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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 first step on a long road to rehabilitation

by Gordon Kirby
First of all, my compliments to Tony George, Kevin Kalkhoven and Jerry Forsythe as well as everyone at Honda who contributed to putting together the long-sought unification of IRL and Champ Car. As everyone knows, after a fitful few weeks of negotiations George and Kalkhoven were able to hammer out an agreement last week. A bitterly debilitating, twelve-year civil war has come to an end and the great chimera of reunification of American open-wheel racing has arrived.

But so much rubble lays in the pathway and so many jobs and livelihoods have been adversely affected both by the long war and the final attempts to bring the pair of broken series together, I seriously question whether the whole thing is too broken to fix. Will this desperate, eleventh-hour patchwork of a deal save Indy car racing and mark the beginning of a long road to a successful rebirth? Or will the damage done prove too difficult to repair?

Obviously, it would have been much healthier to have completed the deal three or four months ago before both series announced their 2008 schedules with their own contracts and commitments. There's sure to be plenty of fall-out from stitching Champ Car's remnants into the IRL at this late date. Which cars and drivers and how many of them will race at Long Beach, still apparently on the same weekend as Motegi? What of the ten or eleven Champ Car races and their local fans and media left in the lurch, disenfranchised by reunification? It's nice to say some of these races will come back in 2009 but history tells us it's tough to get any racing event--particularly a street race--back on track after taking a year off.

And there's the Atlantic series, seemingly revived the past two years but now once again a step-child, salvaged only by Vickie O'Connor's quick footwork. The Mazda/Atlantic series will continue this year, primarily as an ALMS support event sanctioned by IMSA. Young drivers have been drawn to Atlantic over the past two years by the lure of a $2 million prize for a season of Champ Car racing but the scholarship program has fallen flat with Simon Pagenaud racing sports cars in Europe this year and Raphael Matos running the Indy Pro Series. Without the $2 million prize, there will be less attraction next year to young drivers, their fathers and sponsors.

Then there's Panoz and Cosworth, also apparently left with the short end of the stick. Panoz builds many different cars and will survive, but Cosworth conspicuously lacks any serious racing engine design or development work these days. What does the future hold for this venerable racing company? And let's not forget that Carl Haas made a big investment last year in Panoz parts and committed his parts supply company, Haas Auto, to servicing the Champ Car teams. This is another business stopped in its tracks by Champ Car's disappearance.

It also will be a terrible thrash to get Dallara chassis and Honda engines into the hands of the former Champ Car teams so they can do some testing before they start racing the cars and engines against the IRL teams. All the former Champ Car teams will be seriously behind the eight ball this year and you can imagine plenty of room for grumbling from many sides.

Another problem is that over the years each of IRL, CART and Champ Car have contributed to creating a welfare state with the sanctioning body as the central banker doling-out subsidies to the teams. Thanks to their backward thinking, they've helped eradicate Indy car racing's commercial base and have introduced socialism to motor racing!

This week I'm writing a story for Motor Sport about 'Engineering in NASCAR' and it's remarkable how many top-class engineers have fled IRL or Champ Car in recent years for NASCAR. One of them is Bill Pappas who worked for Chip Ganassi's CART and IRL teams for seven years, race-engineering Juan Montoya in 2000 when Montoya won the Indy 500. He also worked for Jim Hall and Derrick Walker's CART teams and most recently was with Panther Racing in the IRL. This past winter Pappas joined Michael Waltrip Racing where he's crew chief on Dale Jarrett's Toyota which will be driven most of the year by former road racer Michael McDowell after Jarrett retires next month.

"If you had asked me six years ago if I would ever come this way, I would have told you it would never happen," Pappas told me. "But things all just aligned and it just made too much sense not to come here. There are just too many reasons to be racing in this series. As is evident to everyone the stagnation of open-wheel racing is unbelievable. From an engineer's standpoint there's very little that we're allowed to do anymore, not because of the rules, but financially.

"Just looking at it from the engineering aspect, there's so much more that we're doing here in NASCAR than anyone is doing anywhere else. People talk about how archaic these cars are but look under the hood and see what we're doing with suspension geometries. It's astounding.

"And just the sheer competitiveness," Pappas added. "You've got 53 cars vying for 43 starting places at Daytona, and you've got a champion like Dale Jarrett who had to fight to make the race. It's incredible how competitive it is and I like that. I'm very driven by that. Between the engineering aspect and what we can do with the cars and the sheer competitiveness of it, it was the right time [to move to NASCAR.]"

Pappas and many other engineers I talked to at Daytona told me that NASCAR's healthy team budgets allow them to spend more money and time on engineering than any CART team ever could or would.

"The effort that's being put in by the engineering department here surpasses anything I have experienced in open-wheel racing, whether it was Ganassi, Walker, or wherever I've been," Pappas said. "It's extraordinary what we're doing here. We have a car in the wind tunnel every week. We have shaker rig tests going on every other week or every three weeks. In the open-wheel world, if you said I really want to go shaker rig testing, it just couldn't happen because we didn't have the means to do that. So it's really exciting to be here at this time."

All of which emphasizes the point that the big challenge for the IRL remains the same. Leadership is desperately needed to heal the wounds, get Indy car racing going again in the right direction and to create the right formula for the future that will attract engine manufacturers, car builders, sponsors, fans and serious media coverage. I've written about this at length in this space over the past year and will continue to discuss what the right Indy car formula for the future should be both here and in the pages of Motor Sport.

With reunion, at long last the first step has been taken, but the next series of steps will be even more difficult. In today's world, every major racing series is driven by manufacturers. Formula 1, NASCAR, sports car racing and motorcycle racing are fueled primarily by manufacturers. Commercial sponsorship rides on the back of massive investment from the competing manufacturers and if Indy car racing is to regain a respected position in the world motor sport community it must create an interesting technical formula for the future that will attract two, three or four manufacturers.

As I've written, the new formula also must produce an aesthetically attractive car as well as competing car builders. One of the problems of the current IRL Dallara-Honda--and I know some people don't like to hear this--is that it is unattractive both visually and aurally, as well as being a de facto spec car. All these things must change if Indy car racing is to be rehabilitated and thrive once again.

There's no point in me going on any more about any of this at this stage of the game. I believe I've written considerably more over many years about the subject of developing and managing Indy car racing's technical rules than anyone else, and as I say, I will continue to do so. In fact, my next two columns in the April and May issues of Motor Sport will be devoted to this matter. Meanwhile, I just want to emphasize the challenges of leadership--technical leadership in particular--that lay ahead for the IRL if Indy car racing is to become a major player once again in world motor sport. I hope the powers that be are up to the job.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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