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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/ More open-wheel blues & NASCAR's dream start to 2008

by Gordon Kirby
Everyone wanted to know this past week whether IRL and Champ Car really are trying to find a way to come together and bring an end to the bitterly divisive, thirteen-year civil war that has ruined American open-wheel racing. We all hoped it would happen of course, but I'm afraid too much damage has been done and there are too many important details to be resolved, particularly at this late stage with less than two months before the season begins. Then at the end of last week Champ Car issued a brief statement saying the latest talks had failed again.

If Tony George, Honda, Kevin Kalkhoven and Jerry Forsythe had been able to work out an eleventh-hour deal to make a merger happen there would have been a large number of seriously injured entities from spurned Champ Car tracks to drivers whose personal sponsorship deals were based on foreign races. There would also have been a tremendous amount of disgruntlement from the small Champ Car teams who would have had little time or resources to properly prepare themselves to go racing with a new car/engine package and from the smaller IRL teams who would have found themselves blown off by the better Champ Car teams and reduced to roles as even more marginal players. And too, a merger may also have presaged the ultimate destruction of Cosworth, one of racing's most historic and accomplished engine builders--although that sad occurence may yet happen.

In fact, the past few weeks' desperate attempts to bring to the two series together underlines the complete lack of any business plan and the utter incompetence of both groups. Neither of them has any understanding or appreciation for the complexities of motor racing. Nor do they care about the fans who they have treated with such contempt for so many years. Attempting to stitch together a rushed and poorly thought-out merger was bound to result in many mistakes and further invite the rapacious effects of the laws of unintended consequences. And of course, the history of corporate mergers is full of stories of failure.

Will the dilettante's who have destroyed American open-wheel racing find a way to fix the mess they've created? As I've written repeatedly, to achieve their goal they must not only resolve the many, many issues resulting from their thirteen-year civil war, but they must invent a technically interesting, 'green' formula which will attract multiple manufacturers and car builders and will also remake the Indy car as a spectacularly impressive racing machine, distinctly different from NASCAR, that will appeal to both race fans around the world as well as a broader audience.

Thus far, I've heard nothing--absolutely nothing!--from anyone in IRL or Champ Car about how to tackle this big question. I'm afraid the whole lot of them are small thinkers, incapable of making the major decisions required to turn around a failed sport. As I've also written many times, I hope I'm wrong, but everything IRL and Champ Car have done over the past thirteen years tells me I'm right. Their miserable roles in the history of racing are almost assured unless they are able to pry themselves off the floor they've sunk to and surprise us with some brilliant solutions and concepts for the future.

*At the opposite end of the spectrum, where the show and entertainment is king and the sanctioning body is in complete control of the entire production, NASCAR could not have hoped for a better kick-off to its season at Daytona last weekend. To the delirious delight of his legion of fans, Dale Earnhardt Jr scored a dominant victory in Saturday night's Bud Shoot-out in his debut with Rick Hendrick's team and on Friday night notorious bad guys Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch got into each other on and off the track, providing the media and fans with a perfect piece of juicy controversy.

Driver introductions before the Shoot-out told the story. Busch was roundly booed by most of the crowd. Stewart enoyed plenty of cheers as well as boos while defending champion Jimmie Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon were greeted with muffled boos drowning out small ripples of applause. But when 'Little E' was introduced he brought-down the house as the place erupted in passionate cheering. Clearly, Earnhardt stands in a class of his own as NASCAR's most popular driver and cultural icon.

And when 'Little E' went to the front in the race the place went wild, cheering with resounding enthusiasm whenever he fended off challenges from Stewart, Gordon or Dave Blaney, and going bananas on the final lap as he stayed out front entirely resistant to any moves or tricks tried by his competitors to beat Stewart, Johnson and Gordon across the line. Casey Mears also ran well, ultimately finishing sixth behind Reed Sorenson and Blaney, so it was essentially the four Hendrick Chevrolets versus a couple of Toyotas.

"It was great looking up in the mirror and seeing teammates, and seeing them pushing you, helping you," Earnhardt commented. "Jeff got a couple of runs and went around us, but that's what I would have done. Teammates have got to work together and we did. You know, I needed a lot of help tonight. There weren't that many times where we were able to help them because we were out front so much.

"But I think that's the way it should be as far as being able to help each other to stay in front. When you've got an opportunity to take the lead or put yourself in a position to win, you do it. It was great. We've all got fast cars and if we work together it'll be harder to beat us and hard for us to lose.

"Me and Jeff have always been competitors and always racing to beat each other," Earnhard continued. "But now that we're on the same team we know that we need to run together for the better of the company. That's obvious. So that's what we do. But he's going to do what he can do to win the race.

"And me and Jimmie get on great. We always have. We get along. You don't mind helping guys that you respect and like. And I hope that's the way they feel about it because I have that same respect for them and when the situation comes we'll all work together."

Dale Jr said his car handled well throughout the race and was confident of winning although he was wary about what might happen on the last lap.

"I knew going into this race that my car was fast," he observed. "But there were so many other unknowns with the CoT and the draft and how the car would draft and work. Through the whole race I felt like we were leading, but what's going to happen with the slingshot on the last lap? So even though I was enjoying it, I didn't want to be the victim on the last lap. But they got side-by-side for third and I knew as long as they stayed side- by-side for third Tony wouldn't be able to get a good enough run.

"The handling was great for me and the race was fun. These cars have always been a handful but I had a great set-up tonight. I feel like we should continue to have that for the rest of the week.

"We're so fortunate that we have got such a great team and such a great supporting cast back at the shop," Dale Jr added. "Rick does a great job of putting the right people in the right place and he has for years, and we're fortunate to be in the middle of it."

Earnhardt said that whenever he wins a race--last Saturday night included--he goes through an almost out-of-body experience.

"Every race I ever won, I couldn't believe it," he remarked. "That's the feeling I get. I go to victory lane and I can't believe that I'm standing there with all my friends and the people I enjoy working with and celebrating. It's just hard to believe."

His new teammates Gordon and Johnson ran short track cars in the Shoot-out and both challenged for victory. Earnhardt's crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr commented on the lack of differences between any and all versions of the CoT.

"NASCAR has given us such a tight box with the templates they have," Eury said. "There's no difference between a short track car and any other car, other than a brake duct behind the nose or something. You could take a Martinsville car and a Daytona car and there might not be three pounds of drag between them. The only thing you can is slicken it up, put a nice paint job in it and stuff like that to take any depressions out of it."

Dale Jr was asked if his debut win with Hendrick had taken a weight off his shoulders.

"I never felt like I had a monkey on my back," he commented. "I've always raced with pressure. I've always raced and worked to live and with Tony Jr working with me side-by-side, we grew up to it. Before we got to this level, life wasn't easy. It wasn't a golden road easy to travel. But it is what it is. There's a lot of pressure for us, but we've always delivered and I hope we will continue.

"I've got to thank a lot of people for the preparation that went into coming into this (new) scene," Earnhardt added. "It's a long list of Tony Jr and the team and there are a lot of people throughout the sponsor ranks, the pr side of it, the personal side of it, family and friends. So many people helped prepare this deal and helped me get right so we could come in here and be able to work under this microscope."

He said Stewart and Kurt Busch's eminently newsworthy on-track collision and off-track fracas on Friday night helped take some of the media's attention off him.

"You know, Tony and Kurt getting into it the other day took us off the front page, and I felt such a relief after that happened. I wasn't happy for those guys being in that situation but I felt like a load had been lifted off my shoulders when I saw them walking into the NASCAR hauler."

After the Shoot-out team owner Hendrick assessed his team's strong start to the seaon.

"It sure takes a lot of pressure off to come down and run good in the first race and get a win early and have a lot of fun," he remarked. "I think that's the important thing."

Hendrick said it would be wrong to assume his team was going to be equally dominant this year.

"I wish it was going to be that easy, but that's not going to be the case," Hendrick commented. "There are some good cars out there that weren't in that race tonight and we were fortunate there at the end. It's going to be a very competitive year. The Toyotas are awful fast and you've got Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton and all those guys who weren't there tonight.

"So I think we're going to be real competitive but it's going to be a tough year. I think this will be the best 500, the most competitive 500, that you've ever seen, and if you don't start at the front you're going to have a hard time getting to the front. I predict this is going to be one of the best years we've had in NASCAR with a lot of different winners and a very competitive season."

Of course, today's modern, restrictor-plate constrained Daytona 500s rarely offer a window on the season to follow. What happens at Daytona and Talladega often prove to be unique, rarely if ever repeated elsewhere. Whether or not Earnhardt will be a serious championship contender this year remains to be seen, but at Daytona this week he is the unrivalled favorite.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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