2008 Panther Racing Season Recap
The 2008 IndyCar Series season marked the beginning of a new era at Panther Racing. While the IndyCar Series made worldwide news with the unification of open-wheel racing, Panther was making headlines of its own with the signing of a new primary sponsor, the National Guard.
“In all my years of racing I have never been so proud to see a sponsor’s logo on the side of my racecar,” Panther CEO and founding partner John Barnes said. “Panther is honored to represent the Army National Guard and the hundreds of thousands of citizen soldiers protecting this country across the nation and the world.”
The National Guard joined Panther Racing as a co-sponsor of the No. #4 car, sharing primary sponsorship duties with Delphi Corp., which joined the Panther Pack following the 2006 season. In the driver’s seat of the Delphi National Guard #No.4 was Vitor Meira, who returned to Panther Racing after scoring ten Top Ten finishes in 2007.
The Panther Pack started 2008 strong, starting and finishing in 10th place in the season opener at Homestead-Miami. An eighth-place run at St. Petersburg was derailed on lap 77 when rookie driver Frank Perera struck the No. 4, relegating Meira and to a 19th place finish.
The on-track highlight of 2008 for Panther Racing came at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the 92nd Indianapolis 500. Meira split the needle between Scott Dixon and race leader Ed Carpenter on a lap 159 restart, jumping from third-to-first, and pacing the field for 12 laps, marking the first time Panther Racing has led at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Meira finished second in the 500, scoring Panther’s best-ever finish at Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis 500 also marked the launch of Panther’s “Hometown Hero” program. The program is designed to honor members of the National Guard in each race market by featuring the photograph and biography of a local “hero” on the team’s autograph cards.
Panther CEO John Barnes was enthusiastic about the “Hometown Hero” program at the Indianapolis launch, saying,“It’s a pleasure, privilege and an honor to represent all of these men and women that are protecting us here in the United States and abroad. With this program, race fans will be able to identify and honor a solider from their home state, get an autograph, shake their hand and say, ‘Thank You.’”
The first hero to be honored by Panther Racing was SSG Patrick Shannon of the Indiana National Guard. Shannon, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Purple Heart recipient, was selected as the first “Hometown Hero” by Major General Martin Umbarger, Adjutant General, Indiana National Guard.
The runner-up finish in the Indianapolis 500 was the high point of the 2008 season for Meira and Panther Racing, but the team enjoyed success in several other eventsthroughout the remainder of the season, scoring Top Ten finishes at Nashville and Mid-Ohio and a 4th place finish at Kentucky. Panther continued to reap success in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, with Dillon Battistini winning four races, including a victory from the pole position in the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Panther Racing team ended the 2008 season the same way they began: by making headlines. Panther announced in September that former Indianapolis 500 and 2005 IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon was joining the team for the 2009 season and beyond. Many saw the move to Panther as a homecoming for Wheldon, who made his first IndyCar Series start with Panther Racing in 2002.
“It’s hard to describe the level of excitement and emotions all of us at Panther have knowing that Dan has come back to drive for us,” team Managing Partner and CEO John Barnes said at the time. “I remember watching him drive for the first time in the Indy Lights series years ago, and I knew he was going to be a special talent. Since then he’s become one of the best open-wheel drivers in the world, and for him to make his return to our team at the height of his racing career is a tremendous compliment to our team. I know he’s excited about getting into the No. 4 car for the first time and we’ve got a tremendous future ahead of us.”
Dan Wheldon expressed the same excitement and optimism as Barnes, saying, “I’m very excited to be joining the entire Panther Racing crew. This is the place where I started my career in 2002 and with the personnel and leadership that John Barnes has put together, I know that we’ll be fighting for outright victories, the Indianapolis 500 title and the league championship.”