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Might Panther Racing be the Cleveland Browns of IndyCar?

Feb 11, 2014, 12:58 PM EDT

JR Hildebrand - EDM Getty Images

Two years ago, Panther Racing were able to run a special one-off paint scheme for the IndyCar Series race at Sonoma Raceway adorned in the red and gold of the San Francisco 49ers.

Today, a Cleveland Browns livery might make more sense.

Because at times, Panther seems to operate about as functionally as the team on the Cuyahoga.

You see, the Browns are in the news today because CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Michael Lombardi left the team, and this comes only a month after the Jimmy Haslam-led organization fired new head coach Rob Chudzinski after less than a calendar year on the job. Haslam later said, also via ProFootballTalk, that the Browns aren’t a dysfunctional franchise.

Most NFL observers would say the Browns… well, are dysfunctional. And shifting back to IndyCar, most observers can see rather plainly that compared to the rest of the field, Panther is too.

It’s a mix of good and bad events that have happened over the last eight or so years with Panther that makes it appear dysfunctional:

  • BAD: There were reports that Vitor Meira and the late Dan Wheldon, who were Panther’s drivers from 2006 through 2010, weren’t paid in full for their efforts.
  • GOOD: In 2008, the team acquired the prestigious National Guard sponsorship and for six years through 2013 it has provided a great service in at-track activation, supporting the Guard heroes at each event.
  • GOOD OR BAD: Wheldon was a fantastic ambassador for the Guard, but like Meira before him, he wasn’t American. That didn’t sit well with some.
  • GOOD: To rectify the non-American situation, Panther hired JR Hildebrand ahead of 2011, and he almost won the Indianapolis 500 … when of course, he famously binned it on the last corner of the last lap and Wheldon swept through to the victory.
  • BAD: In 2013, when the team unceremoniously dumped Hildebrand after an early crash at the 500, the team abandoned its plan altogether. For a couple months after, you had the awkward situation of Hildebrand appearing in Guard-sponsored ads, all while either Ryan Briscoe or Oriol Servia was driving the Guard-sponsored car with no degree of continuity.

And now, we have today’s revelation from RACER.com’s Robin Miller that Panther submitted a $17-plus million proposal to the Guard for continued partnership into 2014, which was rejected.

All of this makes Panther’s future less clear now that at any other point in its history, which dates to its first year in the then-Indy Racing League in 1998.

Panther will still press ahead into 2014 with a single-car effort, albeit one with a significantly reduced operating budget.

It comes after a decade-long run of futility that, like the Cleveland Browns, makes you forget how good it was years ago.

Consider, from 1999 through 2003, Panther Racing won 14 of 63 races in the all-oval IRL (22.2 percent), with back-to-back championships achieved by Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001 and 2002. The latter of the two came in Team Penske’s first year in the series, after switching from the then-rival CART series.

But 2005 marked the team’s last race win, with Tomas Scheckter at Texas Motor Speedway. A year later, 2006, was the last time a driver finished in the top five of the points standings (Meira in fifth).

In subsequent years, the best position a Panther driver has finished in points has been: 12th (2007), 13th (2008), 10th (2009), 9th (2010), 14th (2011), 11th (2012) and 22nd (2013).

The Browns are still more futile, despite occasional flashes of success. Since returning to the National Football League in 1999 (only a year after Panther was launched), the team is 77-163 overall, with only two winning seasons, 9-7 in 2002 and 10-6 in 2007.

The 2002 season – like the last year Panther won a championship – was the only year the Browns have made the playoffs since coming back into the NFL (naturally, they lost to the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers).

It is said that if you don’t consistently adapt or improve your program to match your competition, you get left behind. And it’s not a coincidence that since the IRL fused into IndyCar, when the all-oval era ended and the road-and-street course heavy schedule began starting in 2005, that Panther has gone from lead dog to also-ran with only the occasional big result.

Mind you, this is still a team that finished second at IndyCar’s flagship race, the Indianapolis 500, for four consecutive years from 2008 through 2011. But aside of that, success has been fleeting.

And much like the Cleveland Browns, you wonder if Panther Racing will require a complete reboot to regain the glory of years past.

  1. manik56 - Feb 11, 2014 at 3:38 PM

    As a Browns fan I am insulated you would even make the comparison. 7 Championships, 16 Hall of Famers, and a rabid fan base doesn’t compare to a team that was good on IRL ovals with Sam Hornish. The Browns have also never masterminded the ouster of the league commissioner.

    • Tony DiZinno - Feb 11, 2014 at 4:10 PM

      Trust me, it’s not a comparison I want to make. I have some family members who are Browns fans and from the area, and long-suffering as you are.

      That said, the point of the commentary piece was to refer to the modern day incarnation of the team, and not the iconic glory teams from the ’60s and previous.

      Having been around the series on a regular basis for six seasons, you can tell which teams have it and which ones don’t as much.

  2. kitnamania13 - Feb 11, 2014 at 11:37 PM

    I would say Panther is more like the Jets. The Browns are the kind of losers you can feel sorry for, but the Jets are the kind of losers where you can revel in their failure.

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