Brave new world
Be careful what you wish for,” goes the saying, “because your wish might come true.” Never have truer words been spoken when it comes to IndyCar racing.
For more than a decade the PPG IndyCar World Series was one of auto racing’s best kept secrets. The competition was close and spectacular, the drivers were skilled and accessible; and the politics, though byzantine and often bitter, seldom had an immediate impact on the racing itself.
In the human way of things, though, that wasn’t enough. Virtually everyone connected with IndyCars wished for more national and international exposure, greater technological diversity and, of course, bigger sponsorship dollars.
Thanks in roughly equal parts to Nigel Mansell, Formula One’s declining stock, the demise of IMSA and, not to be overlooked, some genuinely positive developments within IndyCar racing itself, most of those wishes have either come true already or will be reality in the near future.
Now the question becomes. “Is IndyCar racing ready to deal with this brave new world?” There are serious questions about IndyCar racing’s ability to handle the increased media attention. For example, the press “facilities” at Milwaukee, Portland and Cleveland a collection of trailers temporarily clustered in the paddock were inadequate when a few dozen reporters were on hand; now they’re a joke At Cleveland one particularly rotund member of the fourth estate who stood in front of the table where the drivers sat, blocked the view of at least half the people in the room. Of course. the fact that the drivers were not sitting at a dais above the level of the rest of us didn’t make things any easier, the fact that there were probably a third more people than seats only only added to the problem Then there was the situation that nearly led to serious injury to Mr Mansell himself a set of rickety stairs leading to the press trailer that were not permanently attached to said trailer. During the course of the day, the stairs moved off centre from the doorway and Mansell took a header into the press room when he stepped onto the “missing” portion of the stairway. Although I’m the first to agree that America is an overly litigious society, there would be a certain rough justice if Mansell sued the living hell out of the organisers.
There are a host of other press relations problems long delays posting results. press boxes ranging from excellent to nonexistent and schisms between promoters and CART that make the series-wide credential increasingly meaningless. But as a wise man once said, never complain about the quality of your press pass . . .
Of more immediate concern is the increasingly picayune nature of the officiating. It seems to me that a cardinal rule of any sport. from rugby to golf is the less effect the officials have on the outcome of the event, the better. American football, for example. threatens to become a shadow of its former self with more and more “judgment call” rules by the referees each year.
CART seems to be taking the same path. The Detroit Grand Prix. for example. was a shambles. First, Emerson Fittipaldi was penalised for a start that wouldn’t have drawn so much as a raised eyebrow on any other track in the nation. Subsequent clarifications” of the starting procedure at Portland and Cleveland only appear to support Emerson’s argument that he did nothing wrong. Then a riveting battle between Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Jnr was nullified by a border-line call involving some marker cones. Al did hit the cones that had taken the place of a wall and were therefore deemed “out of bounds”. But there was a grey area, in that he was forced into the cones by another car, an issue that apparently had not been adequately addressed in the drivers meeting. Under the circumstances, why ruin a perfectly good race for Al (not to mention the paying fans) with a penalty from which there is no recourse?
Then there’s the nascent issue of limiting speeds in the pit lane. It’s a worthy objective perhaps, but current procedures seem tailor-made for controversy. With all the on-board, real time telemetry currently available, CART still relies on a radar gun on pit road to gauge speeds. At Cleveland, Stefan Johansson and Sullivan entered the pits nose to tail and were both penalised for exceeding the speed limit, despite the fact that only one reading appeared on the radar gun monitor. Which of them was speeding? Stefan’s on-board computer showed he was within the speed limit. . .
Then there was the witch hunt conducted at Penske Racing to determine if there is something illegal about the increasingly dominant PC22-Chevrolets. At the root of the issue is the belief in some quarters that the Penskes are putting the power to the road a little too well or, to put it bluntly, they’re using some form of traction control (outlawed by CART after the 1992 season). Never mind that Cleveland was the first pole for a Penske in 1993, that it would take a dozen computer hackers a month to go through the software on a modem race car, or that every system of traction control relies on some form of altering the engine firing pattern and is thus plainly audible to anyone who takes the trouble to go trackside.
Of more long-range concern is how CART and USAC (which sanctions the Indianapolis 500) will deal with the impending entry of the Japanese engine manufacturers. CART has already taken a controversial stand that smacks of protectionism, requiring new engine suppliers to be prepared to issue engines to at least three cars in two separate teams in their first year of competition, and six cars/three teams in the second. Students of IndyCar history will recall that Chevrolet’s first year of competition in 1986 was strictly a development season, where Penske Racing never entered more than one Chevy powered car per race, and indeed sometimes didn’t enter a Chevypowered car at all. Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Judd and Ford all entered the series under similarly open rules, although the Ford/ Cosworth XB did essentially run to the conditions of the new rule with three, sometimes four, cars in 1992. In contrast, USAC has taken a “performance-based” approach that essentially requires new engines be made widely available only after they finish, qualify or practice in the top 10 in the Indy 500. The USAC approach is not only more ‘manufacturer-friendly’ on the face of it, but the fact that it was developed by people without a vested interest in the status quo in contrast to CART’s Board of Directors Dale Coyne, Carl Haas, Jim Hall, Roger Penske and Derrick Walker also sends a more comforting signal to would-be suppliers than the CART method.
Honda has already backed off from its avowed intention to compete in the 1994 PPG IndyCar World Series on the basis of the CART rules. Nissan and Toyota are straddling the fence, and the chance to get three more of the world’s top automotive companies involved in IndyCar racing won’t come again soon if the rule regarding new engine suppliers isn’t handled with a deft touch. Then there’s the chassis situation. Adrian Reynard’s announcement that his firm will be manufacturing chassis for 1994 alters the equation that has brought IndyCar racing to its current level of success; to wit, although Penske Racing occasionally gets a leg up on the competition, since 1989 team owners have been guaranteed of no worse than the second best chassis in the field by buying Lolas.
Like March (which enjoyed a similar nearmonopoly of the customer chassis market once upon a time), Lola has become a little fat lately. Prices increase more and more for its product each year; customers using Ford power complain that development bits go to Newman/Haas and no further; customers using Chevy-power complain that their chassis is markedly inferior to the Fordversion of the Lola.
So the addition of Reynard to the chassis mix will be a big plus, if just for the fact that it will keep Lola on its toes. On the other hand, word has it that Chevrolet decidedly unhappy with the ’93 Lola is lobbying hard to form an association with Reynard, the reasoning being that so long as Newman/ Haas uses Fords it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realise which chassis will get priority in the Huntingdon design studios. And if a Chevy/Reynard pact comes to pass, will team owners face a situation where Reynard has a de facto monopoly on Chevy chassis and Lola a similar lock on Ford cars?
And despite the depressing results achieved by Rick Galles, Truesports and, now, Rahal/Hogan building their own chassis, the fact that Danny Sullivan’s somewhat fortuitous win at Detroit is so far the only win by a non-factory chassis team in 1993 has not passed unnoticed. And even if the customer car remains a viable proposition for IndyCar team owners, will the future see the fields broken into a series of alliances between teams, chassis and engine manufacturers, for example Lola/Fords, Reynard/ Chevrolets, Rahal-Hogan/Hondas, Swift/ Nissans and Penske/Toyotas?
Finally, by the time you read this, the initial tenure of Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George as a non-voting member of the CART Board of Directors will have expired. The last year has been without a doubt the quietest ever in terms of the CART/IMS-USAC feud, but many observers reckon Tony will go his own way after Toronto. How CART and Tony resolve their deep differences should that happen will only add to the multiplicity of challenges in this brave new world of IndyCar racing. D P