The first time SAMAX Motorsport team principal Peter Baron set a Crocs-shod foot on the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was as the team owner of the Citgo entry for rookie Milka Duno. The Chicago native has maintained an interest in motor racing — particularly the Indy 500 — since he was a kid, but this is his first personal experience at the Brickyard. “The Chicago Tribune always did a special spread with a full page on the starting grid,” he recalls. “As long as I can remember, I’d get that out, following along and making notes during the race. I’ve always been fascinated with racing.”
Dressed in Madras shorts and his trademark Crocs — even on a cold day during the second week of practice — and exhibiting his usual playful attitude, Baron isn’t the typical team owner. Almost bashful in his boyishness, the straight-talking Baron brings a refreshingly relaxed and realistic approach to the Speedway. However, his casual attire and his easy-going demeanor belie his seriousness about the team’s Indy effort.
Raised on racing
With a devilish smile and a self-deprecating laugh, Baron details his progress from sports car driver to IRL team owner. As soon as Sports Car Club of America rules permitted him to compete, then-18-year-old Baron was behind the wheel. With his father’s support, the young driver progressed up the ladder. “Everything I did, I was just happy to make it,” he says humbly. “I always wanted to move up to different levels, but never expected to.”
He did move up — to the competitive Atlantic series, where he raced for two years. At that point, Baron decided he was “getting too old to make it as an Indy driver, but I figured I was pretty young for a sports car driver.” He moved to the American Le Mans Series, where he “managed to make a decent driving living,” although he jokes that he has more fourth place finishes than anyone in sports car history. “I had three or four fourth-place finishes at Daytona. Everybody in front is going home with trophies and smelling of champagne, and they tell you, ‘OK, park’s closed, you’ve gotta leave now.’”
Baron may have been a full-time driver, but he also had a full-time job in the “real” world, first with Oracle Software and later its competitor, Hyperion Software. He moved to the Internet world, taking charge of business development for Global Center. After the chairman and CEO of Global Center sold the company, Baron continued working for him, doing private placements and investments and eventually overseeing the CEO’s newly acquired yacht company in Florida. “At the end of the first week, we could tell it was an absolute disaster.” Nine months later, the company was sold. But because Baron’s family liked Florida, he looked for a way to stay.
That’s when he started taking the reins of his first racing team, Orbit Racing, pulling double-duty as driver and manager. In 2004, Baron left with co-driver Leo Hindery, starting another team (BAM!), this time as co-owner with Tim Munday. “It was a total disaster,” Baron recalls. He and Munday fought “all the time” about the direction of the team. Baron’s mother was sick, and he decided he didn’t want to stick around in a bad situation with a company he thought was going nowhere. “I thought maybe it was time to go get a real job again, but then I got a call from a group of Canadians led by John Lacey to run them at Daytona in 2005. I thought I’d give it one more shot: no partners, no anything. I owned everything.”
Baron formed a team at the beginning of the 2005 season in an agreement with The Racer’s Group owner Kevin Buckler under the name TRG East before changing the name to SAMAX — a conglomeration of his children’s names. With a third place finish at Daytona, his happy customers decided to continue at Homestead, where drivers Brian Sellers and Ryan Dalziel got the pole and were “walking away with the lead when we got hit by a lapped car.” But people noticed their success; the phone started ringing.
In May 2005, Baron ran the Daytona Prototype program for Brian Tuttle. When Tuttle declined to run Daytona in 2006, Baron insisted on leasing the car. “That’s when I got a call from Milka’s group.” Things went well enough for Duno at Daytona that Citgo signed up for another six races. Baron brought in Steve Challis, who engineered Greg Moore’s CART car and Paul Tracy’s 1993 Indy 500 entry. The pieces were falling into place.
By September, there was talk about Indy cars. “[Milka] was always following Indy car results. I thought it was maybe because she had driven with Dario [Franchitti in Grand Am], but I could tell she was watching way too much of it, so she was definitely interested, because Dario’s not that exciting,” Baron chuckles. He began talks with Duno’s management about putting together a program. Others got wind of her interest and tried to steal the deal, but his position solidified after Duno’s success at Daytona, where she finished second to become the highest-finishing female in the race’s history.
With serious talks underway, Baron began putting together an Indy car team, moving operations from his Pompano Beach, Fla., base to rented digs on Gasoline Alley. The key to putting together a team, no matter what the series, Baron believes, is “knowing the right people to hire. It’s all about the right people.”
Challis was a natural choice to engineer the car. “Steve has a gazillion track records on ovals. John Cummiskey [team manager] has three wins here as a crew chief. He has Penske blood running through his veins. Simon Morely [crew chief] was Michael Schumacher’s crew chief at Bennetton in ’94 and ’95, and was Sam Hornish’s crew chief at Panther; they got two championships with him. It’s a good group. They know what to do.”
The thing that’s really different with this team, Baron believes, is that it has the feel of a smaller, more personal team. “There’s a lot more interaction; everyone gets along well, everybody works together. We want to be professional, but there’s a casual side. There’s kidding and joking. Nobody wants to work in an army.” He says some of the bigger team owners want to make their teams run “like a Swiss watch — everything spotless, meticulous, perfectly planned and organized. But … we like Crocs!” he laughs, adding, “We can do it all, just a bit more casual.”
Not only does Baron set the casual, fun-loving tone for the team, he also sets an example, redefining teamwork to include the boss. When the crew works late, Baron stays with them. “I’ll peel stickers,” he guffaws. “I”ll do whatever. I think it’s completely unreasonable to ask these guys to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, from the hours to the food and lodging.”
His roll-up-your-sleeves approach to racing is symbolic of his attitude in life. “I don’t think anybody likes being told what to do. People like to know what the plan is. All these guys are talented enough, they know what to do and how to do it. You let them do their job, empower them to do everything and give them the responsibility. These guys know how to take care of the car. Everybody here has been to Indy, but me. But that’s not my job. I just need to know the business end of it.”
Baron is deft in the business end, and despite all his lighthearted joking, spends much of his day watching the bottom dollar, “seeing how much we did with UPS and FedEx: could it have been three days instead of overnighted, and all that kind of stuff. It’s all in the details.”
When the car is on the track, Baron is busy spotting in Turn 3. Pancho Carter is SAMAX’s full-time spotter, but two are required at Indy, so Baron fills in until race day, when Tom Sneva will take over. “It’s kind of a nerve-wracking place!” he laughs nervously, adding, “As an ex-driver, I can provide a fair amount of insight as to what the car’s doing and how she’s doing out on the track.”
Setting his sights
Baron’s list of goals for the month of May begins with getting Duno in the race. Next, he wants to get her to the finish, then to get her Rookie of the Year honors. “Anything we can do after that is a cherry on top.” Realistically, considering that this is only the third year of existence for SAMAX and only its second IRL race, Baron intends to “just learn as much as we can from this — really, just sort of prepare for next year. It’s the biggest one of the year and it’s unfortunate that it’s only our second race.”
He shrugs off suggestions of pressure, claiming there’s more on Duno than on him. “We know the car’s good,” the team owner says. “The downside is the program started late, by the time we got the car. It’s not an immaculate piece out there, but it’s a good, solid car. We know what can be done with it. We’ve done all we can do — it’s up to her now to get the results.”
The team is still waiting for results. They had hoped Duno would qualify the first weekend, but a Friday crash left her without a car ready to run on pole day, so the pressure’s on for second-weekend qualifying. For Baron, making the race is no laughing matter. He’s missing his prototype team’s race at Laguna Seca to be with his Indy car driver as she attempts to qualify for her first Indy 500, because that is serious business.