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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/ Building a proper ladder system

by Gordon Kirby
A short but pointed column this week although before I get into it I have to join those who wonder about a sport where on one hand Felipe Massa is compelled to back-off to allow teammate Fernando Alonso to pass and on the other Helio Castroneves is black-flagged and made to apologize to all and sundry for actually racing. Neither F1 nor IndyCar looked good the weekend before last.

Meanwhile, despite the fervent debate about the new Indy car formula for 2012 and which new races will come and old races will go, many people believe the biggest problem IndyCar has is the shortage of American stars. Without doubt one of the biggest missions Randy Bernard faces in his quest to rebuild Indy car racing is to properly define, commercialize and promote the country's open-wheel ladder system from Indy Lights down through karting to help produce future generations of desperately-needed American stars.

We all know the sad fact that 2009 was the first year in Indy racing's hundred-year history in which not a single American driver won a race and that only four American drivers--Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Danica Patrick--are racing Indy cars this year. And when you look at the wider world of international racing, the United States has failed completely. Thirty-two years have passed since the summer of 1978 when Mario Andretti scored the last F1 win by an American driver and after Michael Andretti finished third at Monza in his last F1 race with McLaren back in 1993 Scott Speed has been the only American to race in F1. It's not a pretty picture.

I take my hat off to Randy Bernard for immediately understanding the urgent need to clearly define America's open-wheel ladder system and create a scholarship program so that each year's new champion from karts to Indy Lights wins a fully sponsored season competing in the next step on the ladder. Bernard's vision is to embrace Sprint and dirt car racing and find the commercial backing to pay for a season in Indy Lights for the USAC Sprint cart champion and further, to reach all the way down to karting, establishing a clear ladder with prizes for each year's champions to move up and ultimately branding the whole thing under the IndyCar banner. It's a simple but brilliant concept and I wish Bernard the best of luck in making it happen.

Let's not forget that developing a complete ladder system was and remains one of the keys to NASCAR's success. Over many years, through the driving vision of Bill France Sr. and Bill Jr., NASCAR built not only a first-class top division but also forcefully and steadily expanded its reach so that there are thirteen NASCAR-sanctioned championships from Sprint Cup through Nationwide and Camping World Truck to a range of regional championships, all with commercial sponsors. NASCAR has manufactured a system down to the grass roots where young drivers can begin to build professional careers in stock cars and IndyCar must develop a similar system if open-wheel racing is to thrive again in America.

It's been a travesty and indictment of the failure of the current open-wheel ladder system that last year's Indy Lights champion J.R. Hildebrand has been sitting on the sidelines most of this year, occupied only with a little sports car and historic racing. Hildebrand has shown plenty of talent and application in his steady climb through F2000, Atlantic and Lights and was a convincing winner of last year's Lights title. He even tested a Force India F1 car last winter, but is without a regular ride in any category this year.

And of course, last year's Atlantic champion John Edwards and Star-Mazda champion Adam Christodoulou are also without open-wheel rides this year. Thanks to Mazda, Edwards and Christodoulou are in business this year in the Grand-Am series racing a Mazda GT car. It's great that this talented pair of young drivers have good jobs, but it would be even better if they could find a way forward in the open-wheel ranks.

Thankfully, Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl have been able to put together a two-race deal for Hildebrand to make his IndyCar debut in one of Dreyer & Reinbold's cars at Mid-Ohio next weekend and his home track Infineon Raceway at the end of the month. Congratulations to Reinbold and Buhl for trying to do the right thing and let's hope it leads to good things for all.

I have to say it's been very frustrating to witness the lip service paid over many years to building a ladder system by the various road racing and Indy car sanctioning bodies--SCCA, USAC, CART/Champ Car and IRL. At different times I've been happily involved in great programs like Skip Barber's Big Scholarship run-off and Barry Green's short-lived Team Green Academy as well as many other efforts to help promote Formula Ford and Atlantic drivers. But all these things have come and gone. Other than Jeremy Shaw's Team USA program to get young drivers over to Europe for a few key Formula Ford races there's never been any concerted and continuing effort to build a clear American ladder system with solid commercial support.

In fact, every formula and constituency seems to have fought each other rather than working together for the sport's common good. As a classic example, I recall the announcement at Laguna Seca twenty-five years ago of the American Racing Series, the precursor of Indy Lights. CART team owner Pat Patrick was the moving force behind creating the new formula in partnership with Miami street race promoter Ralph Sanchez and Roger Bailey was their designated man to run the series. Patrick, Sanchez and Bailey were surprised at the antipathy from the media toward the new series.

Why, we asked, introduce a new formula when the existing Formula Super Vee and Atlantic series needed building and bettering? Surely, we asked, will not this new formula only further splinter the potential field? And sure enough it did.

Over a quarter century the various iterations of Indy Lights have rarely drawn more than twenty cars, often as few as twelve or fifteen. And of course, Super Vee eventually died while Atlantic struggled through a variety of iterations of its own only to be euthanized last winter following a few hopeful years of revival under the dying Champ Car organization. Randy Bernard is seriously contemplating again reviving Atlantic which enjoys potential support from both Mazda and Cooper Tires. Commercial backing is essential of course to remaking and properly building the ladder system we would all like to see.

Meanwhile, the list of young Americans trying to break into the big time is short rather than long. It includes Hildebrand and John Edwards, of course, as well as Jonathan Summerton, Charlie Kimball, Conor Daly, Josef Newgarden, Alex Rossi, Gabby Chavez, plus last year's Team USA scholarship winners Connor de Phillippi and Brent Smrz and USAC Sprint car champion Levi Jones.

Quite a few aspiring American open-wheel drivers, including Alex Gurney, Jon Fogarty, Johnny O'Connell, Patrick Long, Bryan Sellers and Joey Hand have found professional careers in sports car racing. But it would be great to see a system take shape where guys like these could become established open-wheel stars. It's not the talent pool that's lacking. It's the system and I wish Randy Bernard the best of luck in achieving his vision. The sport surely needs it.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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