Menard Endures Bitter Year

Team owner John Menard can't wait for the 2001 racing season to begin.

Unfortunately for Menard, who fielded cars in three different divisions this past year, he started looking forward about halfway through the 2000 season. The primary reason was that his Indy Racing Northern Light Series team, with 1999 IRL champion Greg Ray trying to defend his title, was already out of the chase.

"It was an up and down year," Menard said. "Sometimes the winds of racing blow your way and sometimes they go against. This year for us, they blew both ways.

In July, Ray dominated at Atlanta. He won the pole and led 182 of 208 laps. Benefiting from a strong engine program, Ray won six of nine poles.

But much of season didn't go smoothly. Ray finished 13th in the point standings, primarily because he had a hard time finishing races. He finished last in the Indy 500, suffered mechanical problems in both Texas races, and got tangled up with other cars in a couple of other races.

General manager Thomas Knapp left the team in the middle of the summer, replaced by Mitch Davis. The move was a big one for Menard, who puts an emphasis on stability.

"You have to make changes sometimes, but you want to minimize them," Menard said. "Making the change in the middle of the year was very difficult. I usually stick with people, stick with things. But I wanted to get a head start for 2001, and we were going to make a management change before next season anyway. Better off to make the change early and get off to a good jump."

Despite rumors, Menard said he never considered changing drivers. Ray will be in the third year of five-year deal in 2001.

Menard takes some of the blame for the 2000 season.

"We're all a bunch of characters in racing, including me and a bunch of the other owners," Menard explained. "There are certain chemistries that have to be there, and they just weren't there."

"The owner has to almost be a psychologist or a psychiatrist out there. There's lots of egos, lots of different personalities on a team, and you got to get them to mesh. You've got to keep very unique people, very independent people, very good people -- all pulling in the right direction."

Menard knows what direction he wants all of his teams to be heading, with almost all of the details in place for 2001. He will have a new primary sponsor next year for his IRL team, though no official announcement has been made. Conseco will be back on the car, but this time the company will be just an associate sponsor. The team might also supply another couple of teams with engines, though that won't be the main thrust of the program.

Menard's other two teams, which compete on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck and RE/MAX series, will return almost intact for next season.

"Our operation is pretty much set for next year," he said.

Bryan Reffner finished ninth in the Craftsman standings, posting 16 top-10 finishes in 24 races. In the next-to-the-last race of the year at Texas Motor Speedway, Reffner gave Menard his first Craftsman victory by winning from the pole.

"The truck team is very stable," Menard said. "We are in a multi-year program in trucks, and we knew that was going to be very difficult, so we've been preparing ourselves for the long haul. We were starting out brand new in NASCAR in a very competitive circuit.

"Actually, the pole and win came a little sooner than we had thought, sooner than we had dared to hope."

Paul Menard, John's son, finished 13th in the standings in NASCAR's RE/MAX touring series, finishing in the top 10 in seven of 16 events.

"If it works out, we might even run a Winston Cup race or two next year," John Menard said.

Winston Cup could well be in Team Menard's long-range plans.

"If we get the truck team to where it does well consistently like the IRL team, then our next challenge would be to go to Busch," Menard said. "Ultimately, you have to think about going Winston Cup, but you have to look at the big picture, all your resources available, etc."

Don't be surprised if Robby Gordon winds up driving for Menard in the future. The team owner has a good relationship and a great deal of respect for Gordon, who fielded his own car on the Winston Cup circuit in 2000.

Menard believes that Gordon is a talented driver stuck in a difficult situation. Not only does he not have the proper funding needed for a Winston Cup team, but he also has more responsibilities than just driving. Gordon is also the team owner and primary fundraiser.

"If Robby ever wants to run the IRL, I'd have a car for him," Menard said. "Part time, full time, whatever he wants."

One possibility would be for Mernard to field a car just for the Indy 500 for a guest driver, but the team tried that in 2000 and didn't like the results. Neither car did well. Mernard said it is unlikely he will repeat the adventure in 2001.

"Right now I don't plan to," the team owner said. "It didn't help us last year to do it. If an interesting situation came up, I'd have to take a look at it, but I would say there's a 95 percent chance that we wouldn't."

Menard wants to get back to the top. He'd like to win another Indy Racing title and get a win at the Indy 500, not going around making a bunch of changes.

"Not being in the top 10 was a bitter pill to swallow," he said. "We thought we had a better team than that. This is all about people, and we didn't pay attention to some things that we should have this year. I think we have most of these things righted and will have a good season next year.

"The spirit of the team is as strong as it has ever been."

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