Go Buddy, go!

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The fragile truce in American single-seater racing appears to have been broken by a few ill-timed observations…

Just when it seemed peace was about to break out in Indycar racing along came Emmett “Buddy” Jobe and the Slick 50 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. Or was it the Pyroil 200?

The title sponsor of the race depended on how and where you watched it. Those in attendance at the desert mile got a full dose of Slick 50 propaganda; those watching on television saw the Pyroil 200 thanks to the fact that every IndyCar sanctioning agreement permits the organisation to sell the television rights to a different sponsor than the promoter if said promoter is unable to sell the television rights on his own.

It’s been a bone of contention between Jobe and IndyCar for years, but this time Buddy used the issue to announce he is casting his lot with Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George’s fledgling Indy Racing League.

“It became more and more apparent as time went on that (IndyCar’s) direction and attitude was that there wasn’t a whole lot of consideration given to the promoter or the direction of the sport,” said Jobe in The Arizona Republic.

“We refuse to be responsible for the incompetence of others,” said IndyCar president Andrew Craig.

Not content with burning his bridges with IndyCar, Jobe gave just about everyone (including Goodyear’s Leo Mehl) a hard time with credentials and parking passes and then proceeded to insult anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of motor sport by saying the burgeoning contingent of Brazilian IndyCar drivers had bought their rides.

That brought an angry reaction from Jim Hall, who tried for several days to get Buddy to retract his statement. In the end, Jobe did IndyCar racing a favour by serving as the catalyst for perhaps the most eloquent statement yet made about the issue of “foreign” drivers in IndyCar racing.

“Such an inference reflects unfairly on my team, my driver (Gil de Ferran) and my sponsors, Pennzoil,” said Hall. We have the best drivers in the world competing here at Phoenix, which is a great showcase for our sport. Because of the worldwide popularity of IndyCar racing, this race will be seen on television in 13 countries. The spectacle is not hurt but is enhanced by the presence of so many talented foreign drivers. With such competition on the track, it makes it all the more significant that the championship is held by the great American driver Al Unser Jnr. The best competition attracts the best people…

In other respects, though, the timing of Jobe’s tantrum was regrettable. There had been signs of compromise between IndyCar and Tony George. In March USAC announced it was deferring implementation of the IRL rules package indefinitely — thus enabling anyone in possession of a current Indycar to compete in the IRL. More importantly, the IRL put-off a showdown with IndyCar and the current chassis and engine manufacturers.

What’s more, there was a growing belief that by putting his money where his mouth has long been and bankrolling a new oval track at Disney World and giving his blessing to plans for a new speedway in Las Vegas, George had begun the process of acquiring some of the influence he has so long coveted. Were George and IndyCar able to come to an agreement to roll the Disney World and Vegas tracks into the existing PPG schedule, Tony would have become, in effect, a super promoter. In so doing, he would have earned the respect of the IndyCar team owners rather than simply inheriting a lot of power by ascending to the IMS throne.

But the fiasco in Phoenix left Indycar racing more polarised than ever. Such was the mood in Phoenix that an IRL cocktail party was shunned by most of IndyCar’s influential powers including Goodyear and PPG and every team owner save for IMS sycophant Al Foyt.

Bob Thomas, executive director of the IRL, was on hand at Phoenix and Long Beach, talking a strong line about the future of his series, one he says will get more of America’s traditional oval track drivers into Indycar racing instead of ‘road racers’. (As we’ve long suspected, the IRL boosters’ problem with IndyCar isn’t so much that there aren’t enough American drivers as that they’re the wrong kind of American drivers.)

Thomas also expressed confidence in having representative fields in the IRL.

“You’ve got a couple of CART’s current franchise teams, plus the teams that usually just run Indianapolis,” he said. “There were two drivers at Phoenix – a former Indy 500 winner (Arie Luyendyk) and the current track record holder (Roberto Guerrero) – looking for full time rides and I’ve had maybe 18 enquiries from people who want to start new Indycar teams for the IRL.”

Let’s see – that’s AJ Foyt, possibly Dick Simon and Ron Hemelgarn, Jonathan Byrd and possibly Vince Granatelli and John Menard, though the latter’s sanity would have to seriously questioned if he races with the IRL after his push-rod programme was torpedoed by USAC. So that gives us a race at Disney World with Eddie Cheever, Eliseo Salazar, Dean Hall, Carlos Guerrero, Stan Fox and, possibly, two men who’ve actually won Indycar races Luyendyk and Guerrero.

Compare those projections to the reality of the 1995 PPG Indy Car World Series, which boasts six former national champions, one former F1 champion, two WSPC champions, four Indy 500 winners and nine men who’ve won Indycar races among its regulars: which saw the first 21 cars qualify within a second of the pole at Phoenix and which, in the first four races, has seen 10 different drivers on the podium And which now boasts competition among two major tyre manufacturers, three chassis manufacturers and three engine manufacturers with a fourth to come.

The season opener at Miami was a sellout and the only tickets available at Long Beach were general admission – all the grandstands seats were sold and the total gate for the weekend topped 200,000. Although Long claims IndyCar television ratings are down, IndyCar’s figures show the number of households watching the Surfers Paradise and Phoenix races are up 39 per cent compared to last year.

No wonder there’s a growing consensus that IndyCar is in a strong position, one that figures to get only stronger when Penske’s new California Speedway comes on line (the project recently passed a major political hurdle when its environmental impact and overall plan were recommended for approval by the San Bernardino County commissioners). And for all the talk of Las Vegas joining the IRL fold, the promoters have not committed to the IRL and, in fact, continue to talk in earnest with IndyCar.

IndyCar holds most of the cards. As such, there is no compelling reason for Craig and the team owners to make a “bad deal” with George and the IRL. Indeed, history shows that by making anything less than a great deal, IndyCar will only set itself up for Tony George and the USAC diehards to take another run at them a few years down the line.