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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/ Searching for the silver lining & da Matta's comeback

by Gordon Kirby
Everyone wants us to be positive about the unification of American open-wheel racing under the IRL but I would be remiss if I didn't report that it was very sad to talk last week with each of Derrick Walker, Paul Tracy and Carl Haas. All three had tales of woe to tell about how the fallout from Champ Car's demise has affected them. Walker's team finds itself without the sponsorship to be able to race in this year's unified IRL series. Tracy is out of a ride and has no idea what or even if he will race this year. And Haas admits to losing a pile of money on his investment in Panoz DP01 parts and equipment.

As everyone knows, Walker has lost his sponsor and driver Will Power to the renamed KV Racing Technology team and is going to court to attempt to get some restitution from Craig Gore. Walker has spent his life in racing, a crewman turned team manager turned team owner who ran a CART/Champ Car team for seventeen years but has been left in the lurch and in debt at the end of an unhappy winter. If the IRL is to turn itself around and Indy car racing is to become once again a healthy, commercially-viable, professional form of racing it needs to find a way to insure that guys like Walker are able to get back in business.

Walker has not laid-off any employees and will run three Atlantic cars this year but he's looking at diversifying into the A1GP series or sports car racing or any other sensible form of motor sport that will pay the bills. In fact, diversification is an increasing mantra among ex-Indy or Champ car teams and suppliers. Forsythe Racing is among these as Neil Micklewright and Kenny Siwieck hope to attract new business in car preparation, contract engineering and any other areas they can find a market.

Meanwhile, Paul Tracy awaits word from Jerry Forsythe about how Tracy might buy his way out of his multi-year contract or find some other resolution to his dilemma. At the moment Tracy is a pedestrian, without a ride in the IRL. He's assuming, but doesn't know if he'll race at Long Beach. Tracy is well aware that at 39, his racing years are numbered. He says in an ideal world he would race Indy cars for only two or three more years.

"This is not how I wanted my career to come to an end," Paul said. "I'm not asking Tony (George) or Jerry to run me for ten more years. I'd like to do a couple more years and have a retirement year, kinda like they're doing in NASCAR with Dale Jarrett right now. I told Tony I'd like to stay in the series for a couple of years, help it get established again, get Toronto back on board if that's possible, re-establish the series in Canada, and then have a farewell year.

"But I feel like I'm standing on the platform and the train's driving off. I feel like the guy who got a new suit for the big date and I'm primed and ready for the prom, and she didn't show up."

And then there's Carl Haas, a proud man who with his partner Paul Newman built one of America's most accomplished and respected race teams. Over half a century Haas has made his living entirely from racing, selling cars, parts and service to all kinds of formulas and categories. Walker and Haas are like-minded fellows in many ways and thanks to the broad base of his business Haas isn't in anything like as much trouble as Walker. But he admitted last week that he has lost more than two millions dollars on his investment in Champ Car's failed Panoz spec-car project. Like Walker, Haas has remained loyal to his people and he has not laid-off any employees.

But Carl is depressed about the state of the industry at this late stage of his long career and also with the fact that his excellent team has been thrashing so hard to get its Dallara-Hondas ready to go racing at Homestead this week. Haas is trying to find some enthusiasm for the broken sport of American open-wheel racing but like Walker and Tracy, he's having a hard time locating the silver lining and it's not difficult to appreciate the funk that Walker, Tracy and Haas find themselves in as they struggle for their places in the IRL.

One of the many things that must happen if blue skies and commercial viability are to return to Indy car racing is that it must re-establish its lost brand name. After twelve-years of civil war the dueling brand names--Indy car and Champ car--have been redacted and replaced by the amorphous and meaningless phrase: American open-wheel racing. That's what everyone now calls it and one of the first things the IRL must firmly re-establish if it is successfully to climb the steep mountain ahead is the Indy car brand. The long road begins at Homestead next Saturday evening.

*Striking a sharp contrast to his rather glum old friends PT and Mr Haas is Cristiano da Matta who enjoyed a very good first run in a race car last week since his near-fatal accident at Elkhart Lake in the summer of 2006. Da Matta tested one of Bob Stallings' Gainsco Riley-Pontiac Grand-Am cars at the new 2.5-mile Eagle's Canyon road circuit in Texas and after two days and around 140 laps Cristiano was bubbling with enthusiasm.

"It felt very good," da Matta grinned. "It was really nice to be back in the car and to feel good and run fast. I was a little bit worried because you never know until you do it again. I've been go-karting quite a bit and it was fine, no problem. But there was still a little bit of a question mark because cars are different than go-karts. But it was very similar to getting back into the kart. I got back into the race car and the whole thing was there a lot quicker than I expected. It was a big relief! A big weight off me. It makes me feel very happy.

"It wasn't until I drove the car that I realized how important this is for me and how much I was preparing for it and how worried I was about everything. After the first day in the car I felt that everything was normal again. It felt much better, much easier."

Da Matta discussed his long recuperation process in this space at the end of January when he expressed his hopes of testing and racing for Stallings' team in this year's Grand-Am series. Grand-Am champion Alex Gurney shook-down the car for Cristiano in Texas last week and da Matta ran around forty laps on the first day and completed almost one hundred laps the second day.

"I ran a lot the second day and it was very good," Cristiano said. "One thing I'm happy about after the first day of running in such a long time is that I don't feel that the driving muscles were sore like you normally would. I've had so much time to get ready and to work out everything I needed to do and to train hard that I feel like I've been driving for a long time. Nothing is bothering me today. I've been working-out a lot more than I've ever done and I'm for sure in better shape than I was before."

Da Matta hopes to test one more time before making his debut with Stallings' team in a second car at Laguna Seca in the middle of May. Cristiano's old friend Jimmy Vasser will co-drive and da Matta is expected to run all of this year's remaining Grand-Am races.

"It will be a good way to get back," da Matta remarked. "I won't be able to fight for the championship this year, but just to get back to it and next year be serious about the job of going for the championship, it's very exciting. And to do it with Jimmy who is not only a very good driver but also a very good friend of mine--and he's also very fired-up about it--it's like a dream."

Clearly, the racer's spirit continues to burn brightly in Cristiano da Matta's heart.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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