For all of the good news during the offseason, one black mark remained as the season opened last weekend in St. Pete: the de Ferran/Dragon Racing team wasn’t there.
Through highly touted drivers signing with top teams, new rookies entering the series, and new owners getting involved, when de Ferran/Dragon announced they had to close their doors, a bit of air was let out of the sails. Unable to find sponsorship after signing veteran Tony Kanaan, the organization shut down about a month before the season started.
And, by “shut down,” we mean shut down. In the same vein as Cheever Racing, Vision Racing, Pacific Coast Motorsports, Curb/Agajanian/3G Racing, Forsythe Racing, and others, it appeared de Ferran/Dragon had been put out pasture. Though it was the only piece of bad news over the winter, it was a hefty one. No one likes to see a team close its doors, and this one seemed poised for success, showing nice speed at various points in its 4 years of operation, the last two of which full-time. All they needed was the right driver (and Raphael Matos did a formidable job in that role) and a few breaks and they could contend for wins. To hear that sponsorship was forcing them to close up shop was incredibly disappointing.
At the same time, it is very uplifting to hear that Jay Penske has resurrected that team, now called Dragon Racing, albeit for a part-time schedule this year. For obvious reason, this is excellent news. Another team, this one a reformed one, is in the mix. Their signing of Paul Tracy for five races puts one of the sports biggest names and best drivers in the in the mix for this season, and their rumored plans for Indianapolis may involve bringing another former American Open Wheel star back into the fold (the most reported name here is Sam Hornish Jr., per Robin Miller, though nothing has been confirmed).
Another bit of good news may not be so obvious. As I mentioned earlier, recent history says that when a team shuts down it is gone for good. The split and the current economic climate have forced multiple teams to either scale back (see Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) or cease operations all together. Though subject to change, none of the teams forced to do either have yet come back into their full form.
Dragon Racing is the only team to come back after going away, in recent times at least. This reflects very highly on Jay Penske, whose resolve to compete in his family’s sport is clearly boundless. Also, it reflects well on the series and, along with the multitude of other positive stories, shows it is moving in the direction. Not only are new drivers and teams in the mix, but a team that initially seemed down and out has clawed its way back into the picture. In the cruel “What have you done for me lately” world of auto racing, announcing that a team is shutting down is rarely followed by news of that team resurfacing. No matter how those aforementioned teams and their owners wanted ton continue, none could find the resources to resurface after that scaled back. Such a decision obviously results in any sponsorship opportunities for the future going away, with no team there to make a pitch to a potential sponsor.
Dragon Racing’s comeback is a sign that the health of the sport is improving. A team that crossed the brink into extinction and needed much money and sponsorship to come back has done so, overcoming the stigma of a team that was once thought as “no more.” Jay Penske is the first in recent memory to find the resources to bring his team back.
What’s more, the surprise of it has made this story all the more joyful. Though speculation had persisted that the younger Penske was working on something, no one had expected an announcement this soon and with so many races. At least half a dozen are confirmed for Paul Tracy with more possible, depending on the sponsorship they can find. Plus, we may be getting another old star back at Indy, assuming the Sam Hornish rumor holds true.
As disappointing as it was to hear de Ferran/Dragon Racing close its doors, or so we thought, their return is equally as encouraging. Maybe, just maybe, the sport is really heading in the right direction.
Kyle Lavinge is a lifelong motorsports enthusiast and has attended more than 40 auto races. He has contributed to the National Speed Sport News, Grassroots Motorsports, Competition Plus and Vurb Media Group.