By Road to Indy
John Cummiskey has enjoyed a long and storied career at the pinnacle of American open-wheel racing, including tenures as a chief mechanic and team manager with some of the most famous names in the industry. Now, he heads up John Cummiskey Racing as he strives to make a name for himself and his eponymous team on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.
Cummiskey started at the bottom with one of the top teams in racing, as a race weekend helper for Team Penske in 1987. By the time he left in 1999, he had worked his way up to chief mechanic on the No. 3 car. Stints as a chief mechanic with Team Green and Newman Haas Racing were followed by four years as team manager for Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing. His expertise with a race car and management experience came together in 2013, when the time came to form his own operation. He chose to follow the successful path so many young race car drivers take, forming a team in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.
Growing up in rural Illinois, Cummiskey spent his youth working on farm equipment before turning to what was supposed to be a career in aircraft maintenance. But it was his tenacity and passion for race cars that earned him his big break.
“My family rented a house on a farm west of Chicago and I grew up there,” said Cummiskey. “Around the age of 10, I started working around the farm, on tractors and trucks. A kid on a farm nearby would give me his runt pigs and I would raise them and sell them, and that’s how I earned money to buy my first dirt bike, then my first car when I was 14. It hit me in high school that I really couldn’t do that for a living, so I went to the local vocational school and got into aircraft work. There was an air strip on the farm so I spent a lot of time flying and I was really into it. Lewis University near Joliet had a really good aviation program, so I earned a degree there in aircraft maintenance.
“I went to work for Eddie Wachs in Waukegan, Ill., as an airplane mechanic,” Cummiskey continued. “I was taking care of planes for Carl Haas, Danny Sullivan, and Mario and Michael Andretti when they would come down to Newman Haas. I was a big race fan, a Penske fan, and I started going to races and bugging (then team manager) Derrick Walker for a job. He finally got tired of me in 1987, threw a shirt at me and told me to go polish wheels. I did five races in 1988 and at the end of the year, they offered me a job. I packed up my pickup truck and drove to Reading, Pa. I remember telling my high school English teacher that I wanted to work on Indy cars someday, and to start with Penske was a dream come true.”
Cummiskey moved up through the ranks at Penske, first as a mechanic with Rick Mears then becoming chief mechanic in 1996. The lessons learned – all the small details that go into a successful race team – would become the foundation when it was time to form his own team. In 2000, Cummiskey moved to Team Green as team manager, then to Newman Haas in 2004, ostensibly to help with the team’s Indy 500 efforts. The team wanted to keep him on for the following year but already employed a full complement of mechanics for its existing Champ Car program. Instead, an alternative plan came to light that not only helped Cummiskey carve out his own niche at Newman Haas, but would eventually lead him toward forming his own team.
“Newman Haas had all their own championship-winning cars in the shop, but none of them were restored. At Penske, we had restored the cars at the end of each year to send to his museum, so I had plenty of experience at that. We started with Nigel Mansell’s ‘Red Five’ 1993 championship car, which had been sitting in a corner. We brought it down to the shop in Indianapolis and it took about two years to complete. And we kept going from there.”
As word got out that Cummiskey was in the restoration business, more clients came his way. In between racing stints (including three years as team manager for Dragon Racing), he focused on an impressive array of race car restorations, including Mario Andretti’s 1984 CART Championship Lola and Rick Mears’ 1989 Penske PC18. But Cummiskey knew the time had come to form a team of his own, though he wasn’t exactly sure how to make that next move.
“Perhaps it was a bit more difficult to move into this paddock since I hadn’t come up through these ranks. But I thought that since this was my entry point into team ownership, I would start on the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, so I decided to get into USF2000. Because I was an unknown entity here, it took a while to get going – I had a truck and a shop but no drivers, until I was introduced to Nathan Block and we did a few races in 2014.”
Cummiskey focused on the 2015 USF2000 campaign and, once again, his extensive racing contacts came through and introduced him to two talented young Australians– Anthony Martin and Jordan Lloyd. Martin had won the 2013 West Australian Formula Ford series and finished second in 2014, while Lloyd finished second in the 2014 Australian Formula Ford series. Both were looking to make the next step.
“Tim Neff, whom I’d known when he was at Penske Shocks in Reading, introduced me to (former driver and manager) Mark Larkham in Australia, who led me to Anthony and Jordan Lloyd. We knew at the time that Jordan didn’t have much money but we did the best we could. We were very impressed with both of them right out of the box. I could see a lot of Paul Tracy in Jordan, and a lot of Rick Mears in Anthony. Anthony took things slow and was very analytical, and that served him very well. He had to learn being in the States, the car, the tracks, the tires. I had Lou d’Agostino working for me at the time, and he was a huge help as I got my feet under me as a car owner. I was so involved with running the car that I didn’t run the team well enough, and that’s the next step for me. I have to take a step back at the track and run the business.”
In John Cummiskey Racing’s first full season on the Mazda Road to Indy, Martin took Rookie of the Year honors with a fourth-place finish in the title chase, earning five podiums in 16 races. The team had another solid season with Ayla Agren and Lucas Kohl in 2016, finishing 11th and 12th respectively in the driver championship, with Agren scoring a season-high finish of fourth at Road America. Cummiskey began the 2017 season with Kris Wright, who graduated mid-season to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and finished the year with fellow Illinois native Colin Kaminsky.
As Cummiskey focuses on 2018, he has plans in place to help prospective drivers both on and off the racetrack.
“We are trying to help drivers find sponsorship and help them enhance their business-to-business prospects. We are working with marketing people who have a great deal of racing experience, to help the drivers and the team with sponsorship, which is one more thing we can bring to the table. I’m going to bring on a driver coach as well, someone who can work for the overall benefit of all our drivers and the team. They have to see the big picture, which is to help the young drivers be successful now and to set them up for the future. We want an environment that breeds success.”
While JCR continues to grow and develop as a team, Cummiskey relies on the lessons he has learned over the past 30 years and the successful environments he has experienced first-hand.
“The most important thing is to be as prepared as you can be, for anything. It comes down to prep at the shop before you go to the racetrack. Mistakes happen, but as Roger Penske used to say, just don’t make them twice. You learn from mistakes. That’s a philosophy I try to have here. These kids are going to crash, that’s part of what we do.
“We run this team like an IndyCar team. I try to teach the younger kids some of the things I learned early on, such as how to be easier on equipment and take care of things better. But this paddock is so professional. Teams have really stepped up their game in terms of personnel, equipment and their overall look. We don’t look a whole lot different than the IndyCar teams in regards to presentation, but that takes work and good people. We expect ourselves to operate in a certain way, so that we can give the drivers the tools to be successful on the racetrack. We give them a well-prepped car and a good setup, and help them learn the basics of how to be a race car driver. It takes a while to understand how hard we can push someone – sometimes I think we could have been tougher in the past to help drivers get the most out of themselves. Our job is to help them succeed not just here, but all the way down the road.”