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At the risk of being branded a heretic, I’d like humbly to suggest that observers of IndyCar racing have been a tad harsh in criticising Championship Auto Racing Teams over the years. True, the restless team owners reversed their field once again last month in Indianapolis when they tossed out the five-vote/seven-man Board of Directors in favour of the “one-franchise/one-vote” Board system that proved so unmanageable from 1989 through 1992. And it’s equally true that IndyCar racing continues to stand alone among bona-fide and wannabe players on the world sports stage in that its keystone event the Indianapolis 500 is overseen by a group wholly separate and (at times) at odds with those who govern the sport the other 11 months out of the year.
The fact remains, however, that when CART’s teams assemble in Surfers Paradise next March no fewer than three engine and three chassis manufacturers will be represented along with half a dozen drivers with a realistic chance of winning the 1994 PPG Indy Car World Series . . . and perhaps an equal number with realistic chances of winning a race or two.
Nigel Mansell will certainly have every hope of a successful title defence while Roger Penske’s latest three-car superteam for Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy and Al Unser Jnr. is a real powerhouse line-up. . . and it’s almost unfair when you figure that Emmo, Paul and Al Jnr. have Rick Mears in the wings for support. Then there’s Michael Andretti who, like Adrian Reynard and Chip Ganassi, has something to prove in 1994 if not to himself then to the rest of the world. And Bobby Rahal lurks as something of a dark horse who would rank as a favourite but for the so far unproven Honda Indy engine.
If it’s asking a bit much of Honda for Rahal to be in the thick of the PPG points race, it’s not the least bit out of line to suggest the combination may win an event or two in the next 12 months. Honda is not known for doing things by halves.
Mario Andretti, in the final season of his glorious career, Raul Boesel, Danny Sullivan and Robby Gordon are similarly viable candidates for Victory Lane. And if the Bettenhausen, Hall, Indy Regency and Budweiser/King teams teams can get their collective acts together you can add the names of Stefan Johansson, Teo Fabi, Arie Luyendyk and Scott Goodyear, respectively, to the list of potential IndyCar winners.
When (or perhaps if, according to the current mood in Argentina) the F1 circus touches down in Buenos Aires in March there will be many more engine and chassis manufacturers involved than in IndyCar racing, but only a fool or a compulsive gambler who would make Ayrton Senna and Williams less than prohibitive favourites for the drivers’ and manufacturers championships. Sure Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger rate a chance, and some of them will undoubtedly win races. But the championship? As for NASCAR, while it’s true any number of drivers from Rusty Wallace to Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Harry Gant, Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty, Ernie lrvan, Morgan Shepherd, Ken Schrader, Ricky Rudd and Darrell Waltrip can win the Winston Cup championship, the fact of the matter is five of the last eight Winston Cup titles have gone to Dale Earnhardt. And Buick’s withdrawal from the series, after the 1992 season, has left a mere handful of Pontiacs swimming upstream against the Chevy and Ford tide a number that may diminish by one very significant number should Wallace bolt to Ford as is widely rumoured.
The fact is, that for all the internal squabbling, all the lack of direction, all the various conflicts of interest when the likes of Roger Penske, Carl Haas and, at times, Chip Ganassi, have worn the hats of entrants, promoters, directors, chassis importers and (in the case of Penske) engine manufacturers, Championship Auto Racing Teams finds itself on the threshold of a dream season. And with Mercedes-Benz, Firestone and perhaps Toyota poised to enter the fray in 1995 things only stand to get better.
The fact that IndyCar racing holds auto racing’s ultimate trump card in the Indianapolis 500 the world’s largest single day sports event is of course undeniably attractive to manufacturers the world over. Success at Indianapolis gives instant credibility and opens vast publicity opportunities to any product. Then too, the Indy Car World Series has been professionally and generously supported by a single sponsor PPG Industries – since 1980.
Most important of all, though, has been a logical, stable set of rules designed to balance the often conflicting poles of cost effectiveness and technological relevance. Although the rules have changed at the edges since CART was established in 1979, what with modifications to turbo boost levels and regular tinkering with the aerodynamic and safety packages the 1994 IndyCar is a readily identifiable development of the machines in which Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Danny Ongais and Tom Sneva contested the first CART title.
Compare that, if you will, to the dizzying changes undergone in Formula One since 1979. Sliding skirts have come, gone and ultimately been outdone by the current flat-bottomed machines; turbocharging has come and gone, likewise rocket fuel; fuel stops have come and gone and are back again for the coming season; active suspension, traction control and semi-automatic transmissions have come and are now in the process of being phased out.
Without question, F1 remains the highest form of the art of motor racing. But at what price? Like the monstrous Can-Am cars of the early 1970s arguably the fastest racing cars ever produced in terms of the technology available at the time – F1 produces superb technical creations, but competition – genuine suspense as to the outcome of any given race – is often a rare commodity.
It hardly seems possible that just three few years ago F1 was bursting at the seams with oversubscribed fields even as Bill Stokkan was making weekly ‘phone calls to fringe team owners begging for entries. Yet 1994 could see IndyCar fields average 30 cars, thanks to the new PacWest, Forysthe-Green and Formula Project teams and the fact that Rahal-Hogan and Indy Regency expand to full-time two-car operations and Penske gives a three-car team another go.
Rest assured IndyCar racing has its problems. CART has been and is being outhustled, outmuscled, outsmarted and outspent in marketing by a NASCAR whose efforts in that arena threaten to outstrip even those of the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball. Thus it’s no coincidence that, for all the new manufacturers involved in IndyCar racing, there has yet to be a corresponding increase in new big dollar sponsors.
Meanwhile, the upcoming Brickyard 400, Indianapolis’s first NASCAR race, threatens to steal some of the 500’s thunder. And CART also has to get its act together with regard to nurturing new talent beyond Paul Tracy and Robby Gordon, although it must be said some positive strides have been made of late through the Firestone Indy Lights Championship.
Just as sure as the Wheel of Fortune had brought IndyCar racing to unheard of prosperity, so economic forces beyond the control of CART to say nothing of CART’s own penchant for shooting itself in the foot could just as easily bring it crashing back down. But for the moment, let’s call a spade a spade and give credit where credit is due. DP