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Shape of IRL changing on, off track

The league that started with all ovals and mostly American drivers and manufacturers has changed greatly. This weekend's road race is a major test.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 1, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - The future of open wheel racing in the United States will accelerate down First Street S on Sunday afternoon, high-rises blurring past at 160 mph. It'll brake hard through an S turn, downshift onto Central Avenue, then steer hard right on Bayshore Drive as it roars toward the South Yacht Basin at ever-increasing speed.

When the Indy Racing League held its first race Jan. 27, 1996 at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, it was a fledgling all-oval series with a limited schedule and the bright idea to contain costs, foster American racing and preserve the heritage of the Indianapolis 500.

In its 10th season, it is again sprouting new growth in Florida's warm sun. When the IRL holds its first non-oval event on Sunday on the streets of St. Petersburg - later moving to road courses in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Sonoma, Calif. - the series will no longer be contained within the static walls of speedways.

Time to grow, time to change.

"I think this is going to be a watershed year for us with the new kind of races we're running," team owner Roger Penske said. "If, in the right markets, we can have some road racing, I think it's going to give us some more momentum. ... From my perspective this is something we need to try, and from my perspective running at Watkins Glen and St. Petersburg and out on the West Coast in the San Francisco market will give us a good handle on whether we can draw the kind of fans we want."

Drivers, even those with scant or at best distant experience away from ovals, seem universally pleased about the chance to finally make some right turns.

"This was my dream," said ever-ebullient IRL champion Tony Kanaan, smiling. "I came from Brazil racing street courses in go-karts and cars and when the IRL took the next step to not race only on ovals but on the streets, I was very excited. We'll have fun, that's what it's all about."

But it's also about adding credibility to the series as it attempts - whether stated or not - to solidify its position against rival Champ Car, which races primarily street courses in a schedule that includes dates in the United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and, according to an announcement this week, China in 2006.

"We go to some great ovals and I think there's room for a couple more road and a couple more street circuits," said Ganassi Racing's Darren Manning, one of two current IRL drivers to contest the CART-sanctioned 2003 St. Petersburg race. "This has been an all-oval championship, so I think it would have been wrong to jump in with half road and street and half oval. I think we need to creep up and see how the fans take to us and how this affects the championship and IndyCar people. It's a challenge for everybody."

Besides, said 2003 series champion Scott Dixon, road courses are simply more fun.

"Doing all ovals all year tends to get tedious," said Dixon, Manning's teammate. "All of us here come from road courses pretty much, which is a lot more fun and a good changeup. Spending all day on an oval gets to be a bore. ... It's not much fun."

IRL president and founder Tony George sees road and street racing as the next logical evolution to a plan he hatched in 1994 when CART, now Champ Car, ruled open wheel racing in North America.

"Always, we've maintained that if and when the right opportunity came we would consider adding road and or temporary street circuits to the schedule," he said. "In the very beginning (Grand Prix of Long Beach founder and former CART CEO) Chris Pook was part of the IRL's formative discussions and possibly his interest at the time was having Long Beach (a Champ Car venue) be a part of it. Obviously, that never came to fruition and we never really had good opportunities and it never really went very far. We've had a number of discussions throughout the years, but for whatever reason they never led to the actual scheduling of an event."

The IRL attempted to acquire the promotional rights to Long Beach, North America's most prestigious street race, when it bid on CART's assets in bankruptcy court in 2003. George said the IRL attempted to add a Cleveland street course race several years ago but "that was kind of pulled out from underneath us."

By moving into Champ Car's street and road racing domain, the IRL has apparently moved away from one of its original tenets: supporting ovals like Indianapolis Motor Speedway, of which George is president. Critics say it continues the IRL's pattern of contradicting itself, that the success of Japanese engine manufacturers has helped squeeze out Chevrolet after this season and the series is dominated by foreign drivers with the same big-money teams that once spent lavishly in CART.

"I think some of that was out of Tony's control," said Scott Sharp, who shared the league's first championship. "He couldn't control what drivers team owners hire. And I think it's an honor to have Honda and Toyota a part of this series. It's not anything negative to look at, the amount of promotion they do. They're the best promoters this league has. And the fact they get to fight it out with Chevrolet, an American manufacturer, is a great story."

George said his critics continue getting half the story right.

"I think a lot of people have tried to paraphrase or even characterize my intentions in forming the league," he said. "We were about opportunity first and foremost in giving American drivers more of an opportunity to come into IndyCar racing. That, indeed, is the case. But for those who like to characterize those intentions as to be to the exclusive benefit of ovals or American racers, that is disingenuous. That is not the case. We never, I never said this was going to be an all-American, all-ovals series at any point."

George said that though non-oval events should enhance the IRL's image, he doesn't expect it to suddenly thrust the IRL wheel-to-wheel with NASCAR as the nation's most popular form of racing.

"Obviously, it can be subject to interpretation but I think we have some of the most exciting, close competition anywhere and for whatever reason it hasn't resonated as well as we would have liked," he said. "But I don't think it's because it's lacked road racing. I think there are a lot of other things that have caused some disenchantment within the viewing audiences or maybe it's just because there's a lot more competition than there was 10 years ago or a combination of the two."

The IRL is making a better effort to reach fans, to excite them with the personalities just like the NASCAR drivers for whom fans plaster their bodies, vehicles and children with their colors, sponsors and numbers. Of course, the IRL chose to NASCAR-ize itself too, posing drivers in fashion mag-style spreads in media guides, such as Dan Wheldon's shot in front of GQ magazine.

"That's what a lot of people like," said Wheldon, who recently moved to St. Petersburg and won the opener at Homestead. "I think the IRL is certainly doing a very good job of marketing what the drivers are like away from the track and I think it's very important to fans. I think people are kind of getting bored with the NASCAR thing. It's the same thing weekend in, weekend out, so I think this is something new and that's what they want to see, so with the way the series is taking off, that kind of stuff people like."

Whether they will like it enough to bring the IRL and the Indianapolis 500 roaring back could take years to assess. These things take time, team owner Chip Ganassi said. He recalls an afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1982 when he was testing for Patrick Racing and a new NASCAR team owner returning from a test at Michigan talked track operators into letting him drive his 1-ton trailer inside so he could see the speedway and meet some drivers.

Indy was the big deal then. Times have changed.

"There was a guy driving the truck, and his name was Richard Childress," Ganassi said of the current NASCAR team owner who has used stock car racing's explosive growth to build a multi-million dollar business. "So that was the early '80s. So when you say, "Can the IRL catch up? Who knows?"'

It'll try to turn its first corner in St. Petersburg.