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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/ Scott Dixon was the class of the field at Indy this year

by Gordon Kirby
As this year's Indy 500 rookie-of-the-year Ryan Hunter-Reay said, it's good to see the fastest car win the race. Scott Dixon had the fastest car all month at Indianapolis this year and after qualifying his Chip Ganassi Dallara-Honda on the pole he dominated a furious race, leading 115 of the 200 laps. The only other man to lead a substantial portion of laps was Dixon's teammate Dan Wheldon but Wheldon lost the handle on his car, most likely Ganassi theorized, because of a broken shock absorber. Wheldon wound up finishing twelfth.

In the end, Dixon beat an impressive Vitor Meira with Marco Andretti running a strong race to finish third ahead of Helio Castroneves. Rookie-of-the-year winner Hunter-Reay came home sixth behind Ed Carpenter. The only drivers seriously to challenge Dixon were Meira, Andretti and Tony Kanaan, but Andretti made a late-race tactical error on downforce and couldn't make an impression on the leaders at the end while Kanaan crashed after teammate Andretti dive-bombed him while they were racing hard in traffic.

Surprisingly, Team Penske didn't lead a single lap at Indy this year. Castroneves hung on for fourth while teammate Ryan Briscoe had a difficult race and finally crashed in the pitlane with Danica Patrick. Best-placed of the former Champ Car teams and drivers were KV Racing's Oriol Servia and Will Power who made it into eleventh and thirteenth places. Winner Dixon acknowledged the steep uphill climb faced by these teams.

"They haven't had much time," Dixon said. "They're at a disadvantage. Every year, this race is very difficult to win no matter who's in it. Definitely, I'd say the field was much stronger this year. There's definitely a lot of talent in these new teams and drivers, but it's hard to say we beat all the guys that came in because they haven't had much time. I think next year is going to be just as tough to win. I think that's going to be the real year that everybody's going to be hard to beat.

"It was especially nice to win the first race under reunification at Homestead and to win the first unified 500," Dixon added. "But you can't take too much away from this win."

In other words, the 500's first Kiwi winner earned it. Dixon clearly was the class of the field at Indianapolis this year.

Ganassi also was asked to comment about the long-awaited unified IndyCar series.

"We all lived and died a lot in those years of the split and can we please put all this behind us?" Chip remarked. "Let's put a period on that and let's move forward. I'd just as soon forget about everything that's behind us. I'm happy that we're back together. I'm happy that there's one IndyCar series. Unification is great. It's IndyCar racing again. There's nothing older than yesterday's news."

Team boss Mike Hull talked about the increased crowd both around and at the Speedway on race weekend.

"The great thing is that people are back on Georgetown Road," Hull observed. "That's the barometer when you think about it and it always has been. When you had [all the partying] that goes on on Georgetown Road on Saturday night, you know the people are here. And unification is giving us what we need to make this the best thing in the world."

So after five of seventeen races Dixon leads the IRL championship from Castroneves and Wheldon and there's no question that Ganassi's team is the heavy favorite to win this year's championship. Dixon was beaten to last year's IRL championship by Dario Franchitti and Andretti-Green Racing after a fierce late-season battle. Dixon and Ganassi last won the IRL titlle back in 2003 when it was almost exclusively an oval racing series and it will be interesting to see if Scott can complete the Indy 500/IRL championship double this year.

Meanwhile, there was plenty of early-line good news this month to provide encouragement for our collective hopes for IndyCar racing's future. It was a pleasure to hear that Andretti-Green has purchased the Toronto race and will revive the event next year. Michael Andretti said his organization will start pursuing sponsorship for the race over the next few weeks and he assured me in no uncertain terms that he is totally committed to making the race as successful an event as it was in its heydays through the late eighties and nineties. I congratulate Michael and his partners on making this key move in getting the right selection of races on the IRL schedule.

I'm also hopeful that a good date will be found on the 2009 IRL schedule for a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The one-mile oval in the heart of New England is ideal for IndyCar racing and produced a memorable race back in 1993 when Nigel Mansell and Paul Tracy staged a fantastic duel, passing and repassing each other many times.

The IRL desperately needs a race in the northeast and NHMS--now owned by Bruton Smith--is the only track available. There are no other top-class ovals or road circuits in the region and the history, politics and culture of the area means there is zero chance of a major street race ever taking place anywhere in the northeast. Jerry Gappens runs NHMS for SMI and he made a presentation to Tony George this month. I hope it all comes together so that IndyCar racing can return to New England after an absence of ten years.

It was also encouraging to hear good news last weekend regarding Honda's commitment to the IRL and the developing plans to define a new formula for 2010 or '11. Honda announced a five-year extension of its agreement to supply the series with engines through 2013 while Tony George confirmed that the IRL has contracted the California-based RWB company to begin the process of discussing concepts of the new car and engine formula with engine manufacturers and chassis builders beginning on June 24. RWB is headed by Neil Ressler a longtime Ford racing executive who was responsible for the Jaguar F1 team at one stage.

"We've been challenged at times going from the multi-manufacturer competition era to now a single-engine supply era," said Honda Performance Development president Erik Berkman. "We like the notion of competition that would include other manufacturers, so we are delighted with the League's intention to host this round table. We think working with other manufacturers and discussing the concepts that we can bring back some competition that will help to spice-up the close racing that we already have.

"We could not be happier announcing our intention for five more years," Berkman continued. "That adds to the stability and what's needed in going forward, so there is no doubt where Honda's position is. Secondly, I'd like to point out that everybody needs to make plans and Honda is no different. We're at a point where we need the stability to understand what we will be doing. We've branched out to other forms of racing (ALMS) in recent years but now with this commitment for the next five years of IndyCar racing, that allows us to have our own internal measure of stability and security for our workforce."

Berkman added that Honda preferred to have competitors but would continue as the IRL's only engine builder if that's what it comes down to.

"Having competition is something we want," he said. "We really do want that. But in the event we continue as a sole supplier, we will still benefit from that. But we'll turn our intentions and move it in a different direction of work at getting better on what we do."

Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL's commercial division, also commented on the industry round table discussions planned for this summer.

"It really is to purely update and introduce people and to get them thinking about our business," Angstadt commented. "We'll talk a little bit about where we think the IndyCar series is going from a growth and development standpoint, but then really turn it over to the industry experts. We'll look for their opinion, advice and view of that next platform we will be embracing. We could not be more excited about it. We think it is very consistent with the technology and innovation platform of not only the IndyCar series but also the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We think it is a great next step in the development of our racing business."

The IRL's president of competition and operations, Brian Barnhart, also talked about the industry round table.

"We would like to get the senior level management people from the automotive industry to sit down and see if we can find a collective agreement on what the technology is," Barnhart said. "From a League standpoint, we're open-minded. We want it to be a fresh approach. When we get that many key players in the same room at the same time, if we can find a consensus amongst several of them that would like to participate in the IndyCar series in the future under that platform, we'll be very open-minded.

"Depending on what platform is chosen will dictate various aspects of the chassis," Barnhart added. "The next step is determining what the engine platform is going to be. At this point, I think we're more inclined to stick with a single supply chassis. I really like the aspects of an exclusive supply on the tires and an exclusive supply on the chassis. We'd really like to focus on multiple manufacturers on the engine side. I think that's the direction the series needs to go that makes the most sense. Exclusive supply on the chassis and tires is the best way of controlling performance, speed, cost, safety--many of those aspects of it."

So the debate about IndyCar racing's future formula is about to begin in earnest. Check in here on Thursday of this week for an additional column discussing the new formula for 2010 or 2011.

Finally, I'd like to thank the many fans who turned out at the Speedway last Wednesday for the debut of 'Rick Mears--Thanks' and also at the Borders on Monument Circle for another signing in downtown Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon. It was a pleasure to see you last week and a delight to share in your enthusiasm for motor racing and IndyCar racing in particular. Rick and I thank you, and we hope you enjoy the book.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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