Indianapolis 500: Carl Haas and Racing were together for over 50 years …

Posted: May 5, 2008 in Uncategorized

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Windy City  Chargers at the Indianapolis 500Carl Haas
Speedway Sightings

By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune — May 4, 2008
Speedway, Indiana

Born in the Windy City in 1930, Carl Haas has never really left his Chicago roots.

With a home overlooking Lake Michigan, Haas still resides just up the road from the “City That Works” and over the last 50+ years has based his wide-ranging business interests in Lincolnshire. But while his businesses are based locally, his reputation is known the world over.

That world-class reputation is based on one word: excellence.

Since the early 1950s, Haas has forged ahead to the forefront of the American auto racing landscape. First as a driver and then car owner in the sports car ranks, the first few years saw him racing behind the wheel of Ferraris, Porsches and Jaguars. One particularly successful run saw Haas win 14 consecutive SCCA national races.

As the decade closed, Haas pulled himself out from behind the steering wheel and followed the lead of two other Chicago-area racers, the Granatelli Brothers and Ray Nichels of Nichels Engineering. Haas left his job with the Ford Motor Company and charted a course that would eventually make him one of the most powerful executives in all of motorsports.

By 1960, as the CEO of Carl A. Haas Auto Imports, he began building a racing-related sales and marketing firm that focused primarily on exotic auto racing parts and equipment. One of the first products Haas began to distribute was the Hewland gearbox line. Haas’ skills as an entrepreneur and innovator soon became apparent and by 1967, he added another emerging racing product line, Lola Chassis from England.

In both cases Haas was the exclusive U.S. importer, which meant if you wanted to race in either the sports car or IndyCar arena in America, you had to go talk to Carl Haas.

Getting to Indianapolis

The success of Haas/Lola Cars began to pick up momentum in 1969, when the late Mark Donohue barely missed winning the Indianapolis 500 (he took Rookie of the Year honors) in a Carl Haas-Roger Penske Lola.

As his company began to grow, Haas continued his quest to be a leading car and team owner in the sports car ranks, partnering up with Jim Hall of Chaparral Cars fame.

Between 1973 and 1980, no one has ever dominated American road racing like Haas and Hall did. During that period the team won seven consecutive major championships, three in Formula 5000 (1974-76), and four in the Can-Am Series (1977-80). Haas’ cars won 60 percent of all races entered during those eight seasons and finished first or second in nearly 80 percent of those contests.

Haas’ Lola success gained even greater heights in 1978 when Al Unser became the only driver to capture the sport’s Triple Crown of 500-mile races (Indianapolis, Pocono, Pa., and Ontario, Calif.) all while behind the wheel of a Lola chassis.

By 1983 Carl Haas had become the world’s largest distributor of racing cars, gearboxes and components. During that time the Hewland gearbox and other gearbox related products exclusively sold by Haas became the standard for virtually every type of racing car from Indianapolis to Formula Ford

Enter Paul Newman

Paul Newman

With that achievement behind him, and after succeeding at every level of racing he had attempted, Haas decided it was time to go compete in the fastest and most-demanding auto racing realm in the world, IndyCar.

He started by meeting with a fellow sports-car racer by the name of Paul Newman. The two were rival team owners when the SCCA Can-Am series folded at the end of the 1982 season. The award-winning actor had become active in the racing community following his starring role in the movie “Winning,” much of which had been filmed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Haas asked Newman if he was interested in partnering in the startup of an IndyCar team.

Newman simply replied “Not a chance in hell Carl.”

Haas’ follow-up sentence was “What if Mario was driving?”

Newman’s reply was “I don’t think you can get Mario.”

Following a personal phone call from Mario to Newman, Paul’s next question was “Where would you like to meet?”

Less then a year later Newman/Haas became a fledgling IndyCar team with Andretti behind the wheel.

Twenty-five years later, the Newman/Haas relationship has recorded 106 CART/Champ Car/Indy Racing Series victories with championships being captured in 1984 (Mario Andretti), 1991 (Michael Andretti), 1993 (Nigel Mansel), 2002 (Cristiano da Matta) and an unprecedented four titles in a row (2004-07 by Sebastien Bourdais.)

Newman/Haas largely stayed away from Indianapolis during the years of the dreaded split, save for a couple of one-offs in 2004 and ’05.

“We have been loyal supporters of Champ Car but one unified open-wheel series is best for our sport,” Haas said in a statement released by the team.

Newman was even more effusive.

“When I heard about the reunification, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven,” he said in the same release. “I am very happy that we are going back to the high side.”

This year’s team has already been to the winner’s circle with 19-year-old budding racing star Graham Rahal becoming the youngest IndyCar victor in history after winning at St. Petersburg.

Haas-owned and managed teams have captured eight championships, 106 poles and 106 race victories in CART/Champ Car and IndyCar Series competition.

Unlike the city in which he was born, Haas was quiet and unassuming.

But make no mistake, like the City That Works, Haas worked his way up, a step at a time, to the pinnacle of American motorsports.

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