INSIGHT: How Carlin is navigating some choppy seas

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INSIGHT: How Carlin is navigating some choppy seas

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: How Carlin is navigating some choppy seas

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Trevor Carlin has been navigating the depths of inner resolve since May 19.

With two of his three NTT IndyCar Series entries failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 race, the Briton has recently been thrust into adversity as his sophomore IndyCar team searches for the moorings to stabilize the outfit. Those efforts aren’t proving to be swift or easy.

Known as one of the sport’s biggest characters, Carlin’s been on a mission to quell any concerns regarding the team’s future. With a hand-picked group of talented crew members to support, the business side of the operation is where he and co-owner Grahame Chilton are focusing their energy as the 2019 season reaches its halfway point.

Coming off a promising IndyCar debut in 2018 with two full-time entries for Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball, Carlin Racing’s second season has been fraught with frequent change. Heavily rumored during the offseason to be considering a part-time schedule that cleaved the five oval races from his calendar, Chilton confirmed the move on Tuesday, opting to concentrate on the remaining road and street courses. Conor Daly will pilot Chilton’s No. 59 Chevy this weekend on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval; drivers for the Iowa, Pocono, and Gateway ovals have yet to be identified.

Kimball, whose first eight years in IndyCar were fully funded by the same sponsor, entered 2019 with a significant budget reduction, leaving Carlin with a vacancy to fill at approximately 10 of the 17 races. Reigning Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward, whose deal with Harding Steinbrenner Racing fell through shortly before the season-opener, found a perfect opportunity to rebound at Carlin, where he was signed to compete in the majority of the races where Kimball was sidelined.

Having now depleted his small budget, O’Ward competed last weekend at Detroit through the support of Chilton’s sponsor, Gallagher, an insurance company the elder Chilton led through 2018. Without an infusion of cash, or the continued generosity of Gallagher, the young Mexican phenom’s days as an IndyCar driver could be over.

Carrying the weight of multiple problems to solve, Carlin opened the conversation with Max Chilton’s change of direction, and how the life-altering oval crash at Pocono suffered by Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Robert Wickens served as a pivotal moment for the 28-year-old U.K. native.

“To be honest, the Max scenario, we’ve been conscious of it happening for some time,” he told RACER. “Max, he’s a good kid, and Robert Wickens is a great friend of his, and whatever anybody says, Pocono shook an awful lot of people up. And only the real diehard guys would say it didn’t shake them up, because I saw everyone’s faces at the moment, because I was standing there when it happened.

Chilton’s decision to step down from oval racing has the full blessing of team owner Trevor Carlin. Image by IndyCar

“So Max is brave enough to put his hand up and say that [there are] certain circumstances where the risk is massive, the speeds are super-high and certain bits of certain tracks aren’t necessarily as safe as we want them to be. And is it worth the risk? I said to him, mate, if you don’t want to do it, then don’t do it, there’s no need. You’re a young man with a whole life ahead of you. You don’t need to put yourself at risk, and you should never drive a superspeedway race if you’re not sure.

“You need to be 100 percent confident and focused, and driving forward, never, never be ready to lift off and back out of it, because that’s when the accidents happen.”

Attempting to qualify for his fourth Indy 500, Chilton was one of three drivers, including teammate O’Ward, who were bumped from the field of 33 during time trials. Having led 50 laps of the 200-lap race in 2017 at Chip Ganassi Racing on his way to finishing fourth, Chilton’s aptitude on ovals was never in question.

Since coming to the U.S. in 2015 after a lifetime spent in European road racing, Chilton was a quick study in the American oval artform, earning a win at Iowa with Carlin in Indy Lights. Upon his graduation to IndyCar in 2016, three of his four best results have been produced on ovals. Carlin takes umbrage with those who paint Chilton as less brave than others for calling time on oval racing.

“He’s had excellent support, and it took him a while to come to a conclusion,” Carlin continued. “And as it happened, there was a few big wrecks in Indy, but nothing major, and he would have done the race if he had qualified, and I’m sure he would have done a good job. I think he looked slow and hard at it, because he’s not fighting for the championship. He loves doing the road courses, and the street courses, and he loves driving an IndyCar, but he doesn’t see the point in putting himself through the danger.

“So I respect his decision, I think he’s very brave to make it, considering all the trolls are out there and love to dig at certain people in the sport, and I think Max has just done and said what a lot of people are thinking, actually. He’s got the choice, and he’s taking it.”

Carlin says Chilton’s mid-season decision to step away for the ovals will not impact the team’s budget with the No. 59 Chevy. But it leaves the second car shared between Kimball and O’Ward as the ongoing problem to solve.

Charlie Kimball’s sponsors go a long way toward keeping the No.23 car on the track, but the car’s full-time viability remains on ongoing challenge. Image by Levitt/LAT

“Max’s plan doesn’t change anything; the budget’s still secure for this year,” he added. “Charlie’s car was always going to be an issue financially, and at the end of the day, it’s my job to fill the shortfall, and I’m working at it. We’ve had a deal with Pato that’s filled some of the voids. Hopefully we can keep that going. He’s at risk financially, I have to say. It’s not fantastic, but it’s also not disastrous.

“We run the team carefully financially, and we know where we’re placed – we’re not a deep pocket, Penske, Ganassi, Andretti-type team. We’ve always got to be careful. That’s why we don’t have spare cars and all that stuff. We’ve only got one crew of blokes and they’re all at the circuit, there’s no-one back at base. And when we’re racing, everyone’s at the track. Everybody.

“So it’s my job to find the funding and the drivers to help us move forward, and that’s what we’ll keep doing. And I see no reason why we won’t have two cars on the grid every race this year. It keeps us in the game, Leader Circle-wise, for 2020.”

As most teams are concentrating on finding the shortest path to Victory Lane, Carlin, along with a few other IndyCar teams, is trudging through the difficulties of growing a fickle business that’s based on corporate backing and private funding brought by drivers.

IndyCar’s Leader Circle program, which commits just over $1 million to each entry, provided it partakes in every race, is a motivating factor for Carlin to keep both cars on the grid amid rising and plunging fortunes. The desire to run Chilton, Kimball, O’Ward, Daly, and whomever else is needed to trigger Leader Circle contracts for next season speaks to Carlin’s greater ambitions; despite the current dramas, his will to move past the issues and continue racing in IndyCar is resolute.

Looking ahead, it’s hard to predict who will be driving Carlin’s cars at every round in 2019, much less 2020 and beyond. With teams in countless open-wheel categories throughout the world, some of Carlin Racing’s rising talent could make its way to IndyCar, and with an impressive list of alumni – many whom race in Formula 1 – there’s apparently no shortage of offers to step into one of the twin-turbo V6 Chevy-powered machines.

“I get a number of the big high-profile ex-Carlin drivers always asking me about a test and jumping in the seat,” said Carlin, who’s run Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, and both McLaren drivers, Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris, among others, in junior series.

“Of course, these guys are now paid drivers and they want me to put them in for free and pick them up as paid drivers… And, unfortunately, I’m not quite in that situation to be able to offer that.”

O’Ward, in particular, has demonstrated the team’s potential by out-qualifying many of IndyCar’s title- and Indy 500-winning veterans. Kimball, whose oval prowess is well known, has shown Carlin Racing’s skills in IndyCar’s most unique discipline. There’s plenty of promise to draw from, which should allow Carlin to get the program back on the positive course it was charting prior to Indianapolis.

“We must help ourselves in all areas, primarily with budget,” he said. “There’s a list as long as my arm of drivers that want to come and do it, and they message me and say, ‘Hey Trev, you know, you need somebody, give us a shout.’ These are all good, high-profile drivers who want to come and race IndyCar. So, as I said, it’s my responsibility to find the money, so I can put them in the car. And that’s the approach we are taking.”

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