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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/ The new season begins

by Gordon Kirby
I'm looking forward to next weekend's Rolex 24 hours at Daytona. It's always a pleasure to enjoy Florida at this time of year. As well as taking in the first big race of the year it makes a salubrious change for anyone from the snowy north.

Daytona may not be the great international event it once was as the opening round of the World Sportscar Championship but the race usually is fiercely-fought to the bitter end and attracts a wide range of drivers and many other people in the racing business. Chip Ganassi's Grand-Am team has won the Rolex 24 Hours four times in the past six years so Chip has good reason to look forward to next weekend. But he also takes pleasure from renewing acquaintances and seeing old friends.

"I really enjoy it because everybody's there from our three different teams," Ganassi recently remarked. "But there's also a whole field of people that you know from all over the world of racing--drivers, managers, engineers, mechanics. You see a lot of people you know and it's great to catch up. It also comes at a time of the year when championships aren't on the line and everybody's fresh from a little vacation. Everybody's in a good mood and it puts last year behind you and gets the next year started. So it's a great event."

The new Corvette Daytona Prototype makes its debut in next weekend's Rolex 24 and it's certainly a sleeker and more attractive car than previous DPs. Hopes are high for a good result after a strong performance in testing but Ganassi's BMW-powered team remains the favorite with two cars, a fleet of top drivers and the preparation, planning and people required to get through 24 hours with as few mistakes as possible.

© Gainsco Racing
We all know that in a perfect world the ALMS and Grand-Am would work together and Daytona and Sebring in March would feature the same field of cars and drivers. But so too do we know that's unlikely ever to happen. Sadly, we have to accept what we have and enjoy it for what it is.

Yet it would be wonderful someday to see good sense and sanity prevail. Maybe the state of the global economy ultimately will force all concerned to face reality. Peugeot's sudden and unexpected immediate withdrawal from the FIA's revived World Endurance Championship reflects Europe's financial crisis and should remind everyone about the fragility of manufacturer involvement in the sport. Toyota and Porsche plan to field LMP1 cars next year and the following year respectively, but the Peugeots will be missed badly this year.

Perhaps more than any other form of the sport international sports car or long distance racing has variously thrived or struggled with successive waves of rises and declines in manufacturer interest. So it will be interesting to see if Peugeot's pull-out is a harbinger of things to come or an individual case of a poorly positioned French manufacurer struggling in a weak economy.

In contrast, our domestic manufacturers enjoyed an improved year in 2011, although it's sobering to contemplate the fact that the truck market continues to produce the most sales. Interest is lagging in the domestic automobile market in new technology, hybrids and electric cars in particular. Whether this is good or bad for motor sport is hard to say....

Meanwhile, the biggest problem shared by the Grand-Am, ALMS and IndyCar is for each of them to somehow establish larger media footprints and find a way to begin to generate badly-needed TV rights fees. As everyone knows TV income is the life force for all professional and many amateur sports. Hundreds of millons of dollars are earned by the NFL, MLB, NBA and NCAA and most other sports from the NHL to golf and tennis. NASCAR also profits handsomely from its TV contracts and so too does Bernie Ecclestone and F1.

The income from TV contracts negotiated by Ecclestone in almost 200 countries represents the core of his success and wealth as well as the key component for F1 as a whole in both income and establishing a worldwide marketing platform that attracts high-paying sponsors. But the Grand-Am, ALMS and IndyCar lag far behind F1, NASCAR and the rest of the sports world. Their TV audiences and income is in the basement compared to any of the sports mentioned above.

Over the years I heard numerous speeches from various CART/Champ Car/IRL management and marketing types about the value in buying TV time rather than earning a rights fee. They went on about how that way they could control the broadcast and make money from selling oceans of advertising space. But it was all pie-in-the-sky, gibberish in fact, and most of us watched dumbfoundedly as Champ Car moved itself to Spike TV and Tony George negotiated his legendary Versus TV contract. Thus did Indy car racing become smaller and smaller, drifting into irrelevancy.

Can anyone turn around the sad situation that's resulted from Indy car and American sports car racing's inept handling of their places in the world of television? Without an answer to this question these forms of American racing will continue to struggle along at an unfortunately low level with little or no brand identity or position in popular American culture.

In the middle of this sobering reality it's good to see that testing of the Dallara DW12 and all three of IndyCar's new engines seems to be going pretty well. Seven teams and ten drivers took part in IndyCar's open test at Sebring last week and most of them ran plenty of miles, including Simona de Silvestro at the wheel of HVM's Lotus/Judd-powered car. By all accounts the new turbocharged V6 engines sound much better than the naturally-aspirated Honda V8s of recent years, a good thing to be sure.

© Paul Webb
As we all know racing people are highly motivated individuals and I have no doubt that IndyCar's teams will get their cars and engines ready to race in St. Petersburg in March. Chip Ganassi cautions against any railing by armchair critics about the problems of getting the new Dallara and its trio of engines sorted out.

"Remember it took two or three years to get the car we've retired right," Ganassi observed. "When we were getting new cars every year in CART they were just evolutions of the previous car, but this new car is somewhat of a revolution. So it might take a little extra time to get it right for everybody, not necessarily right for just one or two teams.

"We've just got to buckle down and get to work on it, which is what we're doing. You have to take your time and work through everything slowly and thoroughly. It takes a little tweaking sometimes, like every new car in the past."

Added Ganassi: "Time will tell whether the new rules package and the new way of buying and distributing the cars and undertaking the testing is the right way to go or not."

Recently I enjoyed a long conversation with Karl Kainhofer who was Roger Penske's personal mechanic on his Porsche sports/racers in the late fifties and early sixties and became Penske Racing's chief mechanic from its formation in 1966 through Mark Donohue's death in Penske's F1 car in 1975. Kainhofer went on to run Penske's engine shop in Reading, PA until his retirement in 1996. Kainhofer indubitably is old-school but his comments about IndyCar's new formula reflect those made to me by many longtime fans

"It'll be more interesting with three different engines," Kainhofer remarked. "But from what I read and hear it's not going to be that much different for the simple reason that they've still got that idea of restricting everybody. And that's not a good thing. Everybody I know who are fans are looking for competition, but when they restrict everything like they did with the last car and are still doing with this car and engine, it cuts out the competition.

"From what I understand the owners can't make their own stuff for the cars. They can't remanufacture anything. So it's still a spec car and the engine in a sense is a spec engine because it's limited in size, in weight and in all kinds of details. There's no room for development or doing your own thing. We'll see how it all works out. I always say, 'Time will tell', and it's true."

Also like many old-time fans Kainhofer wants to watch Indy cars with plenty of power so they can pass and race aggressively rather than being stuck in packs. Kainhofer wants to see the drivers working the throttle and brakes rather than droning around in boring packs that only reveal their latent volatilty when accidents occur.

"I have a hard time watching it," Kainhofer says. "I don't understand how you can race that way. I can see that if you're a newcomer to racing you may not know different. But if you've grown up in racing and been part of the racing scene for any period of time you know it's wrong. As far as I'm concerned they've got to throw everything away and start over."

I hope for the best from IndyCar's new formula but I fear Kainhofer is right. Of course, just like in sports car racing, what we have is what we've got. So we must enjoy it for what it is.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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