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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/ Looking forward to IndyCar racing's future

by Gordon Kirby
As we look forward to the month of May, the world of IndyCar racing is in a more hopeful mood than it's been in many years. Everyone is working through the fall-out from the late and messy unification process and enjoying the fact that a single series and identity has emerged from the fog of a long war. And of course, there was Graham Rahal scoring a fine, first win at St. Pete, Danica Patrick finally coming through to record her first victory at Moegi, and the announcement last week that Mario Dominguez and Pacific Motorsport will be joining the IRL series at Indianapolis after Mario's clean drive to third place at Long Beach helped cement sponsorship for the year from the Mexico City Tourist Board under the 'Visit Mexico' banner.

All these things have been positive signs for a form of racing that has struggled against the tide for too long. To the bitter end, Carl Haas was one of CART and Champ Car's most faithful supporters and he puts the improving situation into perspective.

"It's been very, very difficult for the teams from Champ Car to make the change in such a short period of time," Haas acknowledged. "It's taken a tremendous amount of work and it's continuing right now as we get ready for Indianapolis. Everyone here is exhausted, but people are really loving the fact that it's just one series and we're all racing together again.

"I think it's going to be a lot better for IndyCar racing. There was so much confusion. Nobody knew who was what and the whole thing lost all its identity. This unification had to happen and it's going to be a good thing for the sport."

Of course, as everyone knows, the key elements in determining how healthy the future will be are the re-created IndyCar schedule for 2009 and '10 and the new formula the IRL hopes to launch in 2010 or '11. The right mixture of tracks and venues is essential to making the series a special challenge for drivers and teams and providing a unique identity and appeal to the fans and public as well as reaching as wide a demographic base as possible. And the right formula is required to insure that the Indy car is an impressively spectacular car capable of racing well on a wide range of tracks and to attract competing engine manufacturers and car builders.

Most people agree the schedule should comprise one-third oval races, one-third road courses and one-third street circuits. But that's easier said than done because there are plenty of street or temporary circuits worth considering, but not quite enough road courses that are up to the job. And precious few ovals offer the right racetrack for an Indy car and the right audience and market.

Eight street or temporary circuits are vying for a place on the schedule. These are: St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Houston, Cleveland, Toronto, Edmonton, Surfers Paradise and Detroit. Each has their strengths and most of them are a must. All should be seriously considered and I hope Houston, Cleveland and Toronto can be properly revived and rejuventated.

Half a dozen road courses are possibilities: Mexico City, Elkhart Lake, Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, Infineon/Sonoma and Portland. Many people complain that most of the road courses don't draw big enough crowds and are too far from major markets or urban centers. But a track like Elkhart Lake is essential to what the sport is all about and we should not forget that in the heydays of CART places like Elkhart, Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio and even Portland attracted big, three-day crowds. With stability and the right formula and manufacturer suppport, it can happen again.

The big problem is finding enough really strong oval tracks. There's Indianapolis, of course, and Milwaukee, the world's oldest racetrack and a perfect oval for Indy cars--as long as the horsepower and aerodynamic formula are right. Motegi should also continue, although at a better time of year to suit the local weather and to fit better into the overall schedule mated perhaps with a late-season Pacific Rim swing to include Surfers Paradise and Mexico City. Other ovals that would be ideal both from an Indy car's performance perspective and markets where the series needs to be are Phoenix and New Hampshire. I'd love to see the IRL return to both those tracks, but unfortunately it's probably unlikely in either case.

Most of the other ovals on which the IRL races are not really suitable to Indy cars because they are either too steeply-banked, or too small, or lacking in fans, audience and markets. You can argue for Texas or Kansas City but the fact is Indy cars should not race on high-banked ovals. These tracks were built for stock cars to make them go faster and they create all kinds of speed and safety issues for Indy cars. The more of these tracks the IndyCar series races on, the more the IRL will be forced to compromise the aerodynamic formula of the cars--to add drag in order to slow-down the cars--and upset the balance for most other tracks. As ever therefore, one of the big conundrums for IndyCar racing is which are the right ovals to race on?

The other big riddle is the new formula itself for 2010 or '11. There's no doubt that the vast majority of fans and competitors would love to see the IRL adopt a more powerful, turbocharged engine formula as part of its new formula. The wail of turbocharged engines has been the siren song of Indy or Champ car racing for forty years. In fact, all but one USAC, CART or Champ Car races over thirty-eight years from 1971-2008 were won by turbo-powered cars and I'm among those who would be delighted to see the turbo return.

Like Mario Andretti, I'm also among those who believe the new IRL formula must create spectacularly fast and demanding cars to drive. We think there must be a much greater difference between straightaway and cornering speeds. We also believe the new formula must inspire competition between engine and chassis manufacturers as well as adopting some serious elements of green technology. Andretti has always believed that making better, more efficient engines is an integral part of racing and is even more relevant in today's 'green' age.

"There are so many things that need to be worked on and developed as far as engine efficiencies, and racing has always provided the push to make that happen," Mario told me for my US Scene column in the current May edition of Motor Sport. "That's why the manufacturers have been able to justify being involved and that's why they'll continue to be involved in the sport. That is an essential part of the equation. It doesn't make sense for the manufacturers to race just for the show."

Mario believes whatever the best rules package may be for F1 or Indy cars it must result in seriously impressive straightline speed and substantial braking into the corners. Andretti is convinced this is an essential element in testing the drivers' skills as well as providing a spectacle and passing for the fans.

"The slower you go down the straightaway the shorter your braking is going to be," Mario observed. "If the straightline speed in F1 is 230 mph, then at least you've got some braking distance to work with. To me, the straightline speed is essential for good braking before any kind of a corner. Otherwise, you're where you are right now, where the braking is so late that there's no space to outbrake, or pass, under braking. It's a daunting job to try to create a balance for that but I've maintained all along that's the way it should be."

Andretti is adamant there must be a big difference between straightaway and cornering speeds in IndyCar racing. "It's the same with the ovals and Indy cars," he went on. "You need straightline speed so you can back-off for the corners. When they started curtailing the straightline speed on the superspeedways to about 225-230 mph the result was that the cars are now cornering at about the same speed. And that's why it's so hard to pass in Indy cars.

"You need to run 250 mph on the straight like we used to run at Michigan in qualifying in the mid-nineties. Okay, you would get one lap in qualifying that was flat, but in the race you were not flat. You couldn't run around there flat, without lifting, because the straightline speed was too high for the corners. That's the way you maintain some decent racing rather than being flat-out all the time."

I share Mario's frustration with the rulemakers who have made such a hash of the sport over the years and both of us hope things will get better in the discussion, planning and implementation of the IRL's 2010 or '11 rules.

"I don't think most of the people writing the rules understand what creates competition," Andretti said. "To stay flat on the throttle all the time like the IRL does, where do you go, where does the driver reach to be able to pass? You've got to have it so you're quick down the straightaway and have to slow-down and back-off for the corner. It's just a question of how much are you going to back off? That's what's going to make a difference and create some passing, which is so damn difficult right now in the IRL."

So Indy car's rulemakers must solve this riddle and also produce an engine and chassis/aerodynamic formula that is attractive to engine manufacturers in today's increasingly 'green' era. Manufacturers are essential to big-time racing from F1 to NASCAR, ALMS and Le Mans, even the Grand-Am, as well as MotoGP, World Superbike, World Rally and even European kart racing. The manufacturers provide the majority of the money to subsidise teams, market and promote the category and do some degree of technical development. The key to success is in how well the sanctioning body is able to control, contain and manage the manufacturers so that they continue in the sport, finding success but not dominating on a reasonably level paying field, whatever the formula.

And as I reminded many people at Long Beach this year, back in 1975 at the inaugural Formula 5000 race--won by Brian Redman in a Haas/Hall Lola T332C-Chevrolet--the garage area boasted no fewer than forty-two cars built by eight different car constructors. Thirty- nine of those cars started the two qualifying heats and because Bill Simpson's Berta didn't make it the first Long Beach race featured seven different car builders making this year's race pale in comparison.

If IndyCar racing is to enjoy a resurgence and thrive again under the IRL's unified banner it must rediscover this essential nature of the sport. The IRL's new IndyCar formula for 2010 or '11 must dispel the banalities of spec-car racing and attract a trove of competitive engine and chassis builders.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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