Room for hope?

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While NASCAR’s arrival at Indianapolis has captured public imagination and the headlines IndyCar racing’s future has quietly been taking shape

The last five months have not been kind to Tony George and the Indiana polis Motor Speedway. Widely criticised for being a party to the rules that led to the dullest Indy 500 in years, George was quite naturally at the epicentre of the controversy surrounding his proposed new Indy Racing League.

Coming at a time when CART finally seemed to have got its act together, what with the fortuitous interest of former International Sports and Leisure guru Andrew Craig in the presidency and a convergence of events that brought Honda and several strong new teams into the PPG Series while Mercedes, Toyota and Bridgestone loomed on the horizon, the timing of George’s power play couldn’t have been worse. What’s more, the manner in which the Speedway handled the initial announcement of the new series, coupled with the lack of an orchestrated follow-up, was amateurish in the extreme. And when after three months of silence the Speedway named career bureaucrat Jerome Hauer to head the development of the new series, then announced a Who’s Who of American Racing Fossils for the IRL’s Board of Governors, it only served to galvanise the hitherto contentious CART team owners.

In the face of such ineptitude, Craig – who didn’t even officially take the job as CART president until March 31 – was calm and collected and proved to be a devastating counter puncher.

The conventional wisdom when George announced his intentions to form a series was that the race promoters would be the key to the coming battle. Some, like Phoenix International Raceway’s Buddy Jobe and Long Beach’s Chris Pook, have had long-running battles with CART. Roger Penske, of course, has had an ambivalent attitude towards his fellow team owners who have seldom missed an opportunity to publicly embarrass him despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that without him CART would long ago have become a memory. Back in March, it didn’t take much imagination to see Tony’s series anchored around Indianapolis, Phoenix, Long Beach and CART-hater Joe Mattioli’s Pocono International Raceway. Throw in the two existing Penske tracks (with the California Speedway yet to come), perhaps New Hampshire and thanks to the Speedway’s new alliance with Bill France a couple of NASCAR tracks like Richmond, Atlanta and Watkins Glen, and you had the makings of an attractive schedule.

But as the Speedway dawdled through April, May and into tune in silence, Craig was hard at work stealing Tony’s thunder. By mid-June he’d secured long-term contracts with Surfers Paradise, Milwaukee, Detroit, Portland, Cleveland, Toronto, MidOhio, Vancouver, Road America and, here’s the key, the two existing Penske tracks at Michigan and Nazareth, with the promise of the California Speedway in the years ahead. With Laguna Seca and New Hampshire all but locked-in as well, Tony was left with the Speedway and a lot of decidedly unattractive possibilities. So up until last week the media gleefully pounded away at the punching bag George had so thoughtfully provided in the form of a rule-less, schedule-less IRL, whose only employee was a former head of the Indiana state disaster agency.

It was too good to last. First, to the consternation of Tony-bashers, the inaugural NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Speedway, the Brickyard 400 on August 6, proved to be a success of some magnitude. Just what magnitude remains to be seen. From Day One, horror stories had circulated about the sale and distribution of tickets. The Speedway, used to running the world’s biggest sporting event on autopilot, was simply overwhelmed at the prospect of putting together the world’s second largest racing event. As a result, there was no rhyme or reason to the way ticket requests were filled, with some long-time Indy 500 goers left out in the cold even as tickets by the hundreds were distributed to people and organisations on the very periphery of the sport.

No doubt about it, attendance at practice and qualifying on Thursday was laughably poor. But there were upwards of 85-100,000 in the stands on Friday, even as touts outside the gates talked of selling tickets at or below face value on race day. Whether they gave tickets away or not is hard to say. But on race day the stands were full if not exactly jammed.

And the race was good, not great at least to the impartial observer. To George, Hoosiers the world over and NASCAR’s true believers, of course, it was the greatest race in the history of the sport, especially given the fact that Indiana’s own Jeff Gordon won.

A few days later, George’s star took another step in the ascendancy when the engine rules for the IRL were finally announced. Far from some ridiculous iteration of the push rod/stock block rules that had wrecked the Indy 500 that many expected, the IRL rules mandating 2.2-litre V8s with 45 in of boost actually made some sense, given Tony’s avowed intention of limiting speeds at Indianapolis and other superspeedways on the still-mythical IRL schedule.

And, in a development that could only be described as stunning in its good sense, the IRL and USAC drove a stake into the heart of the equivalency formula for once and for all. What’s more, they revised USAC’s earlier decision to reduce the boost on the hated 209 push rods from 55 in to 52 with a further reduction to 48.

Until last week then, the saga of the IRL and CART was developing along the lines of a medieval morality play, such were the shades of grey between good and evil. Now with their sensible engine rules package. George and the IRL have proven they can listen to reason.

So one begins to wonder just how long CART’s new-found solidarity will last if the Speedway and IRL bring enough pressure to bear on the marginally-funded teams which, despite all the happy face talk emanating from CART and its team owners, includes more than the traditional low budget teams like Dale Coyne and Euromotorsports. A lot more teams, with names and name drivers, are closer to insolvency than CART would have us believe.

In the short term, the rules should make it easier for the CART solidarity to hold. The biggest potential hazard was the 1995 Indianapolis 500 when Penske would have been forced to choose between his loyalty to CART and his obligation to his sponsors and team to field the equipment with best chance of winning. Even with 52 in of boost that spelled Mercedes Benz 209; at 48 in Penske now has an out that will enable him to run a conventional 2.65-litre Mercedes-badged Iimor and maintain CART’s solidarity.

Together with Craig, Hauer and Penske have been perhaps the two voices of reason throughout the process. Is it possible that in the IRL engine rules package we have the beginnings of the makings of a compromise that will both save face for George and bring him some of the influence he publicly desires, without handing him the keys, lock stock and barrel, which most observers believe is what he privately craves? Stay tuned. D P

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