This time of the year hasn't been real joyous for open wheel racing teams during the past few seasons because of the financial frailty of this business. Layoffs and cutbacks are the bottom-line cruelty of keeping the doors open.

"It's always the worst time of the year because you're up against it and you don't want to lose your people or let your team die," said Keith Wiggins. "It's the time when you're always asking, 'How am I going to get through next year?'

"Things were pretty desperate in 2004 and there were certainly some issues last year at this time. But, today, I've got a pretty nice feeling about our future."

Wiggins was speaking by phone late Monday evening from his Indianapolis shop, which has gone from housing Bettenhausen Motorsports to Herdez Racing to HVM to CTE-HVM Racing during the past seven years. The new name on the door is Minardi Team USA and, for the first time in a long time, there's reason to breathe easier if you're a member of this over-achieving outfit.

"I don't think it's sunk in yet that we don't have to worry because we still have to worry," said Wiggins, who came to Champ Car in 2000 to run the Herdez program after the death of founder Tony Bettenhausen. "I guess there's a little less nail biting and maybe I'll get drunk a couple more times at Christmas but it's not in my makeup not to worry.

"We've still got to worry about our budget and our drivers. I'm always thinking about what's down the road."

But, thanks of Paul Stoddart, this team that finished fourth in the '06 championship with Nelson Philippe doesn't have to worry about staying on the road anymore.

The ex-Formula One owner now has the primary stake in Wiggins' operation and he's bringing along much more than just the Minardi name.

"It's no secret that every team needs stability but Paul brings a great deal of resources and talents," continued Wiggins. "He's been in this business and he's got a lot of good ideas and, more important to me, a passion to go racing.

"For our team, obviously everybody is energized and it's confirmation of what they believed was going to happen."

Maybe if you put all 40 employees on a polygraph a month ago their faith wouldn't have been unanimous but Wiggins thinks he's earning their loyalty.

"I think they're starting to trust me a little bit more," he chuckled. "They didn't get their prize money from '04 right away, I think it took seven months and last year it was even a little later.

"I've got about 90 percent of the people we had in 2004 and I think a certain amount of trust has been built up. We've been through a lot in the last few years."

For veterans like team manager Vince Kremer, chief mechanic Daryl Fox and longtime mechanic Bob Hatch it's a fitting thank you for their loyalty. They've struck by the 48-year-old Brit because they believed his passion would eventually be rewarded.

"That guy is a racer," said Hatch, whose Champ Car career in now in its fifth decade. "He'd sell the shirt off his back for a right rear tire if that's what we needed."

With Stoddart's stipend, that won't be necessary. And the Aussie is enthused about a level playing field -- something far from his F1 days when his $50 million budget still had him six seconds behind Ferrari.

"I think Minardi has been known as a team that tries to punch about its weight but you can do a lot more in Champ Car for far less budget," said Stoddart, who says he brings resourses and street smarts to the party. "It's very affordable racing and it gives everyone a reasonable chance without going into the stratosphere to find budget.

"This is the perfect time to come into this series with the new cars but I do not under-estimate the talent. I have high expectations with a dash of reality thrown in."

The reality of this feel good story is that a race team always on the cusp of going belly up now has a money man, a plan and some stablity.

"It's going to be a good Christmas," said Wiggins. "No, make that a real good Christmas."


- ChampCar World Series -


20.12.2006 / MaP

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