Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti scored a one-two sweep for Chip Ganassi’s team at the Kansas Speedway on Saturday. Until last weekend Ganassi’s IRL team had struggled through an indifferent start to the season, but his drivers were supreme on the 1.5-mile Kansas oval in the last race before the 94th Indianapolis 500 on May 30.
The Kansas race gave Dixon and Franchitti confidence going into the ‘month of May’ event – shortened these days to just two weekends. The pair were very quick at Indianapolis last year but both hit trouble in the pits and got stuck in traffic at the end of the 500, while Helio Castroneves motored to his third Indy win. Castroneves finished fourth in Kansas last weekend behind Tony Kanaan and ahead of Long Beach winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. Championship leader Will Power endured his least competitive race of the year so far, qualifying seventh and finishing 12th, two laps behind the winner. At this stage the Indy 500 looks like a repeat of recent years with Ganassi, Penske and Andretti as the clear team favourites.
The race in Kansas underlined two of the IRL’s big problems. First, restarts aside, the race was another dull display of follow-the-leader. The cars are not only clunky and outdated in appearance, but also way too constrained in power and overall performance so that they look and sound more like Indy Lights cars than proper, beast-like Indycars. As we all know, the current long-running Dallara-Honda spec car combination seriously lacks for spectacle and appeal.
The other concern at Kansas was the worrying absence of fans, with a crowd estimated at no more than 15,000 and swathes of empty seats. The IRL has struggled with crowd numbers at many races, and at ovals in particular, but has allowed itself to be pushed into an even weaker position at some oval tracks by running as a Saturday support show. In Kansas the Indycars were reduced to Busch league status as a second-line act to NASCAR’s featured Truck series on Sunday.
This is one of the many issues that the IRL’s new CEO Randy Bernard is tackling. Bernard is up to his ears trying to determine the correct new Indycar formula for 2012 (it may have to be pushed back to 2013) but he’s also trying to bring back some of the better races from CART’s heyday. Over the last 10 years in the midst of the CART/IRL civil war the combination of CART, Champ Car and the IRL contrived to destroy no fewer than 36 races – 18 oval tracks, nine temporary or street circuits and nine permanent road courses have vanished or been driven away from Indycar racing.
The fans and media in these markets have been badly abused by Indycar racing and Bernard is trying to find which of these venues might be ready to gamble on bringing back the IRL. He’s been talking to road courses like Laguna Seca and Elkhart Lake, and ovals like Milwaukee and New Hampshire. If the IRL is to rebuild its lost identity it’s essential to leave tracks like Kansas behind and return to venues such as these four. Here’s hoping Bernard can convince the tracks to take the gamble.