Different Class

While the Indy Racing League stumbles uncertainly into life, David Phillips contends that things have never looked better for the CART/PPG World Series

How times change. For years critics of IndyCar have lambasted the PPG Indy Car Series for courting casual fans at temporary circuits while real fans and permanent race tracks withered on the vine.

Last month, the new Indy Racing League, conceived by one of CART’s harshest critics – Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George – staged its inaugural event on a semi-permanent oval at Disney World (nicknamed The Mickyard’ by some, in deference to Disney’s most celebrated character) in front of 50,000 of the most casual fans to view a race since the days of that most ignominious of IndyCar failures, the Meadowlands Grand Prix. Long advertised as a sell-out, the Indy 200 at Walt Disney World filled the 50,000-odd temporary seats in part thanks to the thousands of guests at the various Disney World hotels . . . who found complimentary race tickets included with their stay.

Confounding predictions that the inaugural IRL race would consist of dangerous driving and hideous carnage in equal parts, the Indy 200 came off largely without a hitch. Eliseo Salazar was seriously injured in a crash during practice, from which he is now recovering, but the fear that unqualified drivers would keep the ambulances busy proved unfounded thanks, at least in part, to the fact that USAC refused to allow the likes of Jim Buick, Rick DeLorto and Bill Tempero to participate.

Ironically, one of the most experienced drivers in the field – Eddie Cheever – proved the catalyst for what carnage there was, accounting for two of his own team’s Lola-Menards as well as the Reynard-Ford of Richie Hearn in practice and the Lola-Ford of Scott Sharp late in the race.

Two rank Indy Car rookies race winner Buzz Calkins and second place finisher Tony Stewart were the class of the field. Stewart’s performance was all the more impressive for the fact that it was his first race of any kind in a rear-engined car on pavement, not to mention the fact that he embarrassed Menard team-mates Cheever and Stott Brayton, neither of whom figured even remotely in the final outcome (apart from Cheever dispatching Sharp in a battle for fourth place).

That Stewart clearly has talent is evident. That Calkins never made hearts race in three seasons of Indy Lights says much about the quality of the team and equipment at his disposal at Disney World, to say nothing of the competition.

Two weeks later the PPG Indy Car World Series regulars assembled at Ralph Sanchez’s permanent new showcase, the Homestead Motor Sports Complex, for IndyCar’s inaugural Spring Training five days of open testing on the 1.5-mile oval and 2.2-mile infield road course. Where the IRL struggled to assemble a 20-car field for its coming out party, one which paid $125,000 to Calkins and even $10,000 to Salazar, DeLorto and Tempera, no less than 24 cars participated in Spring Training.

With a promotional budget estimated by Sanchez at $50,000, Spring Training was not likely to set any attendance records and only about 3000-4000 spectators were on hand on any one day. Then again the first three days were either cold, rainy or both. Nevertheless, Sanchez was pleased with the results, selling an average of 1000 tickets per day for the IndyCar season opener on March 3, and getting daily television and newspaper coverage.

Meanwhile, the incredible strength of the PPG Indy Car World Series was on display for all to see. It is no overstatement to say that 21 of the cars and drivers on the track in Homestead can win a race this year. Indeed, if anything, the series looks stronger than it did in 1995 with Mark Blundell, Greg Moore and Raul Boesel filling the vacancies left by the retiring Danny Sullivan, the sponsorless Teo Fabi and the Formula One bound Jacques Villeneuve, respectively. Add newcomers Alex Zanardi, Eddie Lawson, Juan Manuel Fangio II and Jeff Krosnoff and the overall talent level of IndyCar is deep, arguably even deeper than Formula One.

Speaking of Moore, the PPG/Firestone Indy Lights teams were also on hand at Homestead and that series looks stronger than ever before. No less than three powerhouse Indy Car teams Forsythe/Player’s, Tasman and Team Green – are planning full tilt programmes, for the likes of Formula Three front-runners Helio Castro Neves and Tony Kanaan, Toyota Atlantic stars David Empringham, Greg Ray and Claude Bourbonnais plus assorted other young talents like double Formula Ford 2000 champion Chris Simmons, Barber Dodge standout Andy Boss and seventime AMP Motocross champion Jeff Ward. KOOL cigarettes is coming into the series in a big way with Team Green and makes no secret of the fact they’ll add Indycars to their list in 1997 and ’98. And as the test wound up, news came that Sal Incandella’s Indy Regency team had signed Hideki Noda, briefly a member of the Larrousse F1 team, to contest a full Indy Lights season.

But back to the main event.

Paul Tracy showed every evidence that his time-has finally come, lapping more than a half a second clear of the rest for the best part of two days in his Penske PC26 before his Mercedes Benz came unglued in one of the most spectacular blow-ups in racing history. Moore, Raul Boesel (who takes Jacques Villeneuve’s place in Team Green, now known as the Brahma Sports Team), Adrian Fernandez (now with Tasman’s Indy Car team) and Scott Pruett all eventually got close to Tracy’s time.

But it was left to Jimmy Vasser to set fastest time of the test on Friday afternoon, hammering around at 195.938 mph in Chip Ganassi’s Target Reynard Honda. It could well be that the time also come for Vasser and Ganassi in 1996. They’ve certainly got a full house for openers; Reynard, Honda and Firestone, plus a team organisation that has finally matured into one the best in the sport.

But Tracy and Vasser will have their work cut out. Everywhere you look there are potential race winners, and more than a few potential champions. Tracy’s team-mate Al Unser Jnr will certainly win races and challenge for the title. So too will Robby Gordon, Gil de Ferran, Bobby Rahal, Scott Goodyear, Andre Ribeiro, Emerson and Christian Fittipaldi, Stefan Johansson, Boesendl` Fernandez, Pruett… The list goes on and Michael Andretti wasn’t even on hand at Homestead.

In fact, of the provisional lndycar starting field, the only drivers who would appear to have no chance of visiting Victory Lane in 1996 are Juan Manuel Fangio II and Jeff Krosnoff, both of whom will spend the season coping with Toyota’s first Indy Car engine, the two Payton/Coyne Lola-Fords of ever hopeless Niro Matsushita and evergreen Roberto Moreno, and the Scandia/Simon Lola-Ford of the ever overmatched Marco Greco, who will race in all the PPG events but for the US 500 on Memorial Day.

<> Take heart, Marco. There’s always the Indianapolis 500.