good energy and direction for the team; really, the guy is inspiring. Memo, Brian and I worked together on the setups, and we began to show progress on the track."
Gidley started 20th and finished 10th in each of his first two races with the team, and was then hired to replace Fontana for the final eight races of the 2000 season. Subsequently, Gidley finished 12th at Mid-Ohio and a new career-best of sixth at Road America. Since Gidley's arrival, the Della Penna #10 DIRECTV Toyota/Reynard/Firestone has finished each of the last four races in the points, a feat matched by only one other driver in the series, Adrian Fernandez.
The team's revived morale was on full display during last Sunday's race, as the crew high-fived and cheered each time Gidley picked up a position. Starting 18th, Gidley moved up to 12th on the first lap, and steadily gained spots as one car after another suffered mechanical problems. Incredibly, the racecar fielded by Della Penna's understaffed effort kept going and going, while entries with double the budget dropped out.
When the checkered flag flew, the team assembled on the pit wall to cheer its driver as he passed the start/finish line. "It felt a little like a victory," Gidley admits. "John Della Penna was grinning from ear to ear, saying, 'We actually beat some people today.'"
Yet the struggles have not ended for Della Penna and Gidley. The team was the only team in CART that did not test at Laguna Seca this past week, citing a need to rest its small, overworked crew. Della Penna is actively pursuing new sponsorship for the 2001 season, and Gidley still does not have a contract with Della Penna or any other team for next year. Amidst all the uncertainty, Gidley and Della Penna are taking it one race at a time.
"I know this team is capable of running at the front," Gidley concludes. "We're getting better and better each race, and becoming closer and closer on a personal level. The team's best finish in CART is fifth, so if we could get on the podium this season, it would be a first for both me and the crew. That would feel pretty good."