Old-school trio still going strong
Scott Sharp, Eddie Cheever and Robbie Buhl probably didn't fit the exact blueprint of the American driver that Tony George had in mind when the Indy Racing League was conceived.
They didn't come from America's circle tracks, with "grass roots" followings from Saturday night devotees who can name sprint-car racers the general public has never heard of and can honestly say they knew the big shot drivers before they hit it big.
Ironically, all three men's backgrounds seem at odds with what many in the racing community thought the IRL was going to be back in the beginning. But today, with the IRL on the verge of tallying its 100th race when it runs this weekend at Nazareth Speedway, all three of those are tangible links from the league's past to its present.
And they realize just how different things look today than from the IRL's first race at Walt Disney World Speedway in '96, when Buzz Calkins took the checkered flag.
"I was a believer in what Tony was trying to create with his series," said Buhl, a two-time winner in the IndyCar Series who retired from driving earlier this year to focus on his duties as co-owner of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. "It provided some opportunity. I remember that first race at Disney World and what was required to make that happen and now you go to the paddock and it's quite a different look. It's amazing how far it has come along."
"It's been exciting," said Cheever, a current team owner whose five IRL wins as a driver include the 1998 Indianapolis 500. "It was a new concept. It was about opportunity and about getting all the drivers at the starting line with similar cars and similar chances. It's a very aggressive series and it has evolved a lot. Technology has gotten better. But the concept has remained consistent."
While many endlessly debate the ideals of the league upon its conception and its current course (which includes road course racing at Watkins Glen and Infineon Raceway for 2005), it is safe to say that times, at the very least, have changed.
It was rarely publicly stated, but one of the rationales for the creation of the IRL was to again make USAC sprint and midget racing relevant springboards into the Indianapolis 500 and major open-wheel racing. But the days when guys like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock and the Unser brothers walked that path with Indy-style racing as their ultimate destination are gone for good.
USAC's front-engine, tube-frame cars that race exclusively on oval tracks offer perfect preparation instead for NASCAR, having almost nothing in common with the rear-engine single seaters that have been the norm in Champ Cars and the IRL since the 1960s.
For that reason, it shouldn't be a surprise that drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and the late Kenny Irwin found USAC a perfect training ground for NASCAR. The IRL recognized that and created the Infiniti Pro Series as a training ground in 2002, but it will take several more years for that series to produce winning IndyCar Series drivers.
Instead, the IRL has generally attracted drivers who found themselves without options in CART and who hailed from a variety of different backgrounds. Sharp road raced Trans-Am sports cars with great success before an inconclusive single season in Champ Cars; Cheever came up through the European road racing ranks, graduating from Formula 3 to Formula 1 as a 20-year old before trying his hand at American open-wheel racing with CART from 1990-95; and Buhl climbed the CART ladder system, culminating in an Indy Lights championship.
When their hopes of continuing in Champ Cars eventually were dashed, all three looked to the IRL -- and all found success. Sharp ended the IRL's initial three-race 1996 campaign as series co-champion with Calkins (another Indy Lights product), while Cheever and Buhl have also won IndyCar Series races. Cheever, who has operated his own IRL team since 1997, hasn't officially announced his retirement from driving, but it appears likely that he will soon acknowledge that his days in the cockpit are done.
For this trio, the IRL simply represented opportunity -- and all three grasped it to good effect.
"I always felt like when the IRL was at its inception a lot of its premises really made sense," Sharp said. "CART budgets at the time were getting out of control, like $32 million for two cars at Newman/Haas and some other teams. No one likes a split, but I think everyone felt that was a great factor. I think everyone felt in some form the IRL would be around this long, but I had no idea that I would be around with it."
Indeed, the 36-year old Sharp has emerged as the IndyCar Series' most experienced driver. This weekend's Firestone Indy 225 at Nazareth Speedway will be his 95th start out of a possible 100, eight of which resulted in victories. The only events Sharp missed came in 1997 when a pair of crashes left him concussed and on the sideline. He is impressed with the safety gains made by the IRL since then.
"Think back to '97 at how stiff those cars were, the lack of absorption, especially in a rear impact," he said. "They were having light crashes G-force wise that were transferring directly to the driver. Tremendous gains have been made in the gearbox, the bell housing and the whole cockpit area. We have some pretty impressive absorption in the seats now and the same kind of foam all around our heads. The gearbox is lighter and more crushable and all that has been huge.
"Plus Tony George's pioneering of the soft wall was humongous," he added. "A couple years ago we were all at the point where we thought the improvement to the safety of the cars was great, but we've had the same old concrete wall for 25 years. We felt the tracks had to start doing something and luckily Tony and Delphi were willing to pony up some dollars. They did a lot of testing and wrote off so many cars. Now to see all these different tracks buy into that and put them in is tremendous. That's a direct 40 percent reduction in G's."
Cheever observes that the arrival from the Champ Car series of Honda and Toyota, as well as many of the top CART teams, has raised the bar in the IRL in terms of technology and credibility. But Sharp sees it as a double-edged sword.
"I have a unique perspective because I have gone from one of the 'have' teams to, sad to say, one of the 'have not' teams," Sharp said. "So I've seen both sides. But every form of motorsport has 'haves' and 'have nots.' People are always going to have money to spend so you're never going to be able to totally control that.
"More recently, the obvious factor is the manufacturers," he said. "Roger Penske came over and the other larger teams more or less followed him. And that brought a new set of challenges. There are critics who want to say the IRL is starting to look a lot like CART used to look. That's going to be a challenge, to have the players you want to have in the series with aggressive manufacturers who clearly want to win, yet have some semblance of cost control. The perception of technical partners as well as their promotion of the sport are important."
Sharp believes that the IRL's management team has so far been able to keep control of the manufacturers to avoid a repeat of what happened in CART, where infighting between Honda and Toyota eventually caused both to depart the series.
"I think the IRL has done a pretty good job of maintaining the image of a technical series," he said. "At the end of the day, we have some pretty sophisticated race cars that can run 235 mph. That makes the average fan say 'Wow!' Compared to a production car or even a NASCAR stock car, that's a fighter plane with wheels on it.
"But at the same time, I think they have done a fairly good job of limiting the kind of gains that dollars can get you by stabilizing things like wing rules and limiting testing. All of that has helped and it will be interesting to see how the next steps go because obviously there is a pretty good gap right now developing between the front 12 and the rest of the field. If the engines were more equal, you'd get a better mix of guys running at the front."
All three men share the opinion that the IRL produces the closest and most exciting racing in the world. Sharp believes the next challenge is to increase the size of the IRL's fan base, especially on television, where races continue to pull lackluster ratings.
"Certainly the biggest issue facing the IRL right now is television ratings," he said. "As competitive as the sports marketing arena is and looking at the ratings that NASCAR gets, it's an area that the IRL needs to improve quickly in, otherwise you're not going to attract the sponsors and keep the series growing. It would lead to more cars and healthier events and that should be the IRL's No. 1 focus right now."
Buhl definitely sees the IRL's glass as more than half-full as it heads into its 100-race birthday.
"This is still growing," Buhl said. "We need to gain some fans and keep building our fan base. The on-track racing is as good as any I can remember and that's an excellent ingredient. The racing has always been at the forefront, but there has been a lot of evolution in terms of making the series competitive as well as safe. That's a tricky balance, but the league is very proactive in terms of trying to make things safer and better for teams and drivers.
"We just have to keep growing the series and the teams like ours. I want to be a competitive team 10 years from now."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.