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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/ A brave new racing world beckons, we hope

by Gordon Kirby
It struck me recently that we really are coming to a turning point in automobile racing history and the surprise is it may be a more optimistic future than some of us have been predicting.

In the last year or so I've joined many people in the sport mourning the passing of the days of innovation and moaning about the arrival of the spec car age. I wrote about these things in the first few 'The Way It Is' columns and returned to the theme a number of times last year. Over the past winter almost everyone I know seemed to have begrudgingly accepted that the spec car age has arrived and they have to live with it.

Yet this spring both the FIA and IRL announced their own separate initiatives to create new, technologically-interesting green formulas for Formula 1 and Indy car racing in 2011. I've enjoyed exploring the early ideas from the FIA and IRL over the past month and will continue to discuss them over the summer. In this space on Thursday of this week, for example, top engine designer Mario Illien will provide his carefully considered views on the subject.

But the point is we've suddenly gone from looking back wistfully to looking forward optimistically, hoping the sport can make the right moves for 2011 and beyond. Wouldn't it be great if these fresh buds of optimism were realized in four years with invigorating and exciting new formulas for F1 and Indy car racing.

It won't be easy to properly reinvent either formula of course, and to achieve the goals of creating competitive, entertaining racing which appeals to the masses, not just to engineers, manufacturers and the cognoscente. Formula 1 has achieved and maintained this critical balance for quite a few years. Contrastingly, CART and IRL failed in that quest, as did the original incarnation of IMSA, leaving us with today's bifurcated and devalued forms of American open-wheel and sports car racing, and of course spec cars not only in NASCAR, but in Champ Car, IRL (effectively), the Grand-Am, etc.

My colleague Nigel Roebuck provided some perspective on the appeal of today's IRL and Champ cars while we were discussing the state of American open-wheel racing over dinner in Montreal earlier this month. "They look like nice, little cars," Roebuck remarked about Champ Car's Panoz spec car. "They look good, very tidy, but that's the problem. They don't look difficult to drive like the good old Lola."

At breakfast the following morning we compared notes on watching the previous night's Texas IRL race on TV after dinner. It turned out that both of us fell asleep, missing the finish. "They just drive around at the bottom of the track, protecting the inside, and nobody can pass!" Nigel shook his head. "I guess it's better than when they were flying. But really, it's pretty boring."

I agree. My view is there's not enough difference in cornering and straightaway speeds. Too many IRL tracks are run flat-out without lifting. Cornering speeds need to be reduced and acceleration and braking increased. That would make the cars more difficult to drive and also make for more passing and better racing. This is an old mantra, stated many times, but I believe it's irrefutably true.

Roebuck aside, most people in F1 lost interest a few years ago in seriously following Champ Car or IRL. Back in CART's heyday many of them watched all the races, excited by the racing. "It used to be great!" grinned McLaren's Steve Hallam. "There were so many guys who could win and every race was different. And of course, there was plenty of passing. We watched all the races. As pure racing, it was the best racing in the world."

As we all know, aerodynamics is by far the dominant factor in modern race car design and there doesn't appear to be any way to limit that influence other than banning the use of wind tunnels, which is not about to happen. So it's critically important to get the aero package right for the F1 and Indy cars of 2011 so that they can race and pass and allow us to enjoy a show of driving.

And too, it's equally important to have a path or method of controlling the aero packages as they evolve and improve with time and development. All this is much easier said than done, but again, I'll be discussing these issues with some of the best brains in the business over the following weeks and months.

Meanwhile, the calls by both the FIA and IRL for fresh starts come as we approach some momentous occasions for motor racing and American open-wheel racing in particular. For one thing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2009. The Speedway opened in August, 1909 with three days of racing, including a series of short sprint races, a flying kilometer record attempt won by Barney Oldfield, and three feature races scheduled over 250, 100 and 300 miles. The first Indy 500--also the world's first 500-mile race--took place two years later in 1911 on Memorial Day at the end of May, so the 95th running of the race in 2011 will celebrate the 500's 100th anniversary.

Also, the 1909 racing season is generally accepted by racing historians as the centennary of American Championship racing. The inaugural Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island in 1904 triggered a series of road races across America and the AAA started promoting national championship races in 1909. The first formal national championship wasn't organized by the AAA until 1916 when Englishman Dario Resta won the title, but informal championships were tallied at the end of each year starting in 1909 with George Robertson earning the first AAA championship.
b Except for the three feature races run at the brand new Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August of 1909 all the other AAA races that year were run on open road courses. Road races remained the core of AAA championship racing until WWI but when racing resumed following the war open road racing essentially was legislated out of business. In their place during the 1920s the United States witnessed the rapid rise and equally sudden fall of the great board track era. Still, the combination of Indianapolis and the board tracks established America's unique tradition of oval racing although it was road racing that provided the original foundation for Championship racing.

The point to all this is that American open-wheel racing should be celebrating those great, formative days of racing in the years to come as one series with a single identity and plan for the future. Right now, for example, Champ Car's drivers statistics are part of the all-time AAA/USAC/CART historical file, but the IRL, which contains the Indy 500 from 1996 through today, is not included by choice! This kind of silliness is a classic piece of fall-out from the CART-IRL split and is not what's needed to move ahead.

We also saw the silliness on Sunday of IRL racing at Newton, Iowa and Champ Car racing in Cleveland at exactly the same time on rival TV networks. For serious fans this is maddening and for the average sports fan it has to be confusing. Either way it can't help the ratings.

Neither race was much to write home about, although Dario Franchitti scored a deserved win on the new Iowa track, holding off young teammate Marco Andretti's concerted attack over the closing laps. Franchitti was impressive on the restarts at Iowa and in protecting his line from Andretti's frustrated attempts to pass. After eight of seventeen races Dario has built a 51-point lead over teammate Tony Kanaan in the IRL championship.

Paul Tracy scored a fortunate tactical win at Cleveland after two incidents in the opening laps dropped him to the back of the field. Tracy's first win in two years came after pacesetters Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power hit trouble, but the pair of races really emphasized that both series badly need each other. Neither has a strong enough field to put on a truly first class show and if there's a series of accidents or incidents there aren't enough competitive runners to leave the customer satisfied.

The fact remains that, more than ever, IRL and Champ Car need to find a way to work together in the coming years to recreate and reinvigorate the sport as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

*Don't miss Thursday's column with Ilmor co-founder and engine designer Mario Illien's views on what he believes the right F1 formula should be for 2011.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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