Gordon Kirby – The US Scene

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Hélio won, but who watched?

There was no stopping Roger Penske’s team and Hélio Castroneves at Indianapolis this year. At the end of the 500 miles Castroneves was in a class of his own as he maintained a comfortable cushion over his snaking line of pursuers to beat 2005 winner Dan Wheldon by a shade under two seconds, a lifetime on a big speedway like Indy. It was Castroneves’s third win at Indianapolis and Penske’s 15th, 10 more than any other owner in history. It was also Team Penske’s fifth win from the last nine 500s since Roger made the decision to desert CART – an organisation he co-founded with Pat Patrick – in order to return to the Speedway in 2001.

Penske’s team missed five years at Indianapolis from 1996-2000 in the wake of Tony George’s creation of the Indy Racing League, and the team famously failed to qualify any of its cars for the race in 1995, the last year CART’s teams competed at the Speedway. Over 41 years, therefore, starting in 1969 Penske’s team has raced in 35 Indy 500s and won more than 40 per cent of them!

For the record, Penske’s Indy 500 winning drivers are: Mark Donohue (1972), Rick Mears (four wins in 1979, ’84, ’88 and ’91), Bobby Unser (’81), Danny Sullivan (’85), Al Unser Sr (’87), Emerson Fittipaldi (’93), Al Unser Jr (’94), Castroneves (2001-02 and ’09), Gil de Ferran (’03), and Sam Hornish (’06).

This year’s 93rd running of the 500 was dominated by Penske’s and Chip Ganassi’s cars. Castroneves and team-mate Ryan Briscoe led 77 of the 200 laps, while last year’s winner Scott Dixon and 2007 victor Dario Franchitti combined to lead 123 laps for Ganassi. Nobody else led a single lap.

Franchitti and Dixon looked very strong through the first two-thirds of the race, but both ran into snafus on their final pitstops. Franchitti’s fuel hose jammed while Dixon’s crew had trouble changing the right-rear tyre, so that they wound up stuck in the pack, unable to pass at the end when it counted. Dixon came home in sixth place with Franchitti directly behind in seventh.

Had they been at the front Dixon and Franchitti might well have been able to match Castroneves’ race-closing 220mph laps. But stuck in traffic as they were and stymied by aerodynamic turbulence, neither of Chip’s men could make any progress over the final sprint to the chequered flag.

“It’s just too tough to pass when everybody is running full fuel at the end and trying to go flat out,” said Dixon. “Toward the end of the race everybody’s worked out what they need and the cars are really good. That just makes it tougher. At the moment I think we’re relying too much on the downforce of the cars. We need more mechanical grip so you can get closer in the corners.”

Franchitti agrees with Dixon. “When you get too far back in the pack like we did, it’s tough to get back to the front again,” he said. “When I managed to take the lead and was running away I had a big smile on my face. That was cool. But it was tough in traffic. When we got back in the pack it was really difficult.”

As we all know the IRL desperately needs a makeover, starting with a new formula. Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal have recommended in this space that the formula should require drivers to lift for bends and drive their cars through rather than corner with the pedal stuck firmly to the floor, and almost everyone I know agrees.

Three days after this year’s 500 the IRL’s many problems were underlined when my colleague and Motor Sport contributor Robin Miller reported that Tony George had been ousted from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s presidency by the board of directors – his mother, three sisters and the family’s two attorneys. The IMS quickly issued a statement denying the story, but admitted the board had asked George to ‘devise a plan for the management of Hulman & Company, the Indy Racing League, Clabber Girl [the baking powder on which the family’s fortune is based] and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that would allow him [George] to focus on the business which requires the greatest attention’.

Since founding the IRL in 1996 George has spent more than US$600 million bankrolling race purses, teams, cars, engines and parts, as well as starting his own IRL team known as Vision Racing and remaking the Speedway to accommodate Formula 1 for eight fleeting years. Rather ominously – and perhaps foolishly – George said last winter at a motor sports business conference in New York City that he might be compelled to close down the IRL series in four or five years if it doesn’t pick up in fan and commercial interest.

Despite last year’s unification of the dying Champ Car organisation with the IRL, Indycar racing continues to struggle with a serious shortage of major media coverage, so that the teams have great difficulty selling sponsorship. Many IRL races struggle to draw crowds and TV ratings, and the Kansas City oval race at the end of April – the last event before Indy – drew an abysmal 0.11 TV rating, which translates into 112,000 viewers nationally in a country of some 320 million people. Shockingly, only 10,000 households in Indianapolis tuned in to the Kansas race. This year’s Indy 500, telecast as always on ABC, drew only 3.9 per cent of American households, down 13 per cent from last year and 40 per cent from four years ago.

It was the lowest TV rating since the race was first televised live from start to finish back in 1986 and less than one-quarter of the audience from those days.

At Indianapolis during this year’s month of May many teams were worried about next season and 2011 in particular, with existing sponsor contracts not expected to be renewed and sponsorship all but impossible to sell. As the IRL works to pull together its new formula for 2011 or 2012, at least half its teams are wondering how on earth they will be able to afford a switch to new chassis and engines, whatever they might be.

For a few years Bobby Unser has propounded a doomsday theory. He believes the Hulman-George’s financial troubles will result in the family selling Indianapolis to the International Speedway Corporation. Bobby believes the end result will be that ISC and NASCAR will then close down both the Indianapolis 500 and the IRL series, because neither are economically viable. He also thinks it’s possible that a second NASCAR race could replace the Indy 500.

Assuming that the 500 and Indycar racing are able to survive, it’s hard to imagine Roger Penske’s legendary team not scoring quite a few more victories in the coming years. Castroneves, still in his prime, should be able to ride the wave and join his team boss as the Indy 500’s all-time most successful driver. But who will they be competing against, and what will it all mean?

*****

Pagenaud rises to prominence

Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud are the men to beat in this year’s American Le Mans Series aboard the Brazilian’s Acura ARX-02a LMP1 car. The pair scored dominant wins at Long Beach in April and at Utah’s Miller Motorsports Park in May. In his debut as a team owner and return to the cockpit after five years of retirement de Ferran has shown he’s as quick as ever, while Pagenaud has surprised many people with his speed, consistency and technical ability.

The 24-year-old Frenchman further demonstrated his talent a week before the ALMS round in Utah by taking pole position for the Spa 1000Kms in his debut with the factory Peugeot team. Pagenaud and co-drivers Nicolas Minassian and Christian Klien then proceeded to win, with Pagenaud turning the race’s fastest lap. “We rate Simon as one of the hottest prospects in motor sport and these performances underline his talents,” said de Ferran.

Pagenaud has raced in America since 2006 and his rise has been missed by many people in Europe. He won the ’06 Atlantic championship after a season-long battle with Graham Rahal, then raced Champ Cars in ’07 where he showed a lot of ability as Will Power’s team-mate at Derrick Walker Racing. Champ Car’s demise left Pagenaud without a regular ride last year but de Ferran was quick to hire Simon for his new ALMS team.

By the time you read this Pagenaud may well have played a starring role with Peugeot at Le Mans. Meanwhile, de Ferran and Pagenaud hope Audi will return to the ALMS at the end of this season so they can take a crack at beating the turbodiesels with their gasoline-powered Acura.

*****

Johnny reunited with sprint winner

In the middle of May I enjoyed a very pleasant evening with Johnny Rutherford at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Johnny was a three-time Indy 500 winner, with McLaren in 1974 and ’76 and in Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2K in 1980, and he was in New Hampshire as the Grand Marshal of the speedway’s vintage weekend. One evening we played host to a group of veteran racers and their families from the fraternities of Indy, sprint, midget and modified racing to talk about Rutherford’s stellar career. Johnny waxed lyrical about his formative days in modified and sprint cars as well as his Indycar years.

Rutherford was particularly touched to be reunited earlier in the day with the superbly restored Wally Meskowski Chevy-powered sprint car in which he won the 1965 USAC sprint car championship as well as the car he crashed the following year at the fearsome high-banked Eldora Speedway in Ohio. The accident was caused by a rock striking Rutherford squarely in the face, leaving him unconscious with a smashed nose and lips. Johnny broke both arms and was out of action for almost 12 months, but a potentially lethal accident turned out to be a mere hiccough in an epic career spanning 34 years from 1959-92. JR stands together with A J Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, the Unsers and Rick Mears as one of Indycar racing’s living legends.

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