Twenty cars unlikely for IndyCar opener

Updated: February 20, 2004, 1:13 PM ET
Associated Press

There shouldn't be many traffic jams on the track when the Indy Racing League opens the season.

Only 18 drivers have secured deals for the race Feb. 29 in Homestead, Fla., despite all the strides made in the open-wheel series since its founding in 1996.

Al Unser Jr.
Unser Jr.
Among those who probably will be sitting on the sideline, at least for the first race: two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. and Sarah Fisher.

"It's a very tight sponsorship market with lots of competition," said Fred Nation, the right-hand man to IRL president Tony George. "We've got several teams close to final deals. Some will get there. Some won't."

Last year, every IRL race had at least 21 cars. At Homestead, where Nation is hopeful that at least one more car will complete a sponsorship deal, there probably won't be more than 19.

He blames a still-recovering economy and the tight sponsorship market, which has been felt all the way to the Daytona 500 in the more-popular NASCAR Nextel Cup series. Only 45 cars attempted to qualify for Sunday's race -- eight fewer than a year ago.

"Everybody's wanting more this year as far as cars," Nation said. "I know Daytona is a little lower than usual."

While the economy has shown definite signs of being on the upswing, including corporate earnings and Wall Street performance, the results haven't fully trickled down to the IRL.

"That's what we're hearing from our car owners," Nation said. "It has not improved to the extent that they hoped it would."

That's not all.

"There's increased competition for motorsports as well as all sports," Nation said. "More people are vying for the same or a very slowly growing pot of dollars. It's tight."

Car owner Derrick Walker, who has fielded entries in both the IRL and the renamed Champ Car series, is still trying to work out a deal to race somewhere in 2004.

"Wherever we can raise money, I'll go race," Walker said Wednesday.

In a perfect world, the IRL would like to have 10 to 12 well-financed teams and around 24 regular drivers. But Nation pointed out that the series is much more competitive and well-run than it was in the formative years -- even if the fields were larger then.

As an older open-wheel series, CART, spiraled into bankruptcy, IRL lured away top organizations such as Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing and more prominent drivers, including Helio Castroneves and defending champion Scott Dixon.

"Yes, we're down a few cars," Nation said. "But the teams we have are pretty solid. Some are more solid than others, but our core is well-sponsored, well-run, competitive teams."

Unser raced last season for Tom Kelley, who cut back to a one-car operation for 2004. Even though Little Al is coming off a solid year -- sixth in the points, a victory at Texas Motor Speedway -- he's still scrambling to find a ride. So is Fisher, the only woman in the series last year.

"These are people we need," Nation said. "These are people the fans like to see racing."

Then again, it must be noted that Unser is 41, has battled alcohol problems and was seriously hurt in a snowmobile accident during the offseason. Fisher, while popular with the fans, has never been very successful on the track.

Fisher and several other drivers have lined up one-race deals for the Indy 500, which traditionally has a 33-car field. The IRL is hopeful that some of those cars will find the money to make it to other tracks.

Nation isn't worried about having enough cars to fill out the field at Indianapolis.

"There's no great concern over it," he said. "It's a little too early to tell right now, but we have a number of existing teams that told us they will add entries for Indy. There are several one-off deals we are aware of. So we expect to have a full field for Indy."

As Walker pointed out, there should be at least 36 open-wheel racers this year. The problem is: They're divided between two rival series.

Champ Cars, which picked up the remains of CART, plans a 15-race season with at least 18 cars, including defending CART champion Paul Tracy.

For now, there's no sign of a reconciliation, which most believe is vital to rebuilding open-wheel racing to the popularity it once enjoyed.

"If we had one series, we would have about 36 cars," Walker said. "Thirty-six cars trying to get into any given race. That would be what we see in NASCAR. That would be a hell of a show. The Indy 500 would be what it used to be.

"That's the dilemma we have. We have two series. It needs to be one."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press