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Rank Driver Points
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32 Townsend Bell 22
33 Pippa Mann 21
34 Martin Plowman 18
35 Buddy Lazier 11
36 Franck Montagny 8
One-On-One with IndyCar team owner Keith Wiggins

by Tim Wohlford
Wednesday, June 06, 2012

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Keith Wiggins
At Detroit, there were two big stories in the IndyCar paddock, both left over from Indy:  The fate of the Lotus motors, and the happiness of team owners. I got the chance to sit down with the one man who would know a lot about both – HVM’s Keith Wiggins.

To say that Keith has a full resume is an understatement – former racer, race engineer, F1 principal twice, rescuer of Lola when it previously was on the brink, owner in CART, CCWS and finally IndyCar.

While a contender in CCWS, the team has struggled since the unification. Last year, HVM's Simona de Silvestro became something of an IndyCar star, showing both extraordinary skill when she had the equipment, as well as bravery in overcoming some serious crashes. This year, HVM is the lone remaining Lotus-powered car, uncompetitive with the Honda and Chevy teams.

Keith made time for a brief conversation at Detroit shortly before the race, and I was anxious to hear Keith's take on both Lotus and the much-reported team owner unhappiness.

I asked him about a rumor that Lotus was trying to get a second car into IndyCar, through HVM.  “Yeah, we definitely... it’s being discussed," Keith replied.

But what about the obvious lack of performance? "Yeah, I mean they definitely have a development plan, which would see that they have other resources that they’re using for research and development. I would say that the plan they have is very sound... it is a good plan. Some good people, there should be no reason why it wouldn’t solve the problem. They’re on top of it. Obviously the only issue we have – the difficult issue – is that.... it takes time, ya know? We have 5 races in a row, and for this year it obviously makes it difficult." Keith reminded me that there have been times when Honda, Toyota and Chevy struggled in IndyCar.

Granted, but those companies didn't seem to struggle at the same time that their corporate offices are in upheaval. After all, Lotus Racing CEO Dany Bahar has been suspended by the parent company, Proton, for "misconduct," replaced by 3 accountants from the parent company. This greatly complicates things for anyone hoping for Lotus support. "Obviously that side of the company froze a lot of assets. Obviously when you’ve got accountants and stuff looking after company interests, that are distanced from the factory and project... obviously they’re always reluctant, slow processes.... due diligence and everything that is involved with settling a company. That certainly was a contributing factor, one of several, that affected the program."

Whatever happened back at Lotus Racing headquarters -- and I've heard some rumors that, if founded, borders on criminal -- Wiggins (and the IndyCar management) are reluctant to give Lotus the boot. Wiggins finished his Lotus comments by saying, "We can’t scare manufacturers off 5 races into the season. We have to be careful how we help the manufacturers; by the same token, it’s a competitive environment. The important thing is the reaction to a problem, and how you solve it."

On the day prior to my interview, the IndyCar owners met in a long meeting, first without IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, then with him. The chief gripe by owners seems to be -- shock, surprise -- high costs. Keith is not exactly running the best-funded IndyCar team: "It’s no secret that since we’ve been in the IRL we’ve struggled a bit, each year, to pull budgets together. That's your primary goal, first of all, is to survive. And then you scale your development accordingly."

"I told Randy (Bernard), a year or two ago," he continued, "Change costs money. I'm not surprised by it; because if you've been around long enough you know. Change costs money setting up everything that's new that goes with the car, you know: gears, electronics, all that stuff....

On the other hand, Keith saw things a little different than many of the owners, since he was involved actually selling cars and parts with Lola back in the '90's. Keith continued: "But yeah, there are some issues with the way it's been structured. You've got one supplier, the prices are controlled. Whether you can repair stuff, manufacture stuff -- that makes a big difference to your budget."

He continued: "It's a difficult balance. When I was in charge of Lola, we were designing the cars, and I put a lot of the pricing together. I understand amortization is a big thing.... IF set a very cheap price, let's say, and you don't make your money in spares, then where have you made your money? So, you have to understand the manufacturing side of things. However, there is also no competition... One way, if they can't come to (Dallara) for parts, I understand it hurts their business model. I've been on the other side, so I understand that it's not as easy as it sounds. If everyone goes off and makes copies of stuff -- of course it's cheaper to make copies of stuff you're copying...

"We have to be careful we don't go too far the other way whereby now we can't do anything, and we're controlled even if we repair something. Some of the smaller stuff we used to make are now at a premium. Has the pendulum swung too far the other way? Maybe... we just want to be fair."

We talked for a bit about the current woes of Lola ("It's sad, like a lot of things"), the old Lotus Seven ("That was a bloody good car for racing..."), and you get the feeling that Keith would be a great guy to be your tour guide for a vintage car weekend at, say, Road America. Reflecting back on the past and present, he concluded, "It’s a tough business, right? What we do...." And no doubt, no one is more qualified to know just how tough.

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