End of an IndyCar era as Newman-Haas winds up operations

Matt Majendie talks to a nostalgic Mario Andretti on the departing Newman-Haas race team.

The American former Formula One champion Mario Andretti seen here in 1983 with Newman on the pit wall, was the team's first driver and first race winner. John C. Hillery / Reuters / AP / Mac
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The race team of Newman-Haas burst onto the North American CART series (later known as IndyCar) scene for the 1983 season with a famous Hollywood actor as a co-owner and a former Formula One champion in Mario Andretti at the wheel of its car.

Its arrival, with Paul Newman and Carl Haas at the helm, was met with great fanfare. It was in stark contrast to its rather immediate and somewhat surprising demise in a one-sentence announcement by Haas himself last week: "The economic climate no longer enables Newman-Haas Racing to participate in open-wheel racing at this time."

And with that, an end to a 28-year era was reached by a team that lit up the series magnificently at times with eight world titles - the first courtesy of Andretti himself in 1984 - combined with a total of 107 race wins and 109 pole positions.

Andretti is not embarrassed to admit "I've shed a tear" in the days since the announcement was made. He gave the team its first win at Elkhart Lake in 1982 as well as its first championship and drove for the team for 12 seasons, an unprecedented length of time in the often cut-throat business of motorsport.

In addition, he spent four seasons with his son Michael driving alongside him at the team.

"You can't help but be nostalgic, for sure," says Andretti. "On a personal level, when I go back and reminisce about my years with Newman-Haas, it was a great, great ride for me in every way. Carl and Paul became such good friends on top of everything else: the race wins, the title, 12 years of fun and getting to race alongside Michael and stand on the podium with him a few times as well."

Andretti was the fulcrum to how the Newman-Haas story began, and it was a project which very nearly never got off the ground in the first place. "At the beginning Paul and Carl were fierce and bitter competitors from their Can-Am Series," recalls Andretti. "But somehow it grew into a marriage made in heaven.

"I'm proud to say I brokered the two of them to come together. I had an offer from the Paul Newman camp to be part of the team that they were contemplating on building as Can-Am was pretty much finished.

"They were big players there, as was Carl, and they were looking at the potential to come to IndyCar. Carl, well, I had to persuade him a bit and getting Lola involved was part of it.

"That's when I called in [Lola owner] Eric Broadley. By that point it was getting late - it was October 1982 - and I said to Eric 'do you think we can achieve this, to build a car for the following season?'

"Once we established Eric was on board then I told Carl to see if he'd join forces with Paul. Carl really liked the idea but, when Carl called Paul, he said he didn't like the idea. As I said, they were fierce competitors. Eventually, Paul said 'OK, but only if Mario's the driver', and that was that."

The team were far from a success straight away. As Andretti says, the car "wasn't what we wanted it to be".

But by race six, an illustrious team of engineers turned the team's fortunes around and Andretti sealed the first of two wins that year to eventually finish a creditable third in the drivers' championship with the rookie team.

The team's success the following year - when Andretti romped to the title - and its success from there on, he credits to the array of engineers that the team owners brought in.

"One aspect was the work that Lola did," he says. "They were the first ones to introduce a part-carbon fibre chassis in IndyCars - they made all the right moves. And the team had the best engineers, from Tony Cicale to the likes of the great Adrian Newey, even though Adrian was only with the team for a year."

During his 12 years of driving for the team, Andretti revelled in working under his two very different bosses, who in turn became among his closest friends.

He likes to credit getting Newman embroiled in motorsport in the first place. "Before Paul got involved with the team we had a bit of a friendship," he says. "I think it was me that got him interested in the sport.

"In 1967, I was driving a Ford Pan-Am and Ford invited Paul to a race and put his name all over the car. That was his first race and I took him around with the pace car. I scared the bejesus out of him but I also think I really peaked his curiosity as the following year he starred in a movie called Winning about Indianapolis. "He went to a driving school, got his national licence and he started racing. So I like to think I tempted him into it in the first place."

As a team boss, Newman was the polar opposite to Haas, who would spend hours a day every week at the team's headquarters overseeing every single development.

As Andretti puts it, Haas was "the nuts and bolts of the team while Paul was the cheerleader and was always there when you needed him in moments of stress or strength". "In many ways, they didn't cross paths but it was a relationship that got stronger every year," he adds.

Andretti's abiding memory of Newman is of their first encounter in 1967 and his growing love of motorsport, but also their enduring friendship until Newman's death in 2008.

As for Haas, the pairing's relationship has been a little more colourful over the years, to say the least.

"I'd also consider Carl one of my greatest friends," he says. "Carl and I had a totally honest relationship and by that I mean there were times where we did not agree and everyone else got to see that.

"I think sometimes people thought we were going to come to blows and there were many times when I felt like biting his head off. But we always settled our differences and laughed it off. He's a very strong individual and so am I.

"Whatever the discussion, we'd always somehow come to an arrangement as I always had the ultimate respect for him as his goal was always to do the best for the team and he was as committed to that cause as I was. Actually, I think of Carl and his wife, Bernie, more like family than friends now."

One of the key moments that Haas and Andretti agreed on was bringing Michael Andretti to the team in 1989, despite the fear of possible accusations of nepotism.

"Before that point, we were a one-car team, but Carl wanted to bring a second driver on board and suggested bringing Mike on board and I was like, 'that'd be OK by me'," adds Andretti.

"Mike was at the top of his game at that time and I had a tough time matching his performances. But I did a few times and was lucky enough to finish on the podium with him a few times. As a father-and-son situation, this was always a dream of mine and I was lucky enough that that dream became a reality.

"My time with Mike and me on the team was full of some of my greatest memories, especially seeing him become champion in 1991."

Following the end of the Andretti era in 1994 when Mario quit the series, there were ensuing glory years with Nigel Mansell winning the title for the team in his first year as rookie and later Cristiano da Matta and Sebastien Bourdais shining behind the wheel, with Bourdais in particular taking an impressive five straight titles.

Despite the demise of the outfit's IndyCar ambitions, Andretti still has reason to believe the Newman-Haas name will live on.

"There's light at the end of the tunnel and life goes on. The team has obviously closed its doors for IndyCars but, the way I see it, things aren't necessarily completely shutting down," he says. "There may yet still be some American Le Mans Series ambitions. We'll see."

But with the demise of one of the most successful IndyCar teams in the series' history, one has to wonder what the future holds for the North American racing scene.