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2005 Panther Racing Season Recap

 
2005 Texas Victory

Entering the 2005 season, Panther was looking to rebound from what was a disappointing and crash-infested campaign a year earlier. That effort seemingly took a hit during the off-season, when longtime team supporter General Motors announced that the 2005 season would be its last in the IndyCar Series, and that Panther would be its only team that year. Many of those involved with the sport, the league and the media made the false assumption that GM’s announcement was a death sentence for Panther Racing – and they were sorely wrong.

“Everybody thought that Chevrolet leaving the series in 2005 meant Panther’s day’s of running up front were over,” team owner John Barnes said. “They came into the year with the same budget they had the year before with several teams, and now all their efforts were focused on us. We knew coming in it was an advantage.”

Returning in the No. 4 Pennzoil Chevrolet was South African Tomas Scheckter, who failed in 2004 to turn a blistering fast racecar into any victories, and produced just a single Top Five finish. Townsend Bell was released and Barnes turned to the Czech Republic’s Tomas Enge, a driver the team had tested in 2003 while courting replacements for Hornish and one who held a diverse skill set that included several starts in Formula One.

2004 Tomas Scheckter

“We were excited,” Barnes explained. “Scheckter had the sky fall in on him at every turn in 2004, and Tomas Enge was somebody I’d been following for a long time. We knew they would work well together and give us a real shot.”

As the season quickly approached, new primary sponsor RockStar Energy Drink announced it would support both Enge and Scheckter, and with Panther being the only team running the Chevrolet engine, all of General Motors’ focus was on Panther’s two young aggressive talents. The season, team officials soon realized, was going to be a fun one.

Chevrolet wasted no time proving it was serious about its final year in Indy-car racing; Scheckter took the pole position in the season-opening race at Homestead. And Enge, making his first career run at the 1.5-mile track, just missed starting on the front row with his teammate when he qualified third.

Despite the impressive performance, Enge would be sidelined early in the race with a gearbox issue and Scheckter – a threat to win the race all day – would be the victim of a costly mistake by rival driver Kosuke Matsuura, whose three-wide attempt to pass Panther’s No. 4 car resulted in one of the biggest accidents in league history, collecting six cars.

2005 Tomas Enge

“What an idiot,” Tomas said outside the medial center. “If the league doesn’t do something about this, I will.”

Matsuura was placed on probation the following week.

Two weeks later, before Panther traveled overseas to compete in Motegi, Japan, the team confirmed that 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier would pilot a third entry for the team at the upcoming Indy 500. The 2000 league champion knew he had every reason to be confident about that May.

“After you win at Indy, all you can think about it winning it again,” Lazier said. “And I’m going into this race with Panther with one thing on my mind – winning this race.”

Lazier’s effort would be supported by the Byrd Brothers – Jonathan II and David – and their nearby restaurant Jonathan Byrd’s Cafeteria and local radio station ESPN 950. The excitement surrounding the announcement was significant, as the No. 95 Byrd Brothers/Panther Racing Chevrolet would give Lazier his best shot at another Indianapolis crown in years, and it marked the return to the Speedway for the Byrds, who were assisting their father, longtime IndyCar participant Jonathan Sr., recover from a stroke.

2005 Buddy Lazier

But before the team loaded into the Speedway, far away in Motegi, Japan, the team would have to endure another difficult weekend. A day before the race Enge, climbing the stairs at his hotel, would experience a fall that cracked two of his ribs on the left side. As the team scrambled to see if they could get Lazier to Japan in time for the race, Enge practiced and decided he could, in fact, run the race with his injury. However, his toughness wasn’t admirable enough to overcome a nasty accident in qualifications, where his No. 2 Chevy slammed into the outside wall, causing the Czech to break two more ribs, this time on his right side. Doctors ruled him out of the race. With Lazier too far away, and no suitable driver on site, the RockStar car was parked for the weekend.

“If it was up to me, I would have raced,” Enge said later.

Scheckter made up for the absence of his teammate by storming past Andretti Green Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon into the lead of the race with just under 50 laps remaining. As the laps counted down, and it became evident that Chevy was on the verge of spoiling the party at Honda’s home race, fuel in the No. 4 car became a concern. And, fatefully, as Scheckter exited the fourth turn to take the white flag signaling the final lap of the race, the No. 4 car stalled and coasted down the front stretch – out of fuel. He finished 10th.

Indianapolis would bring mixed results at the end of May, despite being the quickest car on “Fast Friday”, Scheckter would qualify 11th – just behind Lazier (9th) and Enge (10th). The No. 95 team would have to overcome a crash on Carb Day after a suspension failure sent Lazier sailing into the fourth turn wall.

Once the race was underway Panther had all three of its entries in the Top Ten with just over 50 laps remaining, rookie Danica Patrick spun on a restart, which collected both Panther drivers Enge and Scheckter. Patrick was able to continue in the event and Panther’s regulars were forced to call it a day as a result of the rookie’s mistake.

As if Danica crashing two of his cars wasn’t enough reason to put Barnes in an uproar, Rahal Letterman Racing owner Bobby Rahal ignorantly accessed the accident “No harm, no foul” on live ABC television, a comment that had Barnes and fellow team owners Gary Pedigo and Mike Griffin so enraged that television producers elected not to interview either of them. Later in the season at Watkins Glen – following Patrick’s rise to stardom – Griffin would refer to Danica’s No. 16 car as the “Princess Mobile” on the television broadcast.

The Panther banner had to be carried solely by Lazier, and the former champion did his best to give the team it’s first Indy win, but significant damage to his front wing, thanks to a signature block from Scott Sharp – Buddy actually finished the race with Enge’s spare RockStar wing – and an untimely caution late in the race left Lazier with a fifth place finish – easily the best career result for Panther Racing in the Indianapolis 500.

“I knew when I signed on with this team that I’d have a real chance to win this race,” Buddy said after. “I think we would have made a great run for it if we didn’t have a problem with our front wing.”