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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/ Appreciating the sports history

by Gordon Kirby
Working through the photo edit and writing the captions for a giant project like my history of Carl Haas and Newman/Haas Racing is a big job in itself. So far my publisher Joe Freeman and I have looked at many thousands of photographs and selected around 400 but we still have a few more weeks ahead of us. It's a lot of work but a real pleasure too because it brings the manuscript to life and enables you to revisit more than fifty years of racing in many different categories.

One thing any such photo edit makes clear is that variety is the spice of life. Joe and I chuckled to ourselves last week when we found ourselves sidetracked for a few minutes looking at photos from the Sears Point USAC race in 1970. The race was won Dan Gurney in one of his beautiful Eagle-Weslake/Fords and as we glanced through Joe's collection of Dennis Torres photos from that race we grinned at the many different solutions offered by the car builders of that era. Not all of them were elegant by any means....

But no fewer than thirteen different car builders, all but two of them American, were represented at Sears Point that year and three more were in the starting field at Indianapolis in 1970. For the record the cars at Sears Point were built by Eagle, Brawner/Hawk, VPJ/Colt, Vollstedt, Watson, Gerhardt, Eisert, Cecil, Huffaker, Coyote, Brabham, Lola and Huffaker, and every one of them was distinctly different.

Gurney won at Sears Point in '70 from Mario Andretti's Brawner/Hawk, Al Unser's VPJ Colt and a pair of '69 Eagles driven by Gordon Johncock and Johnny Rutherford. At Indianapolis, Unser scored his first of four wins in the 500 beating Mark Donohue's Penske/Lola and Gurney's AAR Eagle. In those days horsepower, downforce and tire grip were climbing dramatically every year as speeds shot up and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's late, great Tom Carnegie regularly would declare, "And it's a new track record!"

Thus it had been from the beginning sixty years earlier for Indy car racing and the Speedway and so it would continue for another quarter-century. But then along came Tony George with his new vision for the sport so that today we have but one car builder and the last time Carnegie uttered his immortal words was back in 1996 when Arie Luyendyk set the Speedway's current track record.

All of us hope something new, different and fast will result from next year's latest IndyCar formula. We know it will take time to develop but anyone with a passion for the sport's great history wants to see variety in chassis, aerodynamics and engines. We also want to see impressive speeds and new track records. We understand that for many reasons speeds must be controlled but we can't forget that Carnegie's memorable words drove the sport for most of its hundred-year history. And of course in every other sport from the NFL and baseball to the Olympics one of the biggest draws is to witness and enjoy new records.

The big problem for racing of course is that variety and new track records cost money and after the arrival of Tony George's much-debated vision and the debilitating effects of the CART/IRL civil war IndyCar is struggling to deliver value for sponsors. Tiny TV ratings, small crowds and much reduced overall media coverage have resulted in a steep decline in commercial value.

The effects are all around us. Gil de Ferran has been compelled to close the doors on his team leaving Tony Kanaan without work. Andretti Autosport intends to run four cars but is short of sponsorship, particularly for Ryan Hunter-Reay who showed his stuff by winning at Long Beach last year. Newman/Haas hopes to race this year with Oriol Servia and James Hinchcliffe but the seven-times CART/Champ Car champions have a tough sell on their hands and time is fast running out to put together a sponsorship package for this year.

Then there's Paul Tracy who has some sponsorship but not enough to put him in business with a top team. Tracy is hoping to drive for someone this year--Eric Bachelart's Conquest team is the most likely--but less than a month before the start of the season the Canadian star's plans are unclear.

You have to give Randy Bernard full marks for trying. He's made the needed break with ISC and gotten into bed with Bruton Smith. He's trying to make something big out of the recently-confirmed Las Vegas season-closer by taking on the risk and challenge of promoting the race and announcing a $5 million prize for any outlier who can come in and win the race.

There's already been a lot of discusson about who might take Bernard up on the gamble. Both Juan Montoya and Tony Stewart have explained that logisitical problems will probably get in the way of them tackling a weekend of flying back and forth from the Charlotte NASCAR race to Vegas. As Montoya says, Sam Hornish is a more likely possibility given his demotion this year to NASCAR's second division Nationwide series.

In Europe some fans hope Kimi Raikonnen will accept the challenge. The Finn has given up F1 for rallying and would be a great fish for Bernard to catch but he's a famously undisciplined fellow who hates to test and of course he's never driven on an oval. So he's got plenty to learn and may not have the drive or desire to seriously attack racing an Indy car. But he's got the talent and is a global star.

There's a danger, of course, that the $5 million challenge could detract from IndyCar's championship battle. But if the title fight goes down to the wire and a few guys like Raikonnen and Hornish were in the field it surely would create plenty of buzz and media coverage.

As Randy Bernard tries to work his Vegas magic on IndyCar the sport will also benefit this year from the celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500. The Speedway's history is unequalled by any other track in the world and the cars and collection at the track's superb museum will take on added importance this year. Donald Davidson tells me the Speedway has been swamped with requests for historical items of all kinds from a much wider sweep of media outlets than usual. It's refreshing to hear and this year's focus on Indy car racing's great history will provide a good launching platform for Bernard's Vegas acts and the 2012 formula.

Another good thing for IndyCar this year is the arrival of Graham Rahal, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand with good teams and strong sponsors. Without doubt IndyCar needs at least a few race-winning, championship-contending American drivers and each of Rahal, Kimball and Hildebrand have earned their opportunities to begin to make it happen this year.

Nor should Bernard and fans of IndyCar forget that they have a globally recognized and admired champion in Dario Franchitti. Earlier this month the Scot was inducted into Motor Sport's Hall of Fame in company with Jack Brabham, Frank Williams and Jody Scheckter. Dario is a great driver who is a relentless racer and a true sportsman and gentleman. He's also a passionate car and racing enthusiast who enjoys reading and learning about the sport's history and characters. IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 couldn't have a better man to wear their crowns in this anniversary year.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

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