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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/ A steep uphill struggle

by Gordon Kirby
The IRL kicks off the Indy car season next weekend on Versus TV at a new street circuit in Sao Paulo. It will be interesting to see how a street circuit operates in one of the world's most populous cities but on Versus the race will reach only a tiny audience here in the United States. Meanwhile, like last year, the IndyCar series looks likely to be dominated again by the Target/Ganassi and Penske teams. Defending champions Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon with Ganassi's cars are sure to be at or near the front of the field in most races while Team Penske should be very strong this year with Will Power joining countryman Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves in a three-car operation.

Who else might feature? Justin Wilson is an excellent driver who would be a superstar if the IRL was at all healthy. Justin is capable of springing the occasional surprise with Dreyer & Reinbold as he did last year with Dale Coyne with teammate Mike Conway is fast if not yet steady. Maybe Conway will turn the corner this year. We will also watch with interest to see if Tony Kanaan can bounce back with Andretti Autosport after a terrible 2009 season while former F1 driver Takuma Sato is likely to be fast in some races in his rookie season with KV Racing. We might also see something from some other rookies like Brit Jeremy Rossiter and Brazilian Mario Romancini while Swiss rookie Simona de Silvestro is capable of blowing Danica Patrick into the weeds on street circuits and road courses.

One thing Indy car racing is desperately short of is star American drivers. Last year was the first in Indy car racing's hundred year history--going back to 1909--that an American failed to win an Indy car race. For almost ninety years, until the mid-nineties, Indy car racing was dominated by Americans but over the last decade and a half the line of great American Indy car drivers has come to a precipitous end.

This year there are just three Americans in the IRL field all with Andretti Autosport. Ryan Hunter-Reay, winner of two Champ Car races back in 2004 and '05 and one IRL race in 08, is the most experienced and accomplished active American Indy car racer. Amid the CART/IRL civil war and Indy car racing's fading commercial value Hunter-Reay has bounced around from team to team to team and hopes to find a home with Andretti Autosport. Ryan introduced Izod to Indy car racing and represents the face of the series sponsor's advertising campaign but at this point his budget stretches to only five races.

Hunter-Reay's Andretti Autosport teammates Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick each have single wins to their names but neither are likely to be serious threats to win this year. Young Andretti has been a tremendous disappointment in recent years and needs to show some of his grandfather's discipline and work ethic if he hopes to salvage a reputable career in racing and Patrick also needs to apply herself to driving and engineering her cars. Last year's Indy Lights champion J.R. Hildebrand tested with Dale Coyne's team and hoped to be the fourth American in this year's IRL field but Coyne has signed Brit Alex Lloyd and Milka Duno.

Incredibly, Graham Rahal is without a ride after Newman/Haas's McDonald's sponsorship vanished and the team was unable to sell any new sponsorship. Team and driver hoped something would happen but Rahal learned in January that he was without a ride for the new season. The team has been forced to lay-off ten employees, including two team veterans, Trevor Weston and Joe Flynn, and will run just one car this year for Hideki Mutoh. This is the first time in twenty-two years Newman/Haas has run only one car and it's fair to say it's hardly the right recipe for one of America's greatest race teams.

"It's been ugly," Rahal reports. "I'm hanging in there, trying hard. I'm in limbo, as you can imagine. I'm trying to find sponsors, trying to do what I can to make something happen. Unfortunately, as we all know and can appreciate, when you're only given a few weeks to make something happen it's awfully difficult.

"We've got a lot of balls in the air but can't seem to find one that drops. Everytime I think we get close it just seems to get further away. It's a shame. I really wish we could reverse our luck and make something happen but nothing is happening quickly, that's for sure."

Graham says at this late stage of the winter there aren't any options for him in any other form of racing.

"The real trouble is we're already into the season," he remarks. "Whether you're looking at sports car racing or Indy car racing, everybody has made their commitments and started their season, and everybody wants you to bring money. It's not a pretty picture anyplace out there. It's a shame."

Rahal, 21, is in the prime of his young career which has been on a steady upswing until now. Graham has not only been a race-winning driver in Star-Mazda, Atlantic and then Indy cars but he's also a well-spoken and very presentable young man with a famous racing name. If the IRL had any shred of good health he would be Indy car racing's poster boy. But because of the IRL's commercial failure his career is stalled at a critical juncture. If nothing happens for Rahal in Indy cars this year would he look to Europe or NASCAR for his future?

"I'd look at both," he says. "Europe would be of interest, but again, it's tough everywhere. It's not that you can walk over there and get a ride, or call a NASCAR team and be good to go. It's difficult everywhere and that's the challenge that I'm facing right now. But you never count anything out. We're going to be trying everything and anything we can, that's for sure.

"I've been busy staying fit and doing all the things that I can do to make sure I'm ready when the time does come," Graham adds. "Unfortunately, it hasn't come yet. Nobody's calling just yet and trust me, I'm not waiting for the call.

"We haven't got quite the response that we were looking for but we will continue to push extremely hard on all fronts whether that be me physically, personally and mentally, or whether that's with sponsors. We're doing everything and anything we can. There's no lack of effort here, I promise. We're just keeping our heads held high and keeping on working. There's still some options in Indy cars that might come together and we're doing everything we can to make something happen."

Rahal is impressed and encouraged with new IRL boss Randy Bernard.

"He's what we've needed for years," Graham comments. "I've been talking to him and his enthusiasm, energy and ideas are what we've been needing for a long, long time. After talking to him I don't see any downside to him at all. He has a lot of energy, passion and excitement and you can tell that he's done a lot of research because he's suggested to me I call this or that company because they were a sponsor at the Speedway in 1964, for example. From what I can tell he's extremely well-connected and well-respected, which is a huge plus for us."

Of course, the tiny TV audience reached by Versus is a major factor in the struggle to sell sponsorship. So too is the sad fact that the IRL's combined print media/Internet press corps has dwindled to barely half a dozen people. The current value of the series based on TV, publicity and media space generated is reckoned to be no more than $2.5 million and a season costs a minimum of $5 million and more like $7 million. Everyone, including Penske, is struggling to fill the shortfall.

For many years Honda was a key supporter of CART and then the IRL helping underwrite teams and pay drivers' salaries, but those days are gone. Honda has cancelled its Acura ALMS program and seriously cut back its financial support of Indy car racing. Honda sponsors the races at Motegi, St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio and the Honda dealers of Canada sponsor the Toronto and Edmonton races. These days American Honda's racing development wing HPD stays in business thanks to its IRL engine lease program that earns HPD around half a million dollars per car each year.

Paul Tracy was one of Honda's star drivers in the late nineties and early years of this century and was one of Champ Car's few stars in that organization's fading final days. Tracy ran three IRL races last year and is running just three races once again this year--the Indy 500 and the two Canadian races in Toronto and Edmonton. He's tried to find sponsorship for Long Beach but has struck out.

"Geico's signed off for Indy and Honda want me to run the Canadian races and support their charity," Tracy reports. "I've also signed a contract for a TV show on Speed, thirteen episodes hosting a show testing supercars. Trying to find money to do anything else, forget it. People don't even know what the Long Beach Grand Prix is these days. It's totally forgotten. It doesn't mean anything anymore. It's virtually impossible to find sponsorship to do Indy car racing."

Indy car racing desperately needs a rebirth with an entirely new car and competing chassis and engine manufacturers. But it faces an equally big challenge in trying to rebuild its decimated media and fan bases. The damage wreaked by CART/Champ Car's terminal mismanagement and Tony George's spectacularly failed revolution runs deep and is likely to be long-lasting. Thus will the IRL's new CEO Randy Bernard begin to learn that the uphill struggle he faces is not only steep but also fraught with peril. I wish him the best of luck.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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