2004 Panther Racing Season Recap
Speedy South African Tomas Scheckter was tabbed to replace Sam Hornish Jr. in the No. 4 Pennzoil car the afternoon before the final race of the 2003 season at Texas, where a mechanical problem would end Hornish’s last of 44 starts with the team. Despite coming up just short in its bid for a third consecutive championship, the addition of Scheckter and the team’s first expansion to a two-car operation – young Englishman Mark Taylor moved into the Menards-sponsored No. 2 car – began with much promise.
The media buzz was focused on Hornish’s move to Penske Racing to replaced retired Gil de Ferran and how Panther would respond. Team owner John Barnes was quick to downplay any worries about his two-time championship team, who had won a combined 11 races over the past three years.
“The car is still No. 4, it’s still yellow, and it’s still going to run up front,” Barnes assured the team’s fan base.
Barnes was right on all accounts, but for the Pennzoil Panther team, it was getting Scheckter to finish races that would become difficult. The season opened strong for Scheckter at Homestead, where he finished fifth in his debut in the No. 4 car, but the following races would see the team’s new driver fight through some terrible luck and misfortune.
While Scheckter couldn’t overcome his own luck, Taylor – the team’s Indy Pro Series champion from the previous year – struggled. He was able to finish just one of his first six starts with the team, and despite qualifying third at Richmond International Raceway, Taylor would crash again, this time taking out Scheckter, who was vying for his first win of the season. Taylor was released from the team two days later, and replaced by former Indy Lights champion Townsend Bell – a driver Barnes had his eye on for some time.
Bell was impressive in how quickly he acclimated himself to the IndyCar Series, and qualified seventh at Kansas Speeday in his first race despite having just over an hour of time in the car. But his first race would be a difficult experience, and despite running well in the event, the on-board fire bottle broke, and Bell was covered in fire extinguisher foam at 210 mph.
In his second start the following weekend at Nashville, Bell would prove why Panther’s team owner was so high on the Californian – who would battle Tennessee’s notoriously difficult concrete 1.33-mile oval for a fifth place finish, a career high and equaling Scheckter’s effort at Homestead for the team’s best finish of the season.
“This is really all about everybody at Panther Racing,” Bell would say after the race. “I’ve been with this team two weeks and they’ve treated me like I’ve been here two years.”
As Bell got comfortable in his No. 2 car, Scheckter struggled with elements he couldn’t control.
Tomas did all he could to put his Pennzoil Chevrolet in victory lane in 2004, and many times, not getting there was anything but his fault. In consecutive weeks in the middle of the season, a disaster in pit lane would ruin the Panther team’s shot at victory.
The first, at Michigan, saw Scheckter prove his dominance and storm into the lead before pitting for fuel at tires. As he pulled into his box, a crewman on Tora Tokagi’s car waved the Japanese driver into Scheckter’s path as he pulled into his box. The cars made contact, sending Scheckter’s No. 4 car straight into the path of his crew, breaking the leg of longtime jack-man Steve “Snak” Namisnak – who still managed to complete a pit stop on with a broken fibula. The time lost in the pits cost Tomas two laps, and despite his best efforts to get back on the lead lap of the race, the South African could do no better than 19th position.
The following Sunday, at Kentucky, would follow a similar script. Again, Tomas reached the lead of the race – with Bell running third for a stretch – before he pulled his yellow Chevy into the pits. This time, the clutch would slip, causing his car to launch forward with the fuel hose still attached and ripping it from the fuel rig. The hose caught fire as Scheckter exited pit lane and he hand to rip himself out of the car and roll on the ground next the exit of the pits, effectively ending what could have been another Panther win.
“It’s just a matter of time before we get this thing right,” Tomas concluded.
And while the team never broke through for a victory in 2004, the speed and consistency that had been a trademark for Panther remained. Bell, who previously hadn’t even sat in an IndyCar Series machine, ended the season with five Top Ten finishes in an impressive rookie season.
The off-season wasn’t a quiet one either for Panther, as long-time supporter General Motor announced that it was withdrawing from the series after the 2005 season and the Chevrolet brand would not longer be atop the team’s racecars. As several teams left Chevy’s stable for rivals Toyota and Honda, Panther remained as the company’s only team for 2005, a move they would not regret.