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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/ Plus ca change

by Gordon Kirby
The IRL's season-opener on Saturday night emphasized the length and difficulty of the road ahead for Indy car racing. There were many good things to see, including a fierce battle at the front and watching Marco Andretti drive such a strong race on a track where he has fared poorly in the past. In the end, Scott Dixon showed that he and Chip Ganassi's team will once again be serious championship contenders as Dixon took the pole and came through to win the race with a near-perfect performance after Tony Kanaan ran out of luck in the closing laps. It also was made clear that the IRL continues to be all about its three, big teams--Ganassi, Andretti-Green and Penske--who entirely dominated the evening.

And made equally clear was the tough task facing the former Champ Car teams. French rookie Franck Perera was the fastest of this group, qualifying fifteenth in his debut with Eric Bachelart's Conquest team, while Oriol Servia was the best finisher, taking twelfth place, five laps down. Perera finished fourteenth, six laps behind, while Justin Wilson was fifteenth, seven laps back in his first race with Newman/Haas/Lanigan.

These guys are expected to be in better shape on the St Petersburg street circuit next weekend, but let's not forget that the top IRL teams have spent years and many millions of dollars in the wind tunnel and elsewhere developing, testing, understanding and dialing-in these cars. With limited resources, minimal testing, a brief switch back their Panoz DP01s for Long Beach before the long month of May in Indianapolis followed by twelve races in fifteen weeks, the ex-Champ Car teams face a long and challenging season.

"We've been through a very difficult eight weeks," commented Newman/Haas/Lanigan general manager Brian Lisles. "People who've never done it could never imagine what we've been through. We're rebuilding Graham's car which we hope to finish Monday night so that we can run at Sebring Tuesday afternoon, and we're converting Justin's car from oval to road course spec which means almost every mechanical part must be changed. We're in the process of doing that and finding out that most bits don't fit very well. We're doing the best we can with what we have, which is very limited resources, and we'll see what happens by the end of the year."

So after all the anticipation and white heat surrounding the unification of Indy car racing we are faced with the realization that nothing much has changed. Ganassi, Andretti-Green and Penske clearly are on top of a spec-car series with little emotional appeal that is filled with largely faceless drivers. There are few names, no superstars, and the only notable blip the series might enjoy is if Marco Andretti were to win a string of races and challenge for the championship. And of course, the former Champ Car teams face an embarassing struggle which is not likely to improve their hopes of selling any serious sponsorship, nor encourage the long-suffering Champ Car fans from turning out to support them.

And what about Paul Tracy? It's ridiculous that he's not in the field. He's the biggest draw by far, the only guy with a real persona and a predilection to speak his mind. He may be near the end of his career on street circuits and some road courses, but like any driver, he'll continue to cut the mustard on ovals well into his forties. Let's not forget some of Paul's ferocious recent performances at Milwaukee in Champ Car's final years at the venerable track when he showed everyone what it's all about with some superbly aggressive outside passes. And of course, as Tracy says himself, he would love to come back to Indianapolis with a properly competitive car and team to attempt to avenge his loss in 2003. With the right car, PT would bring some flavor and promotion to the Indy 500 that it hasn't enjoyed in many years. Why on earth won't he be there?

Which brings us to the question of how many cars will there be at Long Beach? Only five former Champ Car teams have made the switch to the IRL with Forsythe pulling out, the sponsorless Walker unable to afford the move, and Gentilozzi apparently moving to sports cars. So there are nine ex-Champ Cars in the IRL, all of which should run at Long Beach. KV Racing is expected to run three cars, adding former LBGP winner Jimmy Vasser to the field, and Forsythe will honor his agreement with Tony George and run three, or even four cars, presumably including Tracy. That adds up to fourteen cars and two stars, we hope, in Tracy and Vasser. Have I forgotten anybody?

Next question is how many cars will be at Indianapolis? Known additions for the Indy 500 include Tomas Scheckter in Jay Penske's car, Max Papis with the Rubicon team, Sarah Fisher and Roger Yasukawa with Beck Motorsports, and maybe Townsend Bell who's sharing one of Dreyer & Reinbold's cars over the season with Milka Duno. That's five cars added to the twenty-six IRL regulars. So, despite unification, filling the field with the traditional thirty-three starters will again be a trial.

Of course, as we all know, Indy car racing's future will be written by the 2009 schedule and the 2010/11 rules. I've explored these matters in detail and will continue over this spring and summer to discuss the technical rules for the future. As far as the '09 schedule is concerned, many of us share similar hopes that the right road circuits and street races will be revived and added to the IRL schedule while a judicious edit is made of quite a few of the existing ovals.

One thing I believe is that Indy car racing desperately needs a race somewhere in the northeast where it's had no presence for many years. The addition of Watkins Glen to the IRL schedule is a great start but it's important to find another venue somewhere closer to the megalopolis along the northeastern seaboard. But the only road course in that swathe is Lime Rock, which is unsuitable, and anyone who thinks there ever will be a street race anywhere in the northeastern USA is dreaming.

So there's only one possibility and that's New Hampshire Motor Speedway, now owned by Bruton Smith. The track's founder Bob Bahre ran four CART races from 1992-'95 and three IRL races in 1996-'98 before giving up in disgust. But with Smith now at the controls and many suggestions that he'll eventually move one of the track's two NASCAR Cup races to one of his other tracks, a new, unified IRL race might be just the thing to add to NHMS's schedule. Somebody should be thinking about and working on bringing Indy car racing back to New England at a track ideally suited for Indy cars.

Of course, another longterm issue remains the old saw of where are the American drivers? This year in the IRL we have Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Buddy Rice, Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Ed Carpenter, A.J. Foyt IV and occasionally Townsend Bell, none of whom have so far established themselves as regular race winners, least of all champions. So we're cheering for Marco and Graham and Ryan and the rest of them. Clearly, young Andretti is the most likely to win a race this year. Let's hope some of the others can pull together the wherewithal to become contenders.

As we all know, the past quarter-century has been witness to a sad story of the steady demise of American drivers in Indy car racing and top-level international racing. There's been plenty of hand-wringing

over this trend but the decline in the volume and quality of American driver talent has contined unabated. It will be thirty years this summer that an American driver (Mario Andretti) last won an F1 race and more than thirty years also have passed since Penske Racing and the Shadow team scored the USA's last team victories in F1 in 1976 and '77.

Nor do we have any prospective F1 drivers or teams of any kind, nor any American involvement in international racing, save the Corvette GT1 team which races against itself most of the time. Sadly, it's typical of General Motors, looking for the least competitive series to compete in. Over the past forty years we've gone from enjoying tremendous success in international motor racing to nothing! We have withdrawn completely from the great days of Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill and Richie Ginther, of Ford's Le Mans cars, the Chaparrals, All American Racers' Eagles and Penske Racing at its global best. We've travelled down a very long, very twisting road to where we are today and methinks there ain't no going back.

One of the key elements in all this is that over twelve years of squabbling, the leaders of Indy car racing have destroyed the ladder system. Lots of lip service has been paid to the matter, but no planning or leadership, resulting in the demise of great things like Skip Barber's Big Scholarship program and Star-Mazda champions like Michael McDowell making the move to NASCAR.

It's all been about a total lack of leadership. That's why NASCAR is so successful, because Bill France Sr. and Jr. provided true leadership over many decades and built a system from top to bottom--from the big-time to the grass roots. And that too, is part of the challenge facing the leaders of Indy car racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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