Season Review: Vitor Meira
November 27, 2006 | 8:49 A.M. EST
Running for Panther Racing, a two-time championship winning team that was reduced to a single car entry without full-time sponsorship this past season, Meira turned in one of the most consistent performances of the year en route to finishing fifth in the championship standings – behind only the mighty Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing drivers.
It may be, in all reality, the final great "little engine that could" season in IRL history as single-car operations look to become extinct in the near future.
But before Meira’s first season with Panther Racing could become a folktale, he and his organization had to face severe adversity both on- and off the track.
After losing most of their financial support with the departure of long-time manufacturer Chevrolet and reduction of sponsorship from Pennzoil, the team’s ownership group, led by John Barnes, decided to sell everything they could in order to make it to the season opening Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Unfortunately, all of the efforts could not keep the team from experiencing a disappointment as a mechanical failure in the No. 4 Dallara-Honda relegated Meira to a 16th place finish.
Undeterred, Panther Racing and Meira pushed on to St. Petersburg for the second event on the calendar. It was also the first race of their unexpected turnaround.
With a fifth place finish at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the Brazilian driver began a streak of eight straight top-10 finishes. The string of results not only kept the team racing, but also helped catapult Meira into the championship picture – facing off against multi car organizations like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti-Green Racing.
While the championship was not to be for the 29-year-old, falling out of contention following the penultimate event of the season, the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway, Meira was able to impress as he finished the season with six podium finishes (Watkins Glen, Richmond, Kansas, Nashville, Michigan and Infineon), seven top fives and 12 top-10s in 14 races to help push him to fifth in the championship, a career best for the fifth year IRL Series driver.
On top of that, Meira and Panther Racing became part of history as they participated in the compatibility testing session at Daytona International Speedway held in late September. The driver also became the answer to a trivia question as he ran the first official IndyCar Series lap at the famed venue.
More importantly than where he finished in the standings or the history he made, however, is that those results left Meira itching for more.
"We definitely had a great season together here at Panther Racing," said Meira. "I’m looking forward to coming back next season and doing this again and making a run at the championship. We’ve got such a great team, a great family, at Panther.
"We’re going to be back next year and be even stronger."
To that end, Panther Racing is currently preparing for the 2007 campaign with renewed vigor – and with more help. Next season, the team will return to being a multi-car outfit after announcing that they will partner with Super Aguri, partnering Meira with Kosuke Matsuura.
Will the new additions combined with Meira’s experience lead to a fairytale ending in 2007?
The answer is only four months away as the season kicks off at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 24.