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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 end of forty years of Indy car racing on Michigan's high banks & NASCAR's successful debut in Montreal

by Gordon Kirby
Over the years, the high-banked Michigan speedway frequently produced fantastic open-wheel races. They were often scary to watch and very dangerous to the point that the drivers used to say they were winners if they walked out of the place uninjured. Sunday's 400-mile race at Michigan was a case in point with a frightening mid-race, multi-car accident taking out most of the top contenders. Thankfully, Dario Franchitti and everyone else emerged unscathed from their wrecked cars as Tony Kanaan went on to win over a decimated field after outfoxing teammate Marco Andretti.

So the final Indy car race on the high-banked superspeedway was a bit of an anticlimax, ending an era that goes back to the track's opening in 1968. Still, over the forty-year span of USAC, CART and the IRL's tenure in rural, south-central Michigan, there were many great Indy car races at the track and I'm sure everyone has their own favorite memories of epic open-wheel races at the track. Two that stand out for me were Rick Mears' superb last lap pass to beat his hero Mario Andretti in the 150-mile sprint race at Michigan in the fall of 1981 and Juan Montoya's half a car length win over Michael Andretti almost twenty years later in 2000.

For many years the CART races drew big crowds to Michigan but the stench from the CART/IRL war began to eat away at the fan and media interest. After Penske and Ganassi made the move from CART to the IRL in 2002, so too did Michigan switch to the IRL, but the crowd and interest in the race continued to decline.

Another factor in the slide in Indy car racing's appeal as an oval racing show is the series of band aids employed to try to slow-down the cars on the big speedways like Indianapolis and Michigan in particular as the performance of the cars improved over the decades. All this fiddling with the rules reduced the spectacle of old, but in many ways made the races more dangerous with cars running around, NASCAR restrictor plate-style, pedal to the metal in furious packs.

Of course, it's the twelve-year political war that has done so much of the damage to open-wheel racing at Michigan and elsewhere. By politicizing the sport and creating two weakened, warring camps--a fraternity torn apart--Indy and/or Champ car racing took on a bad odor with the fans, media and sponsors. All this resulted in sharply dwindling crowds at many tracks, Michigan included, at the same time that NASCAR's two Cup races at the track have swollen to immense proportions. All I can say is the apparent demise of Indy car racing at Michigan is another in the thousand cuts that have accumulated over the past twelve years to degrade the importance and value of American open-wheel racing.

Both Michigan and the California Speedway have decided to give up on the IRL for a number of reasons, but mostly because of weak crowds. It's sad to see this happen at places that used to fill the house. For many years Phoenix--also bereft of open-wheel racing these days--was a stronghold for Indy car racing while in the late nineties the California Speedway drew 100,000 to its 500-mile Champ car race, as did Michigan when CART leased the track to stage the ill-starred U.S. 500 on the same day as the Indy 500 back in 1996.

As I wrote in September of 2005 at the time of Champ Car's last race at the Las Vegas superspeedway many people believe the time has passed for open-wheel racing on oval tracks. For one thing, the CART/IRL split allowed NASCAR to run off into the far distance as the undisputed market leader of oval track racing. For another, the horsepower restrictions and high-downforce aero spec of today's IRL cars mean they run around in packs at the bottom of the track with the drivers' right foot planted firmly, pedal to the metal.

The drivers don't much like it and to my mind it's nothing like as spectacular as ten and twenty years ago when the drivers had to get out of the throttle for the corners and sometimes use the brakes as well, so there were substantial and exciting differences in performance making for breathtaking passing and racing.

The outside pass and the ability to work through traffic, sometimes at prodigious rates, like we've seen in the past from guys like Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti are almost lost arts, as well as lost spectacles to the fans. Now the inside line is the fastest and shortest way. That is where most IRL races are won. The name of the game is to protect the inside line at all costs and to force your competitor high where it's all but impossible to inch by given the lack of any extra oomph and a concomitant excess of downforce.

"I can understand why fans are more attracted to NASCAR because there's a lot of separation," Paul Tracy said. "At most tracks, a NASCAR car is not capable of going flat-out all the way around. They have to brake, slow-down and accelerate, and the tires go away. That makes the racing interesting because things are changing all the time. There are different rates of tire wear and different strategies develop. Because the cars are having to slow-down for the corners, a lot of mixing up goes on."

The driver should have to lift, get out of the throttle and maybe use the brakes, before having to feed the power back on and drive the car through the corner while feeding on the power. Brake and throttle modulation are the essence of fine driving and I'll always remember talking with Rick Mears one evening at Mid-Ohio nine or ten years ago. We were bemoaning the arrival of traction control, illegal or not.

"This is my traction control right here," Rick remarked, gently waving his hand and curling his fingers as if they were his right foot. "This is the test for the driver. It's what it's all about."

This fine skill and aggressive ability are what separates the men from the boys, and today, it's been removed from open-wheel racing on high-banked oval tracks, as it has in NASCAR on the restrictor plate tracks, Daytona and Talladega.

As NASCAR great Fred Lorenzon said last year in NASCAR Scene: "My grandmother could drive around Talladega. That's not racing."

When the Daytona Speedway opened in 1959 the first and last USAC Champ car race was run at the country's first high-banked superspeedway. Marshall Teague was killed in practice and George Amick was killed when he crashed on the last lap of the race and neither Bill France Sr. nor Bill Jr. would ever again run a USAC race at their track. Even then high-banked superspeedways were too fast, too dangerous for open-wheel cars.

As time went on Daytona was considered too fast for stock cars as well and in 1988 NASCAR introduced restrictor plates for Daytona and Talladega. The danger of restrictor plate racing of course, with massed packs of cars droning around together, is multi-car accidents--"The Big One" feared by NASCAR and IRL drivers alike. In fact, we've seen this type of accident at Daytona and Talladega in NASCAR and in IRL races at many tracks.

The hard question is, has open-wheel racing run its course on oval tracks? How many more restrictions can you place on the cars when you really need to open-up the formula? Twenty years ago, CART even tried a chicane on the backstretch at Michigan but it created more problems than it solved and was shelved.

The fact of the matter is the fear of a big accident is always there and we've already seen the results. Spectators in the grandstands have been killed at both IRL and CART oval races and Adrian Fernandez's accident didn't help matters in the 1998 Michigan 500 when a wheel from his car flew into the grandstand, killing three people. Indeed, people continue to worry about the day an Indy car flies into the grandstands at an oval track causing even more carnage.

Fourteen months ago in this space I made the point that the loss of the proper formula--which CART enjoyed for many years through the late nineties--is one of the greatest failures of the CART/IRL war and is one of the factors in the decline of the Indy 500 and Indy car racing on ovals in general.

Through the late nineties horsepower increased steadily as Honda and Toyota took on Mercedes-Benz and Ford/Cosworth. CART tried to control things by continually reducing boost limits, but the organization was run ragged by the war between the engine manufacturers which resulted in Mauricio Gugelmin and Gil de Ferran setting track records over 240 mph at the California Speedway. "Horsepower almost got out of control," Newman/Haas's general manager Brian Lisles recalled. "When you have a qualifying lap speed of 240 mph, you know that you've got to make some pretty big changes."

During this time CART adopted the Handford wing, designed by aerodynamicist Mark Handford, for use on the superspeedways. The Handford wing was intended to reduce speeds and keep the cars from running away from each other, the opposite of today's problem of the cars running around in packs.

"In the late nineties when we used to race at Michigan and Fontana, we put on some good races," Lisles commented. "There was a lot of moaning and complaining about the Handford device but a lot of care went into choosing the lift/drag ratio of the car and when it was first introduced it was actually pretty effective. Of course, as things changed, it didn't quite keep up with some of the changes so a couple of times it produced somewhat bizarre races.

"Certainly in the CART days, a lot of attempts were made to produce the most effective aero package," Lisles added. "We ran relatively low downforce at some of the short tracks and we ran high downforce at some other short tracks. In the end, I don't think any of them really produced more or better racing."

Either way, the drivers never were happy. "The drivers would complain if we ran low downforce that the cars were slippery and slidy and difficult to drive. And if we ran a lot of downforce they complained that they were pulling such high g's in the corners that if anything went wrong they were going to get seriously hurt. I'm sure both comments were made with equal sincerity."

But politics and power-squabbling put an end to rational debate about the right rules for open-wheel oval track racing. The sport has lost its way and needs a fresh start and it will be interesting to see if the IRL's plans to produce an all-new Indy car for 2011 yield any useful results in this regard.

Another factor in open-wheel racing's changed show is that progress in tire development has produced much safer, more reliable tires. Bridgestone/Firestone does a superb job. The company's tires are incredibly consistent in quality, performance and durability, and today's radial tires, first introduced more than twenty years ago, are so much better than the old bias-ply tires that the art of getting the best from your rubber has almost gone out of the sport.

It's too bad that tire management has essentially been removed from the sport because it was a great challenge for both drivers and teams. The tires of old really separated the best of the thinking, technical drivers and the teams who could properly support them, from the rest. They also made for interesting, constantly-changing races with cars passing and repassing as they alternatively fell back or came on strong.

The problem is complicated by the fact that most new oval tracks built in recent years are high-banked tracks designed for NASCAR and as we all have learned, the higher the banking, the less a track is suitable for open-wheel cars. "That's absolutely true," Brian Lisles commented. "But I think Michigan and Fontana are do-able if you pick the right lift/drag ratio. We have and could put on a good show there."

But all this chatter now appears to be nothing more than a relic from the past as NASCAR continues to assert itself as the definition of American racing. Indeed, on the same weekend as Indy car racing's swansong at Michigan, NASCAR ran its first Busch race in Canada at le circuit Gilles Villenueve. The Busch series replaces Champ Car in Montreal and the inaugural race was a roaring success. It drew a large, enthusiastic crowd and even though Kevin Harvick came through to win the day was dominated by a bunch of road racers who blew the rest of the regular Busch oval trackers into the weeds.

NASCAR couldn't have hoped for a better show with plenty of frammin' and slammin', a wild last-lap restart, and local hero Patrick Carpentier qualifying on the pole, leading the early laps and coming back to finish a rousing second. When you have guys like Carpentier, Marcus Ambrose, Scott Pruett, Max Papis, Andy Pilgrim, Andy Lally, Michel Jourdain Jr. and Michael Valiante racing in NASCAR it should be crystal clear to everybody which way the wind is blowing. We scribblers may lament the situation but the fact is the rest of the sport--drivers, engineers, teams--have moved on to NASCAR.

In fact, after the roaringly successful first Busch race in Montreal, all the other North American sanctioning bodies must either substantially raise their games, or face the facts, fold their tents and find new lines of work. Remember that NASCAR Canada also debuted this year with national retailer the Canadian Tire Corporation sponsoring the great white north's new national stock car championship which ran as a support event in Montreal last weekend. Over the next four or five years, unless Champ Car defies the odds and begins to rebound, I won't be surprised to see NASCAR take over most of Canada's major racing venues like Toronto and Edmonton.

And if F1 proves too obstreperous and financially-demanding, Montreal promoter Normand Legault now knows he could replace F1 at le circuit Gilles Villeneuve with a second NASCAR weekend. Any difficulty in negotiating with Bernie Ecclestone over future Canadian GPs would be the perfect opening to create the first Cup race outside the United States. Montreal could then host a unique international Cup race and a second Busch/Grand-Am weekend featuring drivers of many nationalities from open-wheel and sports car racing trying to make it in NASCAR--just like last weekend's Busch race.

In all, you cannot help but conclude that the fall-out from the twelve-year CART/IRL war has been much more far-reaching than any of us ever imagined.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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