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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 talented but underappreciated field

by Gordon Kirby
Before I begin this week's column I want to heartily recommend that you listen on YouTube to Chip Ganassi's speech from last week's Motor Sport Hall of Fame induction ceremonies at Detroit's Fillmore Theater. Here's a link to Ganassi's speech about the need to re-introduce innovation to racing and make the sport relevant to both the changing times and today's youth. youtube.com/watch?v=BkFu5HybJAk

Two weeks ago in this space Brian Lisles discussed IndyCar's broken economic model in detail. Since then the team owners have told IndyCar they can't afford to buy and race new cars and engines in 2012, an underlying fact that has been clear to many observers for quite some time. It's a very sad situation, possibly beyond fixing, as fifteen years of political wars and negligent management have decimated IndyCar's market and fan base.

Today, IndyCar's strongest card may be its deep field of driving talent. If the sport is to be rebuilt it will be on the drivers backs but as we all know they are largely unknown and unrecognized by the wider world. Dario Franchitti's excellent second Indy 500 victory, for example, was a mere note in the British and European press. In fourteen years in America Dario has won two championships and twenty-six Indy car races and is tied with Rodger Ward for eleventh on the all-time winners list. But in his homeland Dario is never talked of in the same terms as Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button or even fellow Scot David Coulthard, now retired but still in the public eye as a BBC TV commentator.

It's difficult for the younger generation to imagine that Jim Clark's arrival at Indianapolis in 1963 with Colin Chapman's rear-engine Lotus-Ford was a huge story in the UK and around the world. And when Nigel Mansell arrived in Indy cars with Newman/Haas in 1993 as the defending F1 world champion the UK's Fleet Street press corps arrived on the scene in droves writing reams of column inches in the UK dailies. Global TV ratings for Indy car racing shot up during Mansell's two years in CART's Indy Car World Series and for a short while Bernie Ecclestone worried about Indy car racing's emergence as a potential global TV challenge to Formula One.

© Gary Gold
In those days I wrote a weekly column for London's Sunday Times about Mansell's exploits in America. Mansell's raw speed and theatrical personality provided plenty of grist for my mill and the fact that he and teammate Mario Andretti could barely abide each other added further spice to my weekly dispatches. Yet time and again the Sunday Times' sports editor would call late at night demanding that I sharpen my copy.

"You Americans are too nice," the man from the Sunday Times would growl. "You guys are too reluctant to use the knife."

His instructions drew a keen contrast to my various Stateside employers who more often than not would ask me to tamp down my prose, to be nicer and less critical. But that was then. Today is a different story with little or no global or national coverage of Indy car racing so that this year's IndyCar championship contenders Will Power and Dario Franchitti are underappreciated and underrated across the United States and around the world.

Power arrived in the United States four years ago with a solid reputation earned at home in Australia and three seasons in Europe. As a teen-ager, Power was an Australian FF1600 contender before winning the Formula Holden championship in 2001 and also finishing second in that year's Australian F3 series. Will moved to Europe and raced in the British F3 championship in 2003 and '04, then moved up in '05 to the Renault World Series, winning two races and also racing for Team Australia in the A1GP series.

At the end of '05 Power made his Champ Car debut for Team Australia at his home race, Surfers Paradise, and finished tenth in the Champ Car season-closer in Mexico City. Power ran the full Champ Car World Series in 2006 and '07 for Derrick Walker's Team Australia operation. He was quick from the get-go, if prone to the odd mistake, but in '07 he was a title contender, winning two races, taking four poles and finishing fourth in points. In 2008 Power joined the unified IRL series with KV Racing before moving to Team Penske last year as a part-time, third-string driver, not unlike Rick Mears thirty years earlier.

Will finished second in Long Beach (where he won Champ Car's last hurrah in '08), was third in Toronto, then won in Edmonton before breaking his back in a nasty crash into Nelson Philippe's spun car at Infineon Raceway twelve months ago. Promoted this year to a full-time ride Power has rebounded in style from his back injuries, winning five races and taking eight poles. At Mid-Ohio he wrapped up the inaugural Mario Andretti Road Racing championship and is locked in a battle with Franchitti for the overall title.

Will is a gentleman and a quietly funny guy with a dry wit that's sometimes not easy to discern. Over the past two years he's absorbed a great deal from Rick Mears, who's become Power's mentor much as he has been for many of Roger's new hires over almost two decades. And of course, Will is engaged to marry Dreyer & Reinbold pr gal Elizabeth Cannon in the fall. Will and Elizabeth met in 2006 when she worked for Derrick Walker. So Power has arrived in the prime of his life as a top-class driver but remains unknown to the average American sports fan.

Power's teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe have operated in his shadow most of the year. This is Castroneves's tenth year with Team Penske and thirteenth in Indy cars. Helio remains quick and competitive in most races and is always a threat at Indianapolis, but he's been a bit unlucky this year, let alone beng robbed of a win at Edmonton in July. With three Indy 500 wins and a couple of seasons on 'Dancing with the Stars' Castroneves is the most renowned contemporary IndyCar driver.

© Gary Gold
Briscoe is fast and sometimes smooth, but still prone to small but costly mistakes. It's said that a sponsorship shortfall means Roger will run only two cars next year. If so, Briscoe is the most likely to lose his seat.

Meanwhile, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon have formed an excellent team over the last two years at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Regular race winners for many years, Dario and Scott are great racers and champions. Without doubt, Franchitti is one of the world's best drivers, a fair and true racer, and Dixon is damn near as good. They're also very civilized gentlemen who share a passion for the sport's history. Dario and Scott have been around for a long time now and if IndyCar was vaguely heathy they would be superstars.

Of course, America's great IndyCar hope is Graham Rahal who's shown a lot of ability in two and a half years, mostly with Newman/Haas, but he's struggled to sell the sponsorship required to stay in business. Back with Newman/Haas for most of the season's second half, Graham has at least kept his name out there.

Rumors suggest Rahal has signed with Panther Racing for next year to repace Dan Wheldon in the National Guard car. Panther may not be the world's greatest team but John Barnes is a very committed owner and his team may be the best destination for Rahal. As an American, Graham would be a perfect fit for the Guard.

Our other great American hopes are Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti. Hunter-Reay has also fought the sponsorship wars but after winning at Long Beach in April he landed a solid seat with Andretti Autosport. Ryan started racing Champ cars in 2003 and won at Surfers Paradise at the end of his rookie year. He also won at Milwaukee in 2005, leading all the way, but didn't race in Champ Car in 2006. He made his IRL debut in 2007 with Bobby Rahal's team and won at Watkins Glen in '08. Last year Ryan drove for both Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt before landing this year at Andretti Autosports.

I've known Ryan for almost fifteen years and have been impressed with the effort he's put into his hard slog to the top in very tough times. He's a fine young man and excellent driver and I hope Michael Andretti will be able to provide him with the equipment he deserves to establish himself as one of IndyCar's top stars.

Marco Andretti flattered early in his IndyCar career only to deceive in recent years. But Marco is trying hard and should benefit from a much better environment within the team than in recent years thanks to new team boss Tom Anderson who's one of the most experienced and steady men in the business. Budget constraints have resulted in the departure of Michael Andretti's longtime friend and the team's technical director Peter Gibbons and the team plans to focus on getting the basics right.

Tony Kanaan has been racing Indy cars since 1998. Kanaan moved from CART to the IRL in 2003 with Andretti-Green and won the IRL championship in '04. He was second in '05 and finished third in '07 and '08, but Tony has been much less competitive in recent years. Kanaan seemed to lose his way after his good friend Dario Franchitti left the team at the end of '07. Strong in some races this year Kanaan struggled to qualify at Indy before scoring his first win in two years in June on the Iowa oval. There's no more motivated a driver and, like his teammates, Tony hopes to benefit from the revised team organization at Andretti Autosports.

Another guy who is not recognized for his tremendous talent is Justin Wilson. Justin is a superb driver and racer and may well be the most underrated racing driver in the world today. He drives beautifully and is a great team leader--technically atuned and naturally analytical. Time and again, through seven years and six teams in Champ Car and IRL--most recently Dreyer & Reinbold--Wilson has demonstrated that he's a great racer and a gentleman too. If Indy car racing was at all healthy he too would be a global superstar.

© Gary Gold
Dreyer & Reinbold teammate Mike Conway has shown plenty of speed on all types of tracks but was sidelined by his big crash at Indianapolis this year. Dreyer & Reinbold have run a bunch of other drivers this year, including Thomas Scheckter and J.R. Hildebrand. Kudos to Robbie Buhl and Dennis Reinbold for trying to do the right thing. Another guy who continues to show some promise is Brit Alex Lloyd, driving this year for Dale Coyne.

The depth of IndyCar's talent has been emphasized by Dan Wheldon's struggles this year with John Barnes' Panther team. IRL champion and Indy 500 winner in 2005 with Andretti-Green, Wheldon has been a disappointment the last two years with Panther. He finished second at Indianapolis this year but has little else to show.

KV Racing has fielded a fleet of quick but unproductive drivers this year. Each of E.J. Viso, Takuma Sato and Mario Moraes are fast but inconsistent and rather crash-prone, too. All three could develop into serious contenders but need time and stability to bear fruit.

Veteran Paul Tracy failed to qualify with KV at Indianapolis but showed a lot of his old self in the races at Toronto and Edmonton. His short season is over however and Paul, now 41, appears to be near or at the end of his open-wheel career.

Raphael Matos has been a bit of a disappointment after looking good in Star Mazda and Atlantic where he won championships in 2005 and '07 respectively. Jay Penske and Gil de Ferran's team is still searching for the right combination but Matos is at a critical stage in his career and must soon produce some results if he's to emerge as something other than a mid-fielder.

CART/Champ Car veteran Alex Tagliani is a team owner now with ex-Walker man Rob Edwards running the show. Tag did a great job at Indianapolis this year and has come a long way from his fast but slightly wayward rookie days ten years ago. It would be great to see Alex complete his career in style and settle in for the long run as a team owner.

Simona de Silvestro showed plenty of speed in three years in Atlantic, winning races and challenging for the championship last year. The talented Swiss lady has looked good in her rookie IndyCar season, often out-qualifying and out-racing Danica Patrick who's been very disappointing, to say the least, in most races this year.

In contrast to all the above, the only driver who doesn't belong in the IndyCar series is Milka Duno. The Venezuelan is not only slow--as she has been since we first saw her all alone at the back of the Barber/Dodge field some years ago--but she's also unaware and unresponsive. In comparison, Danica is superb.

So IndyCar has plenty of talent to tout. One of Randy Bernard's many jobs is to re-establish the platform for them to get the respect they deserve. Sometime in September Bernard will reveal his business plan but he recently talked to me in general terms about his hopes and ideas.

© Gary Gold
"I'm focused on how are we going to make it bigger," Bernard said. "How are we going to expand our audience? Izod have done a great job of sponsorship activation but it's very important for me now to take that a step further. I want to make sure it's about building our image in the pop culture and among our youth and mainstream America.

"Then we need to better leverage and activate our endemic sponsors like Honda and Firestone to do like Izod have done and reach those fifteen to twenty millions fans we lost in the mid-nineties. We know those fans are still out there. A bunch of them hate us. They despise us. But I like to call them 'the influencers'. I think we have to reach them and convince them with passion why they need to come back.

"So there are several different areas we're going to target. First and foremost, there have been too many focus groups done that show that we are perceived as a champagne crowd and that NASCAR is a beer-drinking crowd. As much as that might be true in the Pagoda or in the suites at Indianapolis if you went anywhere out there in the stands, it's a beer-drinking crowd. I went to three or four different areas during the 500 and it was definitely a beer-drinking crowd.

"I think that's a positive for our sport because I think we can reach a phenomenally diverse demographic. At the ovals you're going to reach the beer-drinker and at the street and road courses you're going to reach more of your champagne crowd.

"I think another of the negatives we've done, and I don't think it was done on purpose, but if you look at the numbers in the nineties attendance was starting to drop. Sponsorship was going up because they saw this aspect of the champagne drinker and started focusing on the business-to-business sponsorships which was tremendously valuable. They were tremendously successul with that, but they lost focus on who their fan was."

Bernard also intends to tap into USAC's oval racing talent and fan base.

"USAC is mid-America," he said. "That's the place to get our American drivers and fans from. We have to figure out a better plan of how we reach those American drivers for USAC and my plan will lay all that out. It's too important not to. When we roll out our plan you'll see it will have many facets to rebuild our fan base and to develop American drivers."

Of course, the most essential of Bernard's numerous challenges is how to keep his many underfinanced teams in business so they can make it to 2012 and beyond.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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