Personnel changes are a way of life in auto racing. Drivers might get most of the attention when they switch teams, but that shouldn’t diminish the loss of key team members can have on an organization.
In the case of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, the family-run IndyCar Series team has been rolling with the punches in recent months. For Fisher, her husband/co-owner Andy O’Gara, and co-owner Wink Hartman, who also provides backing for the Honda-powered program, there’s plenty of change to embrace as the 2014 season approaches.
The departure of race engineer Nathan O’Rourke, who left for Andretti Autosport in December to engineer James Hinchcliffe, was the first blow – especially after he and driver Josef Newgarden made significant strides late in the season.
The next to go was lead mechanic Nick Allen, who also joined Andretti, and earlier this month, the biggest adjustment of all took place when Fisher and her husband parted ways with his cousin Mike, who served as SFHR’s team manager, as he took over the team manager post for Chip Ganassi’s sports car operation.
In response, SFHR assistant race engineer Jeremy Milless was promoted to fill O’Rourke’s vacancy, Panther Racing’s Chase Kaufman was drafted in to assume Milless’ former position, a number of mechanics have been hired and team management duties will be spread across Fisher, Andy O’Gara and his father John, an Indy car veteran.
For a small, single-car team like SFHR, losing a promising engineer, mechanic and veteran manager in such a short time span would normally rock its foundation. After venting briefly on Twitter, Fisher and the rest of the ownership group accepted what took place and got to work on finalizing the team’s roster.
Asked if she was taking the changes in stride or if the turnover was still a sore subject, Fisher told RACER she’s embraced the chaos and believes the team is now stronger than it was in 2013.
“We tested at Sebring last weekend where Jeremy took on his first days as race engineer, Josef set one of the fastest laps in recent years at Sebring, and yes, I think change is awesome!” Fisher said with conviction. “I don’t think I have ever been this excited heading into a season since maybe 2009. You didn’t think you’d hear that, did you?”
With a reputation for going beyond the normal bonding process found within a race team – crock pot dinners in the shop were an early trademark of the close-knit culture at SFHR – Fisher (with co-owner Hartman, ABOVE) described the staff changes in detail and how her squad has evolved in each instance.
“Each team is comprised of individuals, and the loss of each person impacts things differently,” she said. “I applaud Nathan; he did things very professionally when he left in December. I was shocked, honestly, because Nathan was a big part of our team and we were coming off of a lot of momentum, but it allowed us to move Jeremy up and he’s been doing an amazing job. We hired Chase to support Jeremy, and then we went and added to our staff by bringing in Barry Waddell as a driver coach and communications coach for Josef.
“We’ve spent more money on talent, actually. And we still have our other engineers Aaron Marney and Justin Penix, so we have this great young group, plus Barry’s experience, and I think we’ve ended up with a pretty special engineering team that we wouldn’t have had without change. It’s a core group of people that really want to succeed.
“On the mechanic side, we picked up Grant Ritchey from Sinden Racing Service – he’d been with them for seven years and we cleared that with them first. We’re adding a few other mechanics and moved Brad Larsen into the lead mechanic position on the car under Anton Julian, our crew chief. Brad’s just awesome. There’s a real energy behind the crew right now; they hit the ground running at Sebring and worked like a genuine team. Change is good sometimes.”
Owing to the team’s family-based ownership and management structure, it’s likely the departure of Mike O’Gara will involve the longest adjustment period for Fisher and her husband.
“We’re still on good terms with Mike; he left to pursue an offer from Ganassi that was a three-year with a two-year extension, and I can’t match that right now,” she explained. “He’s got an 18-year-old son who’s headed to college, and I get it – I have children too, and I get it. We still own a side business with Mike, and we’re family. We don’t do anything to harm each other, but at the end of the day, we have to make sure we look out for our business and our family and in this case, Mike did what was best for him and we’re moving forward on our end.”
One O’Gara will replace the other on the timing stand this year, and the elder O’Gara will also play a role in the new-look SFHR.
“Andy has brought his dad John into the program to help take over a lot of the duties that Mike held,” Fisher continued. “John’s experience as a team manager with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Menard’s before that will be perfect to help us there, and one thing Andy’s taking over that Mike did is race strategy. That’s a big contribution Mike made, and that’s something Andy did for me when I was driving and for Jay [Howard] when he was with us, so it’s a case of refreshing that experience. Between the three of us, we’ll handle what Mike did and I’d rather have it that way.”
With the start to the IndyCar Season just over a month away, Fisher’s confident SFHR will continue its upward trend.
“Wink has been such an important part of our growth and stability, and that’s exactly what we’ve needed to weather this recent storm,” she said. “And Andy gets a lot of credit for his leadership to help us bounce back so quick. He’s done a heck of a job and he’s been huge in instilling confidence in the guys here. They don’t see a lot of what’s going in the background and only see the people who left, but Andy’s been up front with them and letting them know we have a plan and we also have a lot of talent to move up into bigger roles and positions. I like where our team is at and I think we’re going to do good things this year.”