INDIANAPOLIS -- It would be hypocritical for me to criticize Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George for branching out into team ownership. After all, CART was organized and run by team owners for its 25-year run, the Champ Car World Series is owned by three team operators, and I often get branded as being loyal to that form of racing.
But it was a bit shocking to hear that George named the team he bought to provide his stepson Ed Carpenter with a ride, 'Vision Racing.' If there is one catchphrase that keeps coming back to haunt George since the formation of the IndyCar Series and its subsequent run, it is that word: vision.
IndyCar Series critics and fans alike are quite familiar with the word -- almost like an inside joke -- and it more often than not isn't used in a flattering manner.
It is unlikely that George's vision 10 years ago for the future of the Indianapolis 500 and American open-wheel racing included dramatically reduced car counts, race attendance, sponsor interest and television ratings. But all of those things have happened in that 10-year period.
Ultimately it could be argued that George's move into car ownership is good for the sport and the 500. If the IndyCar Series' worst-case scenario pans out and Toyota and Honda follow Chevrolet by bolting from the series after the 2006 season (and scuttlebutt at the Rolex 24 at Daytona suggested both Japanese manufacturers are considering it), Vision Racing could always field a mega-team. Wouldn't it be richly ironic if they were all Cosworth-powered?
Cheever Racing set to rebound
Eddie Cheever is certainly one team owner who subscribes to George's vision. And with Toyota engines and new recruit Patrick Carpentier on board, Red Bull Cheever Racing is the obvious candidate for 'Most Improved IndyCar Team' honors in 2005.
Cheever's team won an IndyCar race every year between 1997 and 2002, including Eddie's victory in the 1998 Indianapolis 500. But the team's level of competitiveness declined over the last two years, which were also marked by considerable unrest in the driver department as rising stars Tomas Scheckter and Buddy Rice departed mid-season under acrimonious circumstances.
Longtime Champ Car observers were shocked when Carpentier elected to team up with Cheever this year. The cheerful French-Canadian said he has had to mentally adjust to his new surroundings after driving for the low-key Gerald Forsythe for the last eight years.
"I like Eddie but he's an extremely, extremely intense person," Carpentier said. "That's going to take some getting used to. I know there will be some happy points during the season and there will be some unhappy points. We'll deal with it as it comes. So far it has been great -- no complaints.
"I think our attitude is going to be very important. If you respect your drivers and show them you have confidence in them, it goes a long way."
Cheever said Carpentier's initial test with the team didn't go perfectly but driver and team have meshed well since then.
"It takes awhile for everybody that comes from CART to get used to the different atmosphere of the IRL," Cheever said. "I don't mean that in a negative way; it just takes some time to get all that 'I am a superstar' out of their system. Let's get down to some real strong grassroots racing like we have here.
"I enjoy Patrick. He's very fast and very entertaining. He has galvanized his crew very quickly and learned to work with the engineers. The first day we practiced was a bit bumpy but we've progressively gotten better every time we have run and he adapted to an IRL setup on the ovals very, very quickly."
Despite being an early and fervent supporter of the IndyCar Series, Cheever is alarmed by the escalating costs in the 'grassroots' series.
"[Costs] are at the old CART, which is not healthy," Cheever said. "The history of that is unhealthy, but there are two sides to that coin. I believe that the IRL is the most technically advanced form of racing in the United States and it has to set itself apart from NASCAR. But we have to draw a line. We don't have carburetors; we have computers on board.
"On the other hand, we cannot be like Formula 1, which is silly. There are countries in South America that don't have a GNP as large as the Ferrari F1 team. We have to find some formula that works here.
"I think having Toyota and Honda has done a lot of good technically in this series," he added. "They have pushed the limit to look for perfection and made us dig deeper. But the sad thing is that has escalated our costs at a higher rate than we have been able to attract new fans. So we're out-pricing ourselves in the market. We have to reevaluate what we are doing and come up with a paradigm that works. The only teams that really scraped through are ourselves, Dreyer & Reinbold and Panther. We're trying to hang on, but all of the CART teams have carried forward the support they had from Toyota and Honda. Without the Honda and Toyota support for those CART teams, they would be gone too."
Honda still looks strongest
Based on pre-season testing so far, it appears Honda hasn't lost much if any of the horsepower advantage it enjoyed while dominating the 2004 IRL IndyCar Series. Aside from pacing the road course test last month at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Honda swept the top three spots in testing at the Homestead oval and ran 1-2-3-5 last week in oval testing at Phoenix International Raceway. What kind of an encore will 2005 produce?
"I guess we could win 17 races instead of 14, which is what our chairman wants us to do," joked Honda Performance Development general manager Robert Clarke. "He figures if we can win 14, winning three more can't be that difficult! But we did achieve well beyond our expectations and we do not expect to do as well as we did in 2004.
"I think we believe the competition will be the toughest we have seen in the IRL," Clarke added. "We definitely ticked off our competitor, Toyota, and they are sure to not let that happen again. I think the Chevy has a very good engine, but I think it will be tough for them to be a serious threat with only two cars."
Toyota Racing Development president Lee White says it is still too early to try to get a read on the IndyCar Series' horsepower war.
"Realistically, we won't know where we stand until the checkered flag falls at Homestead on March 6," he said. "At this point, it's impossible to judge anything on early testing -- and even if we could get an accurate read, things will change dramatically before Homestead. We'll be working on further development every day up to that point, but I'm sure Honda and Chevrolet will be doing the same."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.