Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ At the home of American road racing

by Gordon Kirby
It was a great pleasure to spend the July 4th weekend at Watkins Glen. Back in the seventies and early eighties I used to go to the Glen two or three times every year to cover Can-Am, Formula 5000 and six-hour races, as well as a handful of F1 and CART races. But after going to the first two NASCAR races at the Glen in 1986 and "87 and a few more IMSA GTP races, I hadn"t been there in sixteen years.

So it was a delight to roam the rolling hills of the old track and spend the evenings at the Franzese family"s Glen Motor Inn on the shore of Seneca Lake. The full, 3.377-mile long or Grand Prix circuit is a real man"s track, full of high-speed corners with plenty of places for some fine spectating too. Opened in 1971, the long track is more demanding than the 2.4-mile short circuit used by NASCAR, and a place where some hiking around the countryside rewards you with some clear information about which drivers and teams have their acts together, and which don"t.

The IRL brought IndyCar racing back to the Glen in 2005 after an absence of a quarter-century. CART ran three races at the Glen in 1979, "80 and "81 as the United States GP fell into financial disrepute in the face of Bernie Ecclestone"s increasing financial demands and improving options of street races at places like Long Beach, Las Vegas, Dallas, Detroit and Phoenix. F1 finally departed the Glen in 1980 and during this time CART tried to pick-up the track"s open-wheel ball. But even the presence of Mario Andretti in the field didn"t help sell many tickets.

NASCAR arrived at the Glen in 1986 and after the second NASCAR race at the Glen in "87 I wrote a feature in Autosport about how NASCAR was fast catching and preparing to pass CART. More than 90,000 people poured into Watkins Glen for the Cup race that year. It was by far the biggest American road racing crowd of the summer at a track that F1 and CART had forsaken, leaving the way clear for NASCAR to move in and become the Glen"s feature show of the season, and of course, for ISC to take over the track"s ownership.

© Gary Gold
As well as hosting the United States GP for twenty years from 1961-"80, there was also the mid-summer Can-Am/F5000/Six-Hour weekend which was an equally big event on the American racing calendar in the seventies and eighties. In those days, the track was known as the "Home of American road racing". But suddenly, by the summer of "87, the Glen was devoid of any major road racing series and dominated by NASCAR. It was a seminal point in initiating the sea change the sport has undergone in the United States as NASCAR became the country"s pre-eminent form of racing.

In Autosport that summer I reiterated a point I"d been making for a few years that CART needed to pay attention to what NASCAR was doing and put some effort into strengthening its organization and building a ladder system down to the grass roots. I also suggested CART try to become more media-friendly with a mind to expanding its slim, Indianapolis-centered press corps.

But when I arrived at the next race my friends the team owners unloaded on me, calling me a variety of colorful names. Some accused me of "biting the hand that feeds". I"d heard a little of this invective before and would listen to quite a bit more of it over the following years as the CART owners and heirarchy persistently refused to look reality in the eye. Today, more than twenty years later, the Glen continues to draw a huge crowd for its now traditional August race while CART and Champ Car have gone out of business and the IRL struggles along with a tiny, Indy-based press corps which is even smaller than CART"s was a quarter century ago. How might the IRL turn around this dismal situation?

"The problem with finding an answer to that question in this day and age is the condition of the newspaper business," commented Honda"s public relations man T.E. McHale. "It"s not just the fact that coverage has gone away over the time of the split. The state of the media has changed from the rise of the web to the changing financial realities of the newspaper business. Budgets for coverage have been cut across the board and when you"re already well down the list, you have little or no hope of getting covered on a regular basis in the newspapers."

McHale thinks it may be time for racing to re-evalute its approach and pay the travel costs for many print media people to attend IRL races. This would violate the ethical policies of some traditional news organizations but McHale believes it"s worth a serious look.

"I think a model like that might work," McHale said. "But it would be a question of getting people to ammend their ethics policies to allow that kind of approach to be accepted. Let"s not forget that we do this in the automotive industry as a matter of course with new car launches. We pay for the world"s automotive magazines to come in and preview and test the cars. It works very well in the auto industry. Why not in racing?"

The Glen was round ten of this year"s seventeen-race IRL championship and marked the beginning of the road course-dominated final phase of the season. Five of this year"s last eight IRL races are on road courses--the Glen, Mid-Ohio, Edmonton, Sonoma and Belle Isle--and like last Sunday"s race at the Glen, it will be interesting to see what effect the run of road races has on the championship as the series goes down to the wire over the next two months.

In qualifying at the Glen, Justin Wilson and Oriol Servia showed that with the right teams, talent can still be rewarded on road courses. Neither Wilson nor Servia had ever seen the Glen before last weekend, nor had Newman/Haas/Lanigan or KV Racing done any road course testing at all prior to last weekend"s race. Yet Wilson and Newman/Haas/Lanigan came within a few milliseconds of taking the pole while Servia and KV Racing qualified fifth less than half a secod back between Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

A nice crowd showed up on raceday to compliment the weekend campers and the race was pretty good most of the way. Then a series of silly accidents got in the way, damping-down the excitement of the afternoon and allowing Ryan Hunter-Reay to come through to score his first IRL victory. Hunter-Reay won two Champ Car races before joining the IndyCar series with Rahal-Letterman and at the Glen he ran a strong third behind leaders Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon until Dixon messed up and spun under the yellow. That cleared the way for Hunter-Reay to come through and record Rahal-Letterman"s first win in four years.

Meanwhile, twelve months ago at St Jovite, a track which used to partner the Glen forty years ago as one of North America"s most respected international road courses, Dutchman Robert Dornbos scored an excellent win in the rain over Sebastien Bourdais who was on the way to his record-setting fourth Champ Car title. Today, Dornbos, like Paul Tracy, is idle, vanished from racing"s radar screen, while Bourdais is toiling at the back of the F1 field. And in NASCAR, Dario Franchitti"s Cup season has come an end as he, Sam Hornish, Patrick Carpentier and AJ Allmendinger struggle to adapt a new world.

Amid this sad state of affairs where do Dixon, Briscoe, Hunter-Reay, Wheldon, Wilson, Kanaan, Castroneves, Servia, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Will Power, Junqueira, et al rank in today"s international order? In fact, these guys are seriously talented racers but because the state of the sport has devalued their achievements so much I"m afraid they don"t rate much of anywhere. Sadly, the stock of the American open-wheel racer has sunk to its lowest point in the sport"s long history.

At the Glen in the twenty-first century, of course, the big names are Earnhardt, Gordon, Stewart, Johnson, Busch and co. For this situation to change, it"s going to take a concertedly long, hard effort over many years. The changes required are many, including a much improved engine/chassis/aero formula, a higher quality car than the current Dallara, an improved schedule of races which remains stable and unchanging over a long period of time, and some way to redevelop the vanished national press corps.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page