POSTCARD FROM AMERICA

Pat on the comeback

The 1990s have seen IndyCar racing dominated by two men and their teams: Roger Penske and Carl Haas. Together, Marlboro Penske and Newman/ Haas Racing have won 50 races, including three Indianapolis 500s, and three PPG championships.

It was not always so. Throughout the 1980s a third man matched Penske and Haas in terms of on-track success and off-track influence: Pat Patrick. One of CART's founders, Patrick also fathered the Firestone Indy Lights Championship (né American Racing Series) while overseeing a team that won 16 IndyCar races during the 1980s.

But after winning the PPG title and his second Indianapolis 500 in 1989, Patrick entered into a shotgun marriage with Alfa Romeo that lasted two seasons before he sold the team to Bobby Rahal and Carl Hogan and quit IndyCar racing entirely.

Now he's back. The former accountant turned oil — well wildcatter will re-enter IndyCar racing with the full support of Bridgestone/Firestone as Firestone itself returns to the sport after a 20-year absence. As befitting the phoenix-like return of Patrick and Firestone, the team's Lola T95/ 00-Cosworth will be piloted by Scott Pruett, a man who's been counted out more times than George Foreman.

At the same time, after an interminable gestation period, Formual Indy Lights is finally making the kind of impact that Patrick and co-founders John Frasco and Ralph Sanchez intended. 1990 champion Paul Tracy is now a hot property in both IndyCars and F1, '93 champion Bryan Herta has signed with Chip Ganassi and Reynard, '92 champion Adrian Fernandez had a solid season with Galles Racing, '89 champion Mike Groff is Honda's fair-haired boy (if not Rahal/Hogan's) and Tasman Racing, winner of the past two FIL championships, will be moving into IndyCar racing with Indy Lights rookie of the year Andre Ribeiro.

It all adds up to a remarkable comeback for a man many figured had entered his last IndyCar race when he sold Patrick Racing's assets to Rahal and Hogan three years ago. And it's fair to say that Firestone has been the catalyst on both the FIL and IndyCar fronts.

Many critics figured Patrick had cut the figurative throat of the Indy Lights series when he put together the deal that brought Firestone back into big time open wheel racing in 1991. With CART already taking an indifferent attitude to the series, the public slap in the face to Goodyear was viewed as utter heresy. In fact, Firestone's backing. plus the equally bold decision to build new Lola chassis for the 1993 season, may well have saved the series.

"I'm very pleased with the direction the Indy Lights has gone in the past few years," says Patrick. "Roger Bailey has done an exemplary job as president of the series. There's no doubt that the move to Firestone was a big step, and so was the decision to go to new chassis. We had 21 cars at Laguna Seca, we've had some excellent drivers come out of the series and we've got more excellent drivers still in it.

"It's the most cost effective series in professional racing; Greg Moore won three races this year and spent $450,000, which is not significantly more than it cost to do the series when we started it back in 1986. Now Andrew Craig has really taken it under his wing and I expect it to grow significantly in the coming years."

And Firestone was the driving force in the re-formation of Patrick Racing. In May of 1993 Firestone went public with its plans to re-enter IndyCar racing, and last October announced that Patrick Racing would spend the 1994 season testing and developing its IndyCar tyres.

"After I sold the team, I stayed in contact with IndyCar racing through Indy Lights." recalls Patrick. "Firestone's racing director Al Speyer indicated they intended to eventually go IndyCar racing, although I had no interest in getting back into IndyCar racing at the time. But after I realised the potential advantages in going IndyCar racing with Firestone I decided to do it. If Firestone hadn't come back I wouldn't be involved with the IndyCar series."

Patrick's reborn team bears more than a passing resemblance to the team he sold to Rahal and Hogan. Steve Newey, who engineered the Lola-Alfa well enough that Danny Sullivan set fastest lap at Phoenix in 1991, has been working as team manager while long-time Patrick stalwart Jim McGee has parted company with Newman/Haas Racing to rejoin Patrick as general manager.

The testing programme has gone as well as could be hoped. Attempting to match actual race conditions as much as possible, the team has tested at a variety of circuits in the days immediately following this year's IndyCar events. Results have been encouraging. . .

A couple of days after Emerson Fittipaldi took pole at Nazareth with a lap of 19.397s, Pruett turned a 19.444s in Patrick's '94 Lola-Ford/Cosworth and ran scores of laps in the mid-19s. Similarly, Pruett was less than a tenth of a second off Al Unser Ines pole time at Mid-Ohio and ran a lap of 225.423 mph at Indianapolis, compared to Unser's four lap average of 228.011 that earned pole for the 500.

Of course, many of Patrick's past problems were of his own making. The original ARS was created with little effort given to integrating it with the existing Super Vee and Formula Atlantic series. But Buick's support of the ARS outlasted Volkswagen's commitment to Super Vee and as Formula Atlantic expenses have climbed, Patrick's spec chassis/engine lease formula has proven increasingly attractive.

And the racing world knows all about the chain of events that led to the sale of Patrick's team in 1991, coming after he was unable to secure a competitive engine package in the wake of Alfa Romeo's departure, due to the fact Patrick Racing provided the Italians with what Ilmor considered to be proprietary information in the final days of his association with Chevrolet in 1989.

"I was disappointed in the way Chevrolet and Ilmor handled the engine situation. It showed a lack of maturity; some people don't realise there are compromises in everything," he says, with a broad grin.

Many saw the Ilmor saga as just deserts for one of IndyCar racing's consummate politicians, having formed CART together with Roger Penske et al and who later came to be counted among the "haves" when the "have nots" like Andy Kenopensky, Dick Simon and Steve Home tried to wrest control of CART from Frasco and his cadre of grandee team owners. ,

But that was then and this is now. After a tumultuous three years under Bill Stokkan CART has at long last found the top flight administrator the team owners have longed for, a man who the "have nots" can trust to be impartial and the "haves" can trust to effectively administer the organisation.

"From what I've seen of Andrew Craig," says Patrick, "I've been very impressed."

So for now anyway, Patrick can concentrate on maintaining FIL's new-found momentum and go racing with his own team in the series he founded 16 years ago: racing against the likes of Haas and his old rival and business associate Roger Penske.

"Our testing has gone well. We're extremely happy with Firestone's support. Everything we've asked for they've done their best to accommodate. We're gonna be extremely competitive," says Patrick. "It's a tough series. Look at Roger Penske, this is the first time he's won the championship since 1988 and he's the best in the business. I don't think that'll be a problem. We'll beat him."

Just the sort of brash self-confidence a man needs to make, lose and remake several fortunes in the petroleum industry or to make, lose and remake one of the best teams in IndyCar racing. D P