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The Way It Is/ Waiting for the big show to return to American open-wheel racing

by Gordon Kirby
A weekend like last with an IRL race at Motegi and Champ Car race in Houston--both on ESPN--inevitably invites comparisons between the pair of dueling open-wheel series. To me, the basic comparison is that both series put on nice, little races, but nothing more than that with too few cars and not enough superstars.

I know it's mere jousting at windmills to think that the two series ever will come together. Both series have sufficient ownership commitment to carry on for many years in the shadow of NASCAR's big show but the fact remains that if you combined the two fields there suddenly would be the hint of a big show in sheer numbers with more than thirty cars and at least twenty top drivers.

It would be a healthy shock to the system after years of watching twenty and fewer cars in either league and continues to be the only thing that would give Amerian open-wheel racing the shot in the arm that it sorely needs. The IRL continues to be all about the former CART teams--Penske, Ganassi and Andretti-Green--while Champ Car still is ruled by Newman/Haas with Forsythe hanging in there and Derrick Walker's Team Australia making a refreshing push to the front. Nothing much has really happened in the pecking order of America's open-wheel teams over the past ten or more years. They've just been separated into two equally unpopular and somewhat feckless leagues with both series chipping away, hoping for the best but not much more.

I've endlessly itemized in this space the work that needs to be done for either series to begin to regain serious national recognition and I'm not going to waste any more of your time by repeating the many things I've written. None of it is brain surgery and everyone involved in the sport has talked their ways endlessly through the problems and potential solutions. And of course, as we all know, the only real solution is unification.

At Motegi, Dan Wheldon marked himself as this year's Indy 500 favorite with Chip Ganassi's team as he led most of the race only to get beaten out of the pits from the last stops by Tony Kanaan who ran a lap longer than Wheldon. Ganassi's driver ran most of the race with a broken radio, prompting a conservative strategy on fuel, but Wheldon took the IRL point lead from Kanaan who enjoyed his and Andretti-Green's best race so far this year in Japan.

Dario Franchitti was a good third for AGR, also running a conservative fuel strategy, while Scott Dixon was fourth, the last unlapped finisher. Sam Hornish lost time in the pits and finished fifth while Penske teammate Helio Castoneves started from the pole and was strong in the early going but fell back late in the race after brushing the wall, eventually finishing seventh. Based on Motegi, Indianapolis again looks very much like a battle between Ganassi, Penske and AGR.

And let's not forget that Honda's latest ethanol-burning H17R IndyCar 3.5-liter V-8 continues its remarkable record of perfect reliability after three IRL races. Without any competition, Honda's primary goal in the IRL these days is to provide equal and utterly reliable engines, just like Cosworth in Champ Car.

A messy Champ Car race in Houston was dominated by Sebastien Bourdais who scored his second win in a row and took the Vanderbilt Cup point lead. Bourdais's rookie teammate Graham Rahal drove a clean, steady race to produce a one-two sweep for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing after all the other top contenders hit trouble. Oriol Servia ran second ahead of Rahal for a while but the Forsythe team messed-up Servia's final pitstop, dropping him to fourth behind Robert Doornbos. Las Vegas winner Will Power had a bad race, eventually finishing eleventh after a series of incidents. Following three street races in a row, Champ Car now takes a six-week break until Portland in June.

Meanwhile, Kevin Kalkhoven strongly refuted my statement last week that Champ Car is full of paying drivers. Kalkhoven emailed a list of Champ Car drivers who are sponsored and/or paid. His list follows, showing fifteen drivers with sponsorship and a not entirely congurent number of fifteen who are paid a salary.
  • *Bourdias: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Rahal: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Jani: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Gommendy: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Power: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Pagenaud: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Tags: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Wilson: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Legge: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Junqueira: Sponsored. Not paid except for prize money
  • *Halliday: Sponsored. Paid
  • *PT: Sponsored. Paid (heavily)
  • *Dominguez: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Doornbos: Sponsored. Paid
  • *Clarke: Sponsored. Not paid
  • *Dalziel: Paid.
  • *Figge: Paid for by his father
One can argue that at least seven or eight of these drivers bring sponsorship with them to their respective teams, but Kalkhoven's point that most of Champ Car's drivers are earning a salary is well-taken. Perhaps the series is healthier than many of us give it credit for. But if Champ Car really was blooming there would be more than one driver who is paid a big salary. Beyond that, we all know that American open-wheel racing could be much stronger and surely healthier if everyone worked together for a common goal.

Over the next few weeks, after a close look next week at Bridgestone Firestone's superb Champ Car/IRL tire program, I'm going to explore some innovative ideas for pushing the sport forward, away from the languid spec-car thinking which I believe is part of the sport's overall deflation. This week, I've kept it short because the essential message to open-wheel racing's power brokers, is exactly that. But over the next few weeks you'll find plenty of ideas to chew over in this space.

Finally, despite predictions to the contrary here and elsewhere, NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow performed well at Phoenix as Jeff Gordon continued one of his fastest starts in years by scoring his first Nextel Cup win of the season on Saturday night. Despite his dislike for the CoT, Gordon and the Hendrick team have been very competitive with the new car so far this year. Gordon has one win, three seconds, a third and a fourth from the first eight races as well as four poles and he leads the Nextel Cup championship from Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

At this early stage of the CoT's introduction the top ten in Nextel Cup points are dominated entirely by the multi-car Hendrick, Childress, Roush and Gibbs teams. Plus ca change.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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