INDIANAPOLIS – When Oriol Servia arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and heard the slogan, he thought it was intended for him.
Indy 500 or bust.
For Servia and his team, Panther DRR, it’s actually more fitting given that Sunday’s race isn’t just the biggest of the season for this team. It’s an all-out battle for survival.
“My girlfriend has been [living] in Costa Rica the last 5 years and she’s always said she wants me to come to Costa Rica when I get time for a vacation,” Servia said Thursday.
If the team can’t find more sponsorship money soon, the 28-year-old Spaniard could be starting a prolonged vacation next week, because Dennis Reinbold’s team plans to disband following Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.
Reinbold has been competing in IndyCars since 2000, but has never finished better than eighth in the points – exactly the same spot Servia is this season after four races.
The timing couldn’t be worse.
Four days after Servia finished sixth at Long Beach, Reinbold had the woeful job of informing Servia and his crew that the Panther DRR would be closing its doors at the end of May unless they could find more money.
Since then, Servia has put together an impressive run.
At Brazil, he qualified 13th and finished fourth.
Last weekend at Indy, he qualified 13th again, ahead of defending 500 champion Dario Franchitti, two other previous Indy winners (Scott Dixon and Buddy Lazier), 2012 pole-winner Ryan Briscoe, all four Chip Ganassi cars, and points leader Takuma Sato.
Dixon, Franchitti and Sato comprise the sixth row Sunday. Briscoe will start 23rd, with Lazier 32nd.
Off the track, Servia is doing what he can, too.
On Wednesday, he took time out from signing autographed items that he joked could be sold on eBay to make yet another pitch for sponsorship.
So far, nobody has come forward, and sponsorship money can be hard to find in this economy.
Two years ago, Servia was working for Newman Haas Racing when the team decided to close its shop. Suddenly, Servia, who had finished a career-best fourth in the points, was out of a job.
Reinbold wasted little time in signing Servia to drive his car.
Servia responded last year with four top-five finishes, including fourth place at Indy.
A fast start to 2013 put Servia right back in the points chase, and things seemed to be improving for Reinbold’s low-budget team.
Then came the call that caught everyone off guard.
“This is the saddest part, and I’m really sad that a team like this has to stop after only a few races in the season,” Servia said. “I hope somebody reads this somewhere about this situation, and a company or a potential partner comes on board.”
This isn’t how Reinbold envisioned things going after running a full-time IndyCar team for most of the past 14 years.
But he has found ways to adapt. He shared the ownership with former IndyCar driver Robbie Buhl. He helped Sarah Fisher become the first North American woman to win a pole in open-wheel racing.
He brought Paul Tracy back to the 500 and last year, when the team was struggling with Lotus engines. He formed a technical partnership with Panther Racing, another low-budget, Indy-based team that is co-owned by John Barnes, Jim Herbage and others. Panther’s team is not folding.
Reinbold is already plotting a comeback.
“Our plan is to keep as many people here so we can be as turnkey as we can and gear up for 2014 so we can get back full-time,” he said.
Servia has been given permission to speak with other teams and has spent his free time avidly trying to cultivate some sort of sponsorship deal that would keep his current team afloat.
The other option is finding a new team, something most teams won’t do in the middle of a season. But the driver’s points could help Servia because they would stay with him, even if he wound up in a different ride.
Servia said drivers in Gasoline Alley have offered their support. What he really needs, though, is a job or someone with a large check.
If he wins Indy, he’ll likely get both.
Otherwise, he’s likely to be out of town next week.
“If I win, things will change for me regardless of whether this is it for the team. But I think winning the biggest race in the world will change things for the team,” Servia said. “Otherwise, I’ll be going to Costa Rica until the start of next season.”