Carlin – defining perseverance in a weird second IndyCar season

Plenty of hope and promise, not enough points and too many drivers – Carlin’s sophomore season in the NTT IndyCar Series was bewildering. The one constant was its team principal’s determination and his employees’ hunger for success. Trevor Carlin tells David Malsher how the team got through it and how the work ethic hasn’t changed for 2020.

Traditionally the sophomore season in IndyCar racing for teams or drivers will see a shift in momentum, no matter how bright they were as freshers. Very, very few continue their upward trajectory. Most stall, others dive.

But Carlin’s second full season in the top rung of U.S. open-wheel racing cannot be defined because it was so damn inconclusive. Regular alterations in such baseline components as driver lineups left everyone involved unsure of what they had, and how far they had come as an IndyCar team by the end of their second term at this level.

Elsewhere, Carlin accolades kept piling up in 2019: the team ran Clement Novalak and Zane Maloney to the British Formula 3 and British Formula 4 titles respectively. To take nothing away from the drivers involved, such accomplishments are almost to be expected from a team that has for 20 years been regarded as the junior formula equivalent of a Penske or Ganassi. But IndyCar has been, as Trevor expected, by far the toughest spec formula in which to find success, and that quest wasn’t aided this year by oscillating driver syndrome. Six drivers piloted a Carlin Dallara-Chevrolet this past season, and from the end of May, the team’s driver pairing would never be the same for three consecutive races.

It had all been very different in the team’s inaugural IndyCar venture, with Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball both fulltimers in 2018. While they finished only 19th and 17th on the points table respectively, that was deceiving: the drivers, like the team, had shown better than that. Being ex-Chip Ganassi Racing pilots in their respective third and eighth season of IndyCar racing respectively, Kimball and Chilton brought experience and maturity to Trevor Carlin’s newest venture. Also helpful was that they had been teammates at CGR for two seasons already and therefore understood each other’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Carlin’s highlights of 2018 would be Charlie’s fifth place finish at Toronto, and Max’s even more remarkable sixth-place start at Mid-Ohio. Come to think of it, qualifying 15th and 20th for the Indy 500 in a 33-car field was pretty impressive too. Sam Schmidt, Zak Brown and Carlin himself can all tell you how hard it is to achieve that level of performance at the deceptively difficult Speedway.

Trevor Carlin’s determination to continue running two cars despite setbacks would cost him money but earned him respect.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

As for the team, it received compliments from Roger Penske on the professionalism of its setup, while pitstops – often a bugbear for even the more experienced squads – appeared to improve on a near race-by-race basis. And the engineering expertise was notable too: not once did the team miss the setup sweet spot by a monumental margin. IndyCar grids are famous for being densely packed front to back, yet Carlin was rarely on the final row.

All those qualities held true in 2019, but right from the word go, this season was destined to produce a mixed bag for the Delray Beach, FL.-based squad. For one thing, Kimball’s sponsorship was heavily reduced, whereby he had funding only for five races – the season’s opener and closer plus the Indy 500, Texas Motor Speedway and Pocono. Then the driver who Carlin had penciled in to take over from Kimball in the other 12 races, RC Enerson, suffered what can best be described as a ‘sponsorship issue’ and eventually would start only once.

All was not lost, however. On the eve of Spring Training in February, startup squad Harding Steinbrenner Racing revealed that it had a full year of funding for only one car and it would be driven by Colton Herta, and suddenly his putative teammate, Patricio O’Ward – the guy who beat Herta to the Indy Lights title last year and who therefore had $1m scholarship money for three races – quit and became a free agent. At St. Petersburg, Trevor couldn’t wipe the Cheshire cat grin off his face as he announced that the Mexican teenager, who he ranks on the same level as fellow Carlin alumni Herta and Lando Norris, would drive for him for 13 races this year – the 12 in which Kimball wouldn’t be racing plus an extra entry for the Indy 500.

Carlin tells Motorsport.com: “We knew going into the year that it would be tough only having Charlie on a limited program and Max on a full program, because you always want continuity. We knew we’d have to at least find a third driver for the races Charlie wasn’t doing. But I thought, ‘OK, let’s give it a go, try and get it sorted.’ Then the Pato thing came along and I thought, ‘Jeez, that’s fantastic – almost too good to be true!’ But as you know, when something seems too good to be true, it usually is…”

Patricio O’Ward doing what we soon came to expect of him – putting Carlin up with the big guns. Here he leads Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Ganassi’s Felix Rosenqvist at Circuit of The Americas.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

In fact, O’Ward would start just seven races for Carlin, because by early May he had been signed to the Red Bull Junior program and soon would be heading off to Super Formula in Japan. Still, that was enough time for him to prove that Carlin was far better than had been seen hitherto: four times the rookie started in the top 10.

“Yeah, Pato knows how to wring the neck of a car in qualifying which is what you need,” remembers Carlin, “and he gave us a couple of Top 10 finishes too. But we knew his family was chasing another deal, the Red Bull gig, and no more money was forthcoming so our arrangement eventually ground to a halt.”

Not helping the cause was O’Ward’s crash in practice for the Indy 500 and subsequent failure to qualify. There he joined one of his teammates, Chilton (Kimball had qualified easily in 20th) but at least they were in fine company. Fernando Alonso’s McLaren entry had also been a DNQ. CEO Zak Brown tried to implicate Carlin in that farce, given their temporary and tenuous tie-up as fellow Chevrolet runners, but Trevor scoffed at the notion. He insisted that in fact McLaren personnel had resolutely refused assistance at the track – until the desperate late panic that culminated in a two-time Formula 1 champion being outpaced by drivers with a fraction of his talent. It will remain one of the most stupefying chapters in Indy 500 history.

Back to the ‘normal’ season, a new problem had arisen. Chilton, who as recently as 2017 had led 50 laps of the Indy 500, admitted he was feeling ill at ease on ovals, and decided to stand down from left-turn-only tracks for the remainder of the year. The one characteristic that had defined Chilton on ovals since coming to America was that he blew hot or cold. His sole Indy Lights win came at Iowa Speedway, he shone on IndyCar’s return to Phoenix’s ISM Raceway, as already mentioned he looked a possible Indy winner in ’17, and less than a month later he got stuck into the scary and manic fray at Texas Motor Speedway apparently without qualm. Now, his mindset had changed – at least for the time being. Maybe the 2020 aeroscreen will help alleviate his anxieties.

Still, it was Max’s decision, his life, and one to be respected: he doubtless felt a responsibility to the team that his father co-owns, and thus recognized that driving at 97 percent was going to do neither he nor Carlin any favors.

“Between Pato’s departure and Max’s decision, we were kind of left in no man’s land, to be honest,” says Carlin. “But we were determined to see the year through still with two entries. There was never any question of us going down to just one car because we have responsibilities to our staff and to IndyCar, so we decided to tough it out. That wasn’t easy and it took extra investment from ourselves and Grahame [Chilton], but we got there.”

Conor Daly’s four oval races with Carlin culminated in a fighting sixth-place finish at World Wide Technology Raceway, Gateway.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

For the remaining four oval races, Trevor had drafted in another Carlin alumnus, Conor Daly, who had just driven and shone in the extra Andretti Autosport entry at Indy. Strapped back into a Carlin machine, the former GP3 race winner performed well and scored the team’s best result of the season – a fighting sixth at Gateway that could easily have been a podium finish.

The sixth driver to start an IndyCar race for Carlin this year was 2013 Indy Lights champion Sage Karam who, aside from his annual ride with Dreyer & Reinbold at Indy, hadn’t competed at this level since 2015. He was therefore understandably tentative on the streets of Toronto, more at ease in Iowa, but it was Kimball who was drafted back in for Gateway and Portland to partner Daly and Chilton respectively.

And so ended a season which for Carlin became something of a jigsaw puzzle, one rendered difficult not by its intricacy but by the fact that original pieces would go missing, new ones that didn’t quite fit were added, removed, replaced, then added again. Still, the prime takeaway from 2019 – aside from Daly’s Gateway finish – was the encouragement and validation generated by O’Ward’s pace.

Ask, therefore, if hiring a potential megastar is what’s needed to take his team to the next level in IndyCar, and Carlin replies: “That would be a big help, definitely. But you know, Max qualified 10th at Laguna Seca, so I think that shows we’ve made good progress as a team, too.

“Now in the offseason we’re going through a massive list of things to do – development and R&D and so on – and I think if we discover and remedy what we’re missing we’ll find a couple of tenths which is all we need to start regularly in the Top 12. That’s the target.

“But to your point, sure, there’s nothing like raw speed and talent to get everyone excited, and if you’ve got a decent baseline setup and a star driver, then you’re going to be three or four tenths of a second up the road – which is huge in IndyCar, as we know. At Portland there was something like eight-tenths covering first to last! So if you’ve got someone who can gain you three or four tenths, it makes a hell of a difference.

“Psychologically as well, it makes a difference to the whole team. I’m used to running exciting up-and-coming drivers in junior formulas and I’ve seen how that fires up everyone around them.”

Charlie Kimball was the only Carlin driver to qualify for the Indy 500 and his five-race deal would evolve into seven races. He attended all of the others too, as a valued adviser, observer and helper.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Right now, Carlin’s driver situation for 2020 is very fluid. At last count, this writer knew of eight possibilities – four with IndyCar experience, four without – who are in serious contention (or believe they are!). Certainly Chilton has said nothing that would suggest he’s quitting, Kimball is aiming for a full-time return but would surely accept that a part-time role is better than nothing, while Daly is available having been told he’s no longer on Arrow McLaren SP’s shortlist. As for Trevor himself, he’s giving nothing away… and that’s possibly because he has very little to reveal for now.

“Obviously we want Max back, we want to see what Charlie can offer, and we’re very interested in doing something with Conor,” he says. “The thing I like about Conor is that he goes for it, he knows how to overtake, he keeps moving forward through the field. It was exciting at Gateway to really feel we were in the race. Other than that, I honestly couldn’t tell you what our driver situation is or might be for next season. Right now, we’re focused on improving in all other areas as a team.”

Whoever gets the rides, they’ll need to be prepared for the toughest of slogs, and Trevor is bracing himself and his team for that. For any operation without top-quality youngsters such as O’Ward and Herta, aces in their late 20s like Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden and Felix Rosenqvist, or stars in their late 30s like Scott Dixon and Will Power, life is about to get a harder in 2020. Between them, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport are going to be running 12 cars, and while there are weak spots in all those squads, breaking into the Top 10 is going to be more difficult than ever. Carlin, never one to complain without valid reason, is very much opposed to the continued expansion of the series’ Big Three.

“I spoke to Jay Frye [IndyCar president] about it at Laguna, and told him that if he’s not careful he’ll end up in a scenario with only three teams in the championship. It’s not really in the spirit of competition and the reason I came to IndyCar was because there’s always the chance of the underdog getting a big result. There still is, but if we end up with – and it’s not a huge stretch at all – a seven-car Andretti team, a four-car Penske and a four-car Ganassi, you’re going to be lucky to get in the Top 15. So the chances of a team like ours making a breakthrough becomes almost impossible, and that’s when we would probably pack up our bags and leave.”

It’s unusual to hear Carlin associate himself with the phrase ‘underdog’ – a clear indication that he recognizes how far he’s still got to climb to reach the summit of this particular near-spec series. His point is that it seems unwise for the series to allow a situation where the smaller teams are stymied before they’ve even had a chance to bloom.

“No, you’re right, that’s not the way we are,” he says. “We don’t consider ourselves as underdogs and we’re not going to be in this situation forever: I need to find the funding to get us to the next level to compete with those guys. What I’m saying is that’s more difficult to do that if there’s going to be such a monopoly at the top that we haven’t got any standout results to show for our efforts. At that point the appeal of the series will start to drift away.”

On a more positive note, Carlin believes that IndyCar’s appeal as a series is increasing, as recently he’s observed more doors to potential sponsors have opened over the past year or so.

Kimball brings his own funding to the team and is hoping to expand his bank of sponsors to return full-time in 2020.

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

“Compared with when we looking to move up from Indy Lights [Carlin ran in Lights from 2015-17 accruing 12 wins and a championship], I think IndyCar’s reputation has grown a little bit, it has a bigger footprint,” he remarks. “I think the consistency of the TV package, always being on NBC or NBCSN, has probably helped too.”

He then adds: “This sounds trivial but actually it’s not: my gauge is flying in from Europe, when the guys at immigration ask the purpose of my visit and I say it’s racing. If they ask ‘What sort?’ and I say ‘IndyCar,’ and they’re familiar with it and know we’re racing nearby that weekend, that’s a positive. If normal people you interact with – at the airport or in a bar or restaurant – already know about it, that’s got to be a good sign. And actually I get that far more with IndyCar in the U.S. than I do with other formulas in Europe.”

Further encouragement, Carlin says, can be derived from the attitude shown by those with whom he’s seeking deals. Despite the statistics-based nature of racing (and many other sports), Carlin says that when presenting a business case or submitting a sponsorship proposal, he’s found that potential new partners have shown they appreciate the up and down nature of the sport, that there are no guarantees, and that great promise in a race will not necessarily be reflected in the results.

“Yeah, it’s been nice to meet with new people who are interested enough in the sport that they really get it,” he says. “They want to be part of the story about improving a team to take on the best in the sport and then hopefully become one of the best. If you sign up with a Penske, you pay multi million dollars and absolutely expect to be winning, and I’m sure that will be part of the Penske guy’s sales pitch to that company. If you sign with us, you get a discounted rate by comparison but you also become part of the journey toward the top – and I think a lot of companies like that idea, because when you then get success, it’s a bigger story for them.”

In that scenario, the role of ‘underdog with big ambitions’ – along with a bulging résumé that proves the team eventually succeeds at every level of motorsport – could work out very well for Carlin. Let’s hope so, anyway. Trevor’s passion for all racing, including IndyCar, burns strong. But he doesn’t need the NTT IndyCar Series: his company’s doing just fine in several other cheaper racing arenas. IndyCar, on the other hand, despite being in a better place than it was five years ago and far better than 10 years ago, still needs top quality operations like Carlin coming in and pushing up the average talent level within the paddock, on pitlane and on the racetrack.

 

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

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