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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Some lessons from Le Mans

by Gordon Kirby
I enjoyed a pleasant afternoon last week with my colleague Nigel Roebuck and Mario Andretti at Mario's home in Nazareth, PA. Nigel and I were there to work on a story for Motor Sport about a particular aspect of Mario's richly diverse career, but inevitably, we spent the day chatting about many things from sprint cars to Formula 1. The patriarch of the Andretti clan was in good spirits and insistent that despite the uphill climb IndyCar racing faces it's now on the healthiest footing it's enjoyed in many years.

"Reunification has turned things around from being all about the negatives into a positive," Mario remarked. "Now, the conversation is not about the split and questions about when are they going to get back together. Now, people are talking again about racing and the personalities and the sport.

"Over the past few years whenever I was doing any interviews the criteria of the interview always fell back to the split. It always came back to the question of when are they going to fix it? It was always a negative. And now the whole gist of the conversation is totally different. Now we're talking about racing. We're talking about results. We're talking about what happened on the racetrack rather than about how everything is so messed-up. So we've had a big change from an overall negative to a positive."\

Andretti hopes the positives will continue to grow so the IRL will be able to negotiate a stronger TV package.

"You've got a full field as well, so the whole situation is about being half-full, not half-empty," Mario observed. "And that means when new contracts come up in 2009 for TV or sponsorships, or whatever, they should be in a lot better position of strength to get a better overall TV package. Let's not forget, in the end, the TV numbers are going to determine the commercial interest of the series."

The other key element will be attracting competing engine manufacturers for the new 2011 formula and beyond.

"One thing I like about Tony is he really welcomes competition among manufacturers," Mario commented. "In that way he's unlike Kevin Kalkhoven who thinks the manufacturers are the devil. I'm sorry to say that mentality reduces you to strictly club racing. In my opinion, motor sport at any level needs manufacturers and without manufacturers the top level of the sport is nothing."

Andretti is indubitably correct on this point, a fact driven home by last weekend's 76th Le Mans 24 hours. Le Mans is all about the manufacturers, of course, and always has been. But you can say the same thing about Formula 1, NASCAR, drag racing, MotoGP, the World Rally championship, or professional kart racing in Europe, et al.

Le Mans was enlivened this year by an epic battle between Audi and Peugeot. The trio of factory cars from each manufacturer dominated the race and made for a classic encounter in tough weather conditions as Audi scored its third straight Le Mans win with the turbo diesel R10 and eighth win in the past nine years. Dane Tom Kristensen has been aboard the winning Audi in seven of those races and has now won Le Mans a record eight times.

Audi won this year's race with a perfect mix of reliability, pitwork and driving, but the open-cockpit R10 was outpaced on pure speed by Peugeot's 908 coupe. With the newer Peugeot developing at a more rapid rate than the Audi, next year may be a different story. Will Audi opt for a closed cockpit when it produces its next generation Le Mans car? This is debatable but many observers believe Audi's new car will include a kinetic energy recovery system (kers). Although he refuses to identify the next step for Audi, the company's racing boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich has no doubts that green technology will continue to be essential to the company's racing program.

"If we would announce now what we are going to do in some years we would take the news out of it," Ullrich grinned. "There is quite something to prove in motorsport that there can be helpful technologies in the direction of the green idea. I'm quite convinced that there is quite some work to do in the future. There is no question that it is getting very important for us and if we can bring a technological message through racing this technological message of today is very much linked to the environment."

Ullrich adds that racing is a key component for Audi in selling its road cars around the world and particularly in the European and American markets and the company expects to continue in sports car racing for many years. European sports car racing is very healthy right now with Peugeot pushing Audi to new heights and plenty of interesting one-offs like the Lola-Aston Martin, Dome and Epsilon Euskadi.

And of course, the American Le Mans Series has developed into the best road racing series in America in recent years with serious LMP2 programs from Porsche and Acura. Next year Acura is expected to race a twin-turbo V-8 LMP1 car and depending on the shape of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest's future rules the Acura LMP1 car may also race at Le Mans in two or three years.

Meanwhile, Mario Andretti believes the IRL should learn from the recent growth in interest in the ALMS series and sports car racing in general.

"Like I say, racing is all about the manufacturers and without Honda, the IRL would literally have nothing," Mario remarked. "But Honda would welcome competition. They want competition. But you don't go out there and invite manufacturers. The scenario you want is to have manufacturers come to you and ask if they can participate. But all of this is going to take time to develop."

Mario also believes in real events capturing the imagination of the public and the media rather than trying to manufacture stories.

"People ask, how can you create story lines? Well, you don't create story lines," Andretti observed. "They're either there or not. You don't become a spin doctor. You don't force-feed stories. They either happen or they don't.

"They've been lucky with Rahal winning St Pete and Danica winning in Japan and many of the non-oval drivers were right in there running strong in Milwaukee. You don't create those things. They happen of their own accord and all these things are good, positive things that are happening. I think many of these things will build up as time goes on and ultimately will be meaningful for IndyCar racing."

He also takes heart from the increased crowds at Indianapolis and Milwaukee this year.

"I'm staying absolutely optimistic," Mario remarked. "Look at Milwaukee. I said all along that unification would bring the crowds back to some of the key races. A lot of people said times are changing and there are a lot of different things out there today to attract peoples' entertainment dollars and so forth. They said it won't be a magic wand.

"But I asked why were times changing for IndyCar racing but not for NASCAR? Why has NASCAR been going through the roof and we were dying? And I think what we saw for a crowd at Indianapolis and Milwaukee this year said a lot. The crowd was definitely up for the first time in years. It was a huge difference. So the response has been there and that's very encouraging. Like I say, it's going to take time, but with the right moves it can and will happen."

Indeed, it's all about making the right moves and attracting the right manufacturers for the longterm. That's the secret to success in any form of racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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