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Slow and steady wins the race

8/26/2004

"You've come a long way, baby," was the tagline for a famous tobacco advertising campaign in the 1970s. The same thing could be said for the Indy Racing League, which will celebrate a significant milestone with its 100th race this weekend at Nazareth Speedway.

Ten years ago, the IRL was little more than a vision in the head of Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Anton H. "Tony" George, who took over the reins of the family's world famous racetrack in 1989 at the tender age of 29.

Having purchased the Speedway in 1946 and saved it from ruin, George's grandfather Tony Hulman essentially took control of American open-wheel racing in 1955 and held it in his grip until he died in 1977. Hulman's death exposed a void in the sport's leadership, which led to a group of car owners banding together as Championship Auto Racing Teams in 1979 to run the sport. A bitter three-year power struggle between CART and the United States Auto Club (which was little more than a regulatory extension of IMS) ensued.

By 1981, CART emerged victorious over USAC, but the Indianapolis 500 always maintained independence -- though it counted as a points paying round of the CART championship. The sport changed dramatically under CART's leadership in the '80s, with road and street courses replacing many of the classic oval venues on the schedule, and increasingly, teams looked to road racers, often foreign-born, to replace the well-known American stars of the sport as their careers ended.

Despite the success CART's PPG Indy Car World Series achieved with its popular road and street races, this trend did not sit well with George, who felt the sanctity of the Indianapolis 500 and open-wheel oval racing in general was being undermined. As such, in November 1991, George made a presentation at a CART Board meeting in Houston to explain his idea of the direction the sport should take. He identified five key issues:

  • To control escalating costs

  • To fairly and objectively determine the rules

  • To develop and cultivate corporate sponsors

  • To develop and maintain a feeder system for drivers and mechanics

  • To unify the Indy Car Series with the Indianapolis 500

    George proposed a seven-man board to govern the sport, with representation from IMS, the series sponsor, two car owners, a driver, an at-large representative, and a commissioner. But his plan was summarily rebuffed by the team owners who made up the CART board.

    Looking back on that moment in 1996, George told the Indianapolis 500 Yearbook: "I don't necessarily want to control Indy Car racing. But I do want to be involved in the control of it. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway should be part of the process. At Houston, I saw guys sitting around the table voting on the future of Indy Car racing who had no more than a year or so's interest in the sport. They had a vote, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did not."

    Realizing he would not have the support of CART in his endeavor, George went his own way. On March 11, 1994, he announced the formation of the Indy Racing League, with racing to commence in Jan. 1996 at a purpose-built temporary oval at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

    "It was to establish a structure for governance of the sport that had a broader base of leadership," George said at the time. "It's to encourage present and future investment in the sport and get some more permanent facilities built in major markets…to get a schedule that is more representative of American-style racing to build a strong series that the Speedway feels comfortable being a part of and feels comfortable knowing it was a part of the decision-making process."

    The inaugural IRL championship was comprised of just three races -- Disney, Phoenix and Indianapolis. The future plan was for races in the second half of the calendar year to combine with the races leading up to Indy to have the season championship determined at Indianapolis. But that format was abandoned after 1997 and the IRL reverted to a traditional calendar year schedule with an autumn finale.

    Part of the IRL's effort to control costs came in the form of a dramatically dumbed-down racing car compared to the turbocharged machines run in CART. But the IRL car would not be ready until 1997, so the 1996 season was run utilizing 1995-spec CART equipment.

    The most controversial aspect of the initial IRL season was the reservation of three-quarters of the Indianapolis 500 field for IRL regulars. The so-called "25-and-8 Rule" left only eight positions on the Indy grid available for at-large competitors -- in other words, the 28 car and driver combinations that competed on the CART circuit. That group so opposed the formation of the IRL that CART staged a competing 500-mile race at Roger Penske's Michigan International Speedway known as the U.S. 500 on the same day as the Indianapolis 500.

    Lacking the participation from CART's teams and drivers, the IRL nonetheless assembled a 20-car field for its inaugural event at Disney World. Buddy Lazier, who had never qualified higher than 16th or finished better than seventh in a CART race between 1990 and '95, took pole position, while Buzz Calkins, a mid-field Indy Lights runner, dominated and won the race.

    Of more significance was the man who finished second -- rising USAC circle-track star Tony Stewart. The IRL rule package allowed extra power for overhead valve engines like the Buick-based unit run by the Menard team, and Stewart used the horsepower advantage at his disposal to great effect. The 'Rushville Rocket' was just what the IRL was looking for -- a homegrown hero who came up through the ranks the old-fashioned way -- and Stewart remained the IRL's poster boy until he left the series for the lucrative world of NASCAR following the 1998 season, having won the 1997 IRL championship.

    Despite the lack of CART stars who were embarrassing themselves with a multi-car first lap accident in the U.S. 500, the IRL assembled a full field for the 1996 Indianapolis 500. In fact it was more than full, because a rules dispute prompted the League to start 35 cars in a race that was won by a recovering Lazier. The Colorado native broke his back two months earlier in a massive accident at Phoenix triggered by Lyn St. James, but he endured the pain to win the biggest race of his life on a day when millions of eyes were focused on American open-wheel racing.

    Almost forgotten now is the fact that the IRL's initial three-race campaign produced co-champions -- Calkins and Scott Sharp. An ad jingle for Calkins' sponsor, the Indiana state Lottery, said that Calkins would "keep on winning and never be forgotten." But he subsequently was forgotten after never again matching his winning Orlando form.

    Sharp, meanwhile, became an IRL fixture; Nazareth will represent his record 95th IRL race, having missed five starts due to injuries in 1997.

    Although the IRL struggled to fill the 33-car Indianapolis field in 2003 and '04, the League itself is in a much stronger position than it was back in 1996. Since 2002, most of the top CART teams, drivers, sponsors and manufacturers have switched allegiance to the IRL, and the series formerly known as CART (the Champ Car World Series) is dramatically weaker as a result. Those developments, along with the IRL's introduction of road and street racing for 2005, have the League's detractors claiming that the IRL has simply morphed into the old CART, albeit under George's control.

    CART's loss is the IRL's gain, and the chief challenges facing the League's leaders (George, Brian Barnhart on the racing side and Ken Ungar on the business side) are to continue improving the IRL's safety record and to maintain control of the rules and prevent manufacturers from gaining too much political clout -- the key factor that led to the downfall of CART.

    The League's other major issue -- disappointing race attendance in many markets and a lack of a committed television fan base -- will be on display at Nazareth this weekend, where the qualifying crowd will probably be just a few hundred and race attendance is unlikely to top 20,000. Miniscule and still declining television ratings aren't likely to change this week, either.

    Having said that, the Indy Racing League is operating from the strongest position in its 10-year history, and with the solid backing of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Hulman-George family behind it, the IRL is likely to continue its path of slow, measured growth. It will be interesting to record the League's progress and impact through its second hundred races, sometime in the year 2010 …

    John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.