The Dale Coyne you never knew
Brian Carroccio: Thank you for doing this. First off, you were born July 8, 1954 in Minooka, Illinois….[Coyne jumps in)
Dale Coyne: Minooka. (he corrects my pronunciation; his pronunciation makes it almost sound like Minuka). Indian name, yes. Minooka!
BC: Population 10, 924…..
DC: When did that happen?
BC: According to the 2010 census……
DC: Well, you need to go back, in other words it used to be 500 people there.
[I resist the temptation to ask how far exactly I need to go back]
BC: I hear you were the youngest of three boys.
DC: Six kids. Three girls, three boys, I was the youngest of the three boys.
BC: Tell me a little bit about your schooling, education.
DC: I went to Minooka, enjoyed high school there. I went to Joliet Junior College in horticulture, turf grass management, a little satellite stuff at Purdue. I did not finish the four-year degree at Purdue, but got into the landscape business two years into college, and started making money that I thought I’d never make and kept going with that.
BC: What got you into racing?
BC: So, you didn’t necessarily grow up, wanting to be Mario Andretti…..?[DC jumps in again]
DC: Not at all! No.
I had a motorcycle when I was a kid, and was crazy and break bones, things you do as a kid, messed around a little in go-karts, but nothing competitive.
[I found it interesting that Coyne essentially became interested in racing in his adult years]
BC: I also noticed too your IndyCar career [as a driver and owner] started in 1984.
DC: Started racing in 1975, then Super Vee in ’78 and ’79. I did a lot of driving in ’78 and ’79.
BC: Did you have any success in Super Vee?
DC: We ran amateur. We were always one class behind where we should be. I started with an Atlantic car and it was a mechanical nightmare, because it had the Lotus twin-cam engine, and we couldn’t get it to live. Then we bought an air-cooled Super Vee at about the same time everyone was running water-cooled Super Vees. And it was tough to compete but I learned how to drive in that air cooled Super Vee. I did a lot of races with that car and it was very dependable. We won some regional SCCA stuff. And we’d go to a pro race and maybe finish 10th which was I think the best we ever did.
We then bought a water-cooled car and only did about two or three races, because we had our eye on IndyCar. We did Super Vee when we had a showroom stock budget, then we did IndyCar when we had a Super Vee budget. So, we were always one budget behind going up the ladder. And thank god we did. Thank god we did what we did when we could.
BC: So, it seems your business success allowed you to get into racing.
DC: It did. It’s hard to find sponsors to get started. I didn’t start as a kid in go-karts so I had no one mentoring me. I had to mentor myself. I would work tirelessly in the landscape business to make as much money as I could and spent it on the racing. Even when we started IndyCar, I usually wouldn’t run the spring races or Indy and start in June and run the road races and races the rest of the summer because we were busy in the landscape business.
BC: I noticed a few of your seasons started at Long Beach, then resumed at Milwaukee.
DC: Yea, that is exactly why, we were busy making money so we could go spend the summer and fall racing.
BC: Probably not a lot of guys in the paddock like that nowadays [I say tepidly].
DC: No. But they work just as hard. It’s what you do. I remember an interview years ago, I think it was Gary Bettenhausen, who said “you work so hard to find sponsors and put deals and money together, that if you ever put that to work in free enterprise you’d rule the world.” Because racing gives you such a drive to go out and find sponsors to do the things that you do, that if you applied that to free enterprise, which is what I’ve done, I’ve been able to make my money.
BC: That’s interesting (as I am trying to formulate my next question, Coyne adds emphatically]
DC: Racing has absolutely driven me to be successful in business. 100%! No question about it.
BC: Racing has driven you to be successful in business. That’s interesting because if you talk to the drivers, they’re knocking on doors looking for money to go racing….
DC: I’ve done that drill too. But it’s easier for me to make money than it is to find money. [This to me was the most intriguing statement of the whole interview]
I think everyone might be that way if they thought about it. But it also depends on the times. They’re times when it’s easier to find money. Right now we’re in a period of time where it’s very hard to find money.
BC: That’s very interesting. You brought up the Indy 500, and in studying your career I realized you never started the Indy 500…..
DC: Went there once to qualify. They did us a favor. They said you could run bigger engines, and they went from the 355s to 377s, and we thought that was a good idea. We had done okay with the stock blocks at Michigan and Pocono sometimes, but we always had problems with the oil control. We didn’t have Cosworth pumps on them, always had sprint car type pumps, so we went to Indy with a bigger motor, but we could never control our oil. We blew up everything we had and I think the fastest I went was 208 or something like that. I would go down the back straight feeling the bowels of the pistons loading up with oil, thinking “this thing is going to blow in [turn] 3,” and it always would [Laughter].
BC: Back in the day, engine reliability use to be more of a factor…..
DC: If I could do anything different, I would do that different. I built my own engines and had a lot of people help me with the engines, and suppliers who would give me parts, so we didn’t spend a lot of money on the engines. We hardly spent any money on the engines. Back when I was racing there were a lot of guys like [Dough] Shierson and [Pat] Patrick, A.J. Watson, who said “if you build our engines, we take these thing outs after 500 miles, we’ll just give you the old ones.” I should have done that. I should have pursued that more and done that. I think I only drove a Cosworth car once, and when I drove it, it was like a vacation. The thing was easy to drive, it hadn’t have the torque of our cars. But while we didn’t have the power, we had a lot of torque. At a track like Road America we’d come over the corner like a scared rabbit but before I could hit third gear every Cosworth was passing me.
BC: I noticed that you also built your own chassis for a time.
DC: This was again a function of finance. The rules had changed, we went from the big diffusers to the small diffusers, and lots of things changed. So, we took the spine of our 1984 Lola and built all bodywork, changed the rear suspension, and had to build everything because the rules had changed so drastically, the only way to do it was a new car and we didn’t have the money for a new car….
BC: You mean like an aero-kit? (This comment was the product of a conversation between Coyne, AR1 President Mark Cipolloni and myself the day before regarding Coyne’s feelings about aero-kits in IndyCar. Coyne isn’t terribly amused by my attempt at a funny.]
DC: An aero-kit? It was more than an aero-kit. Our aero-kit was [some sort of heater] and a 15-minute flair. That was our aero-kit. That was our wind tunnel, I mean. So, we just designed it, and built it on the minimums, kind of like the Porsche was in later years, and had lower side pods, because we didn’t need much cooling with the stock block. We put a lot of neat ideas into it but no research really, you know, seat of the pants built in the garage. We learned a lot from it but it wasn’t very fast. (laughter)
BC: Then you went back to the March.
BC: Those were different times……
DC: Yea, when went to Mid-Ohio in 1985 with the 1984 Lola we were as fast as the front-row time from 1984. But they had repaved the track , everyone just kept moving up, and we were running year-old equipment. You had all the legends back then, new chassis every year, the budgets were big, and if you picked the wrong chassis you had to make a change. It was an expensive program then.
BC: Your career-best finish was 12th three times; Sanair, (DC interjects)
DC: Cleveland, what was the other?
BC: Miami, the old Tamiami Park.
DC: Oh yeah, Tamiami
BC: Maybe, you’ve already answered this, but you ran with the big boys throughout your career. Was there ever a thought of maybe moving down a level and having more success?
DC: Again, it was business at the time. We started at a time when it was expensive for everyone. But the franchise system came into CART, which paid for loyalty. If you look at when I started running full-time, that was when I had to run full-time to keep the franchise. I made the decision then, that I had to run full-time, and make the balance sheet work racing.
BC: You told me over the phone before that you liked John Frasco (Frasco was the CART CEO from 1981-1989, who introduced the franchise system).
DC: I liked Frasco. He took us from a $5 million company to an $80 million company. He grew the sport. He had the big event theory, which we did at Toronto, Long Beach and Vancouver, which was of course his Achilles Heel, even though it shouldn’t have been. But he grew the sport. Its tough because now we’re trying to maintain, let along grow, but he grew it exponentially.
(I note there were a lot of good things during that time, such as Jim Chapman and the PPG hospitality tent. Coyne agrees)
BC: I knew about this but had forgotten. Talk about Walter Payton’s involvement with the team.
DC: That came about through the Mi-Jack people. They had done some things with him and put us together and that worked out nicely.
(I was surprised he did not speak at greater length about this).
BC: You recently mentioned the franchise system. Is the modern Leaders Circle program similar to that?
DC: Yes, it’s very similar. The problem with the franchise system was when we stopped it. When we made the decision to go public that was a mistake. It gave us a war chest but hurt the teams. It paid teams to leave not to stay. When the owners vote came down to abolish the franchise system and go public, only two owners voted against it: myself and Jerry Forsythe. I voted against it for the reason it paid people to leave Rather than to stay. It was a nice idea, in that we got stock, but I no longer get $80,000 to show up. I always loved the Atlantic team that was named DSTP (Don’t Spend The Principal). Well, they put you in a situation where you had to spend the principal. When that happened Truesports left, Pat Patrick left, Roger sold his stock to buy another company and he was expanding his business at the time. And it’s a different world, when you’re a public company.
BC: Another thing that came up was Chicagoland. To me, and I don’t have as lot of business savvy, but the race track business makes no sense….
DC: Well, then you do have business savvy. (DC laughs)
BC: (I continue) You have a lot of space that gets used, what twice a year….?
DC: Depends on how good the promoter is.
BC: You were part of a group that ended up selling to ISC.
DC: Yes, I was part of a local group and ended up being the biggest investor that built a drag strip and dirt oval. There was an alliance between ISC and IMS to build a track in Chicago. Bruton [Smith] was working on stuff in Gary, Indiana somewhere. They were trying out West Chicago, having entitlement problems and weren’t getting anywhere. So, Tony and I did a handshake deal overlooking the short track. We had the city of Joliet behind us big-time, and got the entitlements done, assembled the land we needed and it was off and running. ISC bought us out 4-5 years after we developed, and it worked out very well for me.
BC: I noted how he sold before the market went down.
DC: Yes, and it made business sense for ISC to buy at that time, as the track was declining in value.
BC: I think this is a problem IndyCar has in that ISC controls so many tracks.
DC: Smart on ISC’s part.
BC: Right, I know. I don’t know IndyCar’s cash flow situation, but I look at Gateway and Nashville and see an investment opportunity. Does this make sense if you’re trying to build the company?
DC: Pikes Peak also. To answer your question it makes a lot of sense (although, he doesn’t exactly say much more).
BC: Here’s another interesting thing. Go back to 2007, you had a really good year with Bruno Junqueira. It seems, from that point forward the results have been better. What has maybe changed?
DC: As we’ve built our other business, it has enabled us to do better in this business. We use to always rely on drivers who brought sponsorship. Since Bruno forward, we have been in a position where we could pick a driver. Also, we’ve been able to hire the right people on the engineering side.
BC: Do you look at Justin Wilson as the face of the franchise so to speak.
BC: When you say other businesses are you talking about the restaurants?
BC: We talked a fair amount about this yesterday with Mark Cipolloni. The three of us are all of the belief that IndyCar has a commercial problem more so than even an engineering problem, attendance problem, or whatever else. Do you see this getting better anytime soon? Do you have an opinion on the steps that need to be taken.
DC: I think it will get better as the economy gets better. Right now, it’s difficult getting the sponsors in here and getting the people in here who have the money to come to our races. I think the economy is still hurting us.
Saying that I think we have a good racing product. Since the advent of the new car, we’ve had a good racing product. We do need to get the distribution better than what it is. That way we can build a better fan base. The people that watch us on NBC Sports are great, but we can quadruple that number going on network, and we can grow from there. So, yes, television is our number one problem. That needs to be 100% of our effort to make that better. NBC Sports is great, but what do we have to do to get more races on network. And the minute we get to a 1.7 or 2 rating, a lot of these problems will go away.
BC: I am under the impression Justin Wilson is signed for next year.
DC: We have an option on him. We have until later on to decide. He’ll be here next year.
BC: I guess the second car will come together in the off-season?
DC: Yes, or maybe sooner. We’ve got a few things we’re working on. It will be the off-season but it will be quickly in the off-season.
[I wonder if quickly means Thursday prior to practice at St. Pete rather than Friday].
BC: Is Ana Beatriz under consideration?
DC: Yea, she’s looking at some things and we’re talking to her.
BC: Well, thanks, this was great……
DC: You left off the bass guitar part [we had talked the day before about the fact Dale had played bass guitar in high school. He actually seems eager to talk about this.] I thought this was all born off a bass guitar.
BC: I played a little bass guitar in high school. [Not particularly well I might add]
DC: Yeah, but you’re younger than me. What did you play?
BC: Guns ‘N’ Roses
A Random DCR crewman in the background: “Sweet Child of Mine…..” [in a half-hearted Axl Rose impersonation]
BC: I wasn’t that good on the bass, but could handle the three chords in “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” So what did you play?
DC: We loved rock and blues. So we played Cream and Zepplin and everyone loved our version of In-A-Gada-Da-Vida.
BC: Tell me you played the long version?
DC: Absolutely! They hated us sometimes, cause we took a three-minute song and would go on forever.
Brian Carroccio is an IndyCar Columnist with AutoRacing1.com. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.
Feedback can be sent to email@example.com
Go to our forums to discuss this article