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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 tall order

by Gordon Kirby
Everyone in IndyCar is excited about the arrival of 'aero kits' in this year's Verizon IndyCar Series. The individual 'aero kits' from Honda and Chevrolet will bring more variety in appearance and it's hoped the new looks will bring added interest from fans and media.

In recent months Honda and Chevrolet have been testing and developing their individual aerodynamic platforms amid great secrecy. Everyone has remained closed mouthed about any aerodynamic numbers or performance improvements.

For sure, there will be a substantial increase in downforce which should make for faster lap speeds. It may also mean the cars will run even more closely together on the racetrack. Unless of course, either Honda or Chevrolet finds an advantage and the field splits into two halves, which is a possibility.

Renowned Indy car driver and Champ Car champion Paul Tracy is a commentator these days for NBC Sports and Tracy makes some keen observations about the effects of the new 'aero kits'.

© Mike Levitt/LAT USA
"I have to say that based on what we saw last year it looks like the powerhouse teams are going to take control," Tracy says. "Certainly the big teams did the early aero kit testing before the little teams. Penske started testing early last November and they've gotten a jump start on the smaller teams.

"Penske will run four cars for the first time this year with four good drivers, so Roger's team will be very strong, and Ganassi's team will be strong too although he's cut back to three cars.

"It will be interesting to see how competitive Michael's team is going to be because he's been fighting some sponsorship problems and he may not be able to compete with Penske and Ganassi. For the rest of the teams, it's going to be a tough battle because they're going to get out-tested and out-spent."

As everyone knows, Indy car racing has endured a long, steady decline over the last fifteen years as the CART/IRL war wreaked havoc on the sport. Today, TV ratings for the Indy 500 are smaller than the average NASCAR race and one-fifth what they were a quarter of a century ago. Most IndyCar races pull a tiny national TV audience--fewer than 400,000 people--which is one-tenth the national TV ratings for CART races at the height of the old Indy Car World Series twenty years ago when Nigel Mansell was doing battle in America.

Back before the CART/IRL war the Indy 500 drew a much bigger TV audience than any NASCAR race and Pole Day for the Indy 500 was the world's second largest sporting event behind only race day at the Speedway. For many years the entire month of May at Indianapolis was a major part of the American sports landscape but a long political war and a resulting spec car formula has substantially reduced the importance of Indy car racing and the month of May over the last twenty years.

These days there's little or no national or international media coverage of Pole Day and sadly, race day doesn't do much better. Meanwhile, the average IndyCar race is lucky to get much more than a few lines coverage in the nation's newspapers on Monday mornings. So everyone hopes the arrival of 'aero kits' will begin to reverse a long and depressing decline.

Renowned race car engineer and designer Gordon Kimball worked with John Barnard in the seventies on the Parnelli-Cosworth VPJ6B and 6C and Chaparral 2K Indy cars and was part of the engineering team on the Wildcat Indy cars in the early eighties, including Gordon Johncock's winning car in the 1982 Indy 500, the last American-built car to win the big race.

© Mike Levitt/LAT USA
Kimball joined Barnard at McLaren in the UK from 1984-'86 and Ferrari from 1987-'89 where he was Gerhard Berger's race engineer. In 1990 he worked at McLaren engineering Ayrton Senna's car. For the past twenty-four years Kimball has run his own engineering company in his native California and he's the father of IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball.

"This year in IndyCar will be intriguing," Kimball remarks. "It will be a test to see if we can get fans back because of the body kits. It's going to change the racing completely for sure and probably not for the good because the cars will not punch as big a hole in the air like the old ones did and for sure they are going to be more wake sensitive so you won't be able to as easily get a run on the car in front. So passing is going to be more difficult. But it's going to be Chevy against Honda and it will be interesting to see who gets it right and who gets it wrong."

Kimball hopes the aero kit battle will create fan interest and provide an opportunity for Chevrolet and Honda to promote their brands and IndyCar.

"Maybe I'm a naive optimist but hopefully in three or four years IndyCar will be growing and finding its place in a new, open-minded audience," he says. "I think it's down to the manufacturers--Chevy and Honda--to make it so important to the public and fans. In CART's heydays, after the cigarette companies, the vast majority of the money came from the engine manufacturers--Toyota, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Ford. In those days the money was pouring into the series and into the teams. So the manufacturers are the best thing there is to help these teams get back on a healthy commercial footing and help promote and market IndyCar.

"It's a sport we all love and it hurts," Kimball adds. "I'm sure Mark Miles has been blown away by the passion of the people involved even though sometimes that passion comes across negatively. My only fear is the 20 and 30 year olds who don't even own a car and just don't care about motor racing."

Indeed, this lack of interest in the sport among young people is a serious worry for all forms of racing from F1 to NASCAR. But while F1 around the world and NASCAR domestically continue to enjoy strong overall media coverage, IndyCar and American sports car racing have almost fallen off the map. The past fifteen years have been ruinous for both of them and a story from 2005--ten years ago--illustrates the point.

Back then I worked for a few years with Adam Friedman, a director of TV documentaries. We produced an A&E biography about Mario Andretti and a two-hour A&E NASCAR special. A former Formula Ford racer, Adam is a big fan of the sport and we attempted without success to produce some TV shows promoting Champ Car.

© Mike Levitt/LAT USA
With Paul Newman's help Adam was able to put together a meeting with the top guys at CBS in New York to discuss a possible deal to televise Champ Car's races on the network. Kevin Kalkhoven and Dick Eidswick were also in the meeting but Newman was the guy they were interested in talking to and Adam did his best to direct the meeting.

At one point Eidswick asked how much CBS would pay Champ Car for a rights fee to broadcast their races. The CBS guys looked sternly at Eidswick and glanced around the table.

"You guys have gotta understand," came the answer. "We never read a word about you guys in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. In this town, you don't exist. Nobody knows anything about you and until that changes nobody's going to pay you a dime to be on TV."

Of course, Champ Car ended up on Spike TV and survived only a few more years. But IndyCar today is no healthier than Champ Car was ten years ago. Its media footprint continues to dwindle and outside Indianapolis, IndyCar barely exists in the national media--TV, radio and print. If the situation was desperate ten years ago it may be unfixable today.

Will this year's aero kits have the beneficial effects Gordon Kimball and others hope for? As Derrick Walker says, the kits are the start of a long path aimed at opening up areas for development and re-invigorating Indy car racing so that it once again has a place in America's and the world's popular culture. And that's a very tall order.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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