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The Way It Is/ Tony George's dystopian vision is upon us

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
This year's Indy 500 was an exciting and interesting race with a surprise finish after a late-race yellow scrambled the field. Sam Hornish made a great rally to rebound from a bungled fuel stop and successfully attack rookie Marco Andretti to win the race in the closing yards. It was Hornish's first win, Penske's fourteenth Indy 500 victory and his team's fourth in the past six years, but in many ways the story of the race was young Andretti who drove superbly, making a series of impressive inside and outside passes. In the end, Marco was able to steam to the front and looked like a surprising rookie winner until Hornish stole the win at the yard of bricks.

Other notable performances came from Michael Andretti, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan. Michael drove a steady, competitive race to finish third, less than a second behind his son, and second and third meant it was the Andretti's best day at the Speedway since Mario won back in 1969. Wheldon of course, was the man to beat most of the way, leading by far the most laps and running away from the field on occasion, but a cut tire late in the race ruined Wheldon's chances. Kanaan was in the hunt all the way and surged to the front in the closing stages only to have to stop for fuel under the race's final yellow.

Nor should we forget that Penske, Ganassi and Andretti-Green didn't have to race against Newman/Haas, Forsythe and RuSPORT. Moral 2002 Indy winner Paul Tracy is superb on ovals of course, nor must we forget Bruno Junqueira's pole-winning and race-leading performance for Ganassi in 2002 and tremendous late-race challenge with Newman/Haas last year. Any serious race fan knows that Tracy, Junqueira, Sebastien Bourdais, Justin Wilson and A.J. Allmendinger could give each of Hornish, the Andrettis, Kanaan, Wheldon and Dixon a very serious run for their money.

Meanwhile, throughout the month the big question on everyone's mind was about reunification between IRL and Champ Car. Will it happen, or not? As everyone knows the lust for power allied with greed, arrogance and hypocrisy have well and truly raped Indy and Champ car over the past eleven years. Today, there are so many entrenched agendas that many people believe reunification is impossible despite the best efforts of Kevin Kalkhoven and Jerry Forsythe.

Kalkhoven has repeatedly made the point that he's working for an effective longterm merger rather than trying to quickly thrash-out a short term agreement that might fail in the long run and at this point both sides deny that a formal merger proposal has been made. Kalkhoven was a guest of Tony George's at Indianapolis last weekend and is still trying to make sense of George's demands despite strong rumors that the latest attempt at a Champ Car/IRL merger has run aground yet again.

By all accounts three main stumbling blocks have been thrown across the pathway to unification in recent weeks. The first is that Tony George agrees to a 50/50 partnership but insists on having the deciding vote. The other key items are that George also insists on the Dallara chassis while Honda wants to run its normally-aspirated IRL engine rather than a 2.6 liter turbo like Champ Car's current Ford/Cosworth.

Paul Newman commented on the situation in USA Today last week. "For this merger to occur Tony must first think about what is fair and realistic," Newman said. "He can't load the gun, point it at us and expect us to make a deal. I know what the offer was and it was neither fair nor balanced."

Countered George: "Open-wheel racing has been a dysfunctional business over the last decade, but there has been a positive exchange of ideas," George said. "There are still some significant differences, but it is important that we keep the process moving."

Even though many people doubt it, let's hope there's substance to as well as some serious follow-up to this ironically hopeful comment. "They should never talk to or negotiate in the late winter and spring," observed Paul Tracy. "It always seems to happen this way. It ends up going into the month of May when those guys are all feeling their oats, and they want total control. That's what always happens."

A veteran engineer who has designed race cars and worked in CART for twenty years, spent the month of May working as the race engineer on one of the top finishers at Indianapolis this year. He told me part of his reason for working at the Speedway this year was to take a look at the IRL from the inside. "Even if they made a business agreement to put the two groups together I can't imagine how they could bring the two organizations together," he remarked. "The differences in approach and philosophy, the egos, and the turf wars that would develop. My God! It would be unbelievable. I've seen both sides and I just can't see it happen. I know it needs to happen, but I just can't see it."

But there are some very serious issues facing George and the IRL which could force the Speedway's boss to make a more realistic deal with Kalkhoven and Forsythe. First, Honda's money tree dries up at the end of this year with be no more sweet deals for drivers or teams. Driver salaries and team subsidies will be slashed to the bone and Honda's best-paid driver Dario Franchitti already is looking for a ride in NASCAR. Honda looks likely to spend most of its time and money on its new Acura ALMS program next year with teams expected from Andretti-Green and Rahal and possibly Newman/Haas. And let's not forget that Tony George bankrolled as many as fourteen cars in this year's 500 field.

Also withdrawing from the IRL scene next year will be Penske's longtime sponsor Marlboro who have been the team's primary sponsor for seventeen years and have been in the sport of Indy or Champ car racing for twenty-one years. Penske does not have a sponsor to replace Marlboro and a Penske brand will appear on the cars as the team's major sponsor.

Another big issue for the IRL is that ABC/ESPN has told Tony George that if George cannot work out an agreement with Kalkhoven and Champ Car it will not continue to televise the Indy 500 and the rest of the IRL series. ABC wants a full field of cars and drivers at Indianapolis and also wants Champ Car's thriving city street races like Long Beach and Toronto on their schedule of open-wheel racing events.

I can also add a couple of vignettes of my own about the hapless commercial environment surrounding American open-wheel racing. In recent years I've done quite a bit of work on a biography of Rick Mears, a four-time Indy 500 winner and three-time CART champion. Three years ago I did a lot of work on this project, spending three days with Rick and his second wife Chris in Florida, thoroughly interviewing them both together and separately. I've also completed lengthy interviews with Rick's brother Roger and their parents Bill and Skip and I've written about 12,000 words. As well as being one of the greatest Indy car drivers of the modern era, Rick's story is tremendously rich and his early years, growing up in a fanatical racing family, are delightful, but so far it's been impossible to find a publisher who wants to buy the manuscript or treat the book seriously.

Then too, there's the sad story of a book I wrote about the Unser family back in 1988 called, 'Unser, an American Family Portrait'. A few years ago, I started receiving phone calls from a lawyer who told me he represented the Unsers and intended to republish the Unser book. He said he was having a tough time finding a publisher and wanted me to send him a letter, signing over my rights to the book. Incredibly, he told me there would be no fee for me signing away my rights and that I would receive maybe ten free books!

I refused, of course, but eventually the book was published this past winter with a minimum press run of 2,000. I received not a dime, nor did I receive any copies of the book so that sadly, I have to refuse requests from fans to autograph copies of the book. This then, is the rag-tag state that American open-wheel racing has debilitated to.

In closing, I have to say it's a fine thing for Roger Penske to win his fourteenth Indy 500. But now he needs to put aside his personal agenda and do something positive for the sport that has helped make his fortune. Does he have the integrity and largesse to do the right thing?

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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