‘Greatest Spectacle’ comes full circleWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The 90th running of the Indy 500 last Sunday left no doubt whatsoever that what is called “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” has come full circle.
What goes around comes around, and look! Here comes 1995 around again. That was the last year before Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George, with the urging of NASCAR, A.J. Foyt and others, decided to form the Indy Racing League, splitting from Championship Auto Racing Teams.
George was sure CART teams would come crawling back as he belligerently dangled the keys to the Brickyard in front of them.
George’s premise was that CART was too expensive, courted too many foreign drivers and was too worldly. NASCAR’s hidden agenda, of course, was to prod George into the split and test the old divide-and-conquer theory. It worked to perfection, of course.
The IRL’s platform was to provide a pinnacle for young American sprint car and midget drivers, steer costs down, use an all-oval American track format and tell foreign drivers, engine builders and designers that the “Made in America” tag would be sewn into every possible aspect of the IRL.
“I’m not opposed to foreign manufacturers and competitors, but it rubs me the wrong way that America’s premier series has to look overseas for talent because they have a fat checkbook,” George arrogantly said.
In case you hadn’t noticed last Sunday, every car was powered by Honda.
Toyota and Chevrolet had already left the League. There were 13-foreign-born drivers in the field.
Foreign-born drivers had won six of the last seven Indy 500s until Ohio-born Sam Hornish, from Defiance, captured this year’s race in extremely dramatic fashion, defeating Marco Andretti in the second-closest Indy finish ever.
Marco is the son of Michael and grandson of Mario, both of whom indicated they would never return to Indy when they marched off with CART in 1996.
And, oh yes, there are three road course races on this year’s IRL schedule and a return trip to Motegi, Japan.
There’s hypocrisy at every turn. Al Unser Jr. was also back in the field, probably one of a number of drivers George helped bankroll, under the workbench, of course.
All of the leading former CART teams were paced by Marlboro team owner Roger Penske, the czar of race cars, who captured his 14th Indy 500 win last Sunday with Hornish.
The IRL has morphed into CART.
And what does all of this prove?
George has the only defining open-wheel race in the U.S. CART, now called the Champ Car World Series, but it can’t survive without an Indy 500 affiliation.
The IRL has not developed any young drivers into household-name status, with the exception of Hornish and Danica Patrick. That’s two more than Champ Car can boast.
IRL team owner Bobby Rahal, who you might remember was once the interim director of CART, said his driver, Patrick, is the best thing to happen to open-wheel racing in the last 10 years.
Unfortunately, she’s the only thing to happen.
Hornish, 26, is now established as one of the best drivers in either series and a leading candidate to be plucked away by NASCAR.
Both open-wheel series will now drive off on their own into anonymity, TV ratings will lag and sponsors will nag.
Every year in May at the Brickyard, the subject of unification arises.
Everyone says it’s time, everyone that is except George, who still thinks he owns the keys to open-wheel racing in the U.S.
“All we can do is hope and pray that it happens,” Michael Andretti said recently.
It will, Michael. Soon.
Kevin Kalkhoven, the majority owner of the Champ Car series, is optimistic.
George, smugly suggests he’s not sure unification will ever happen, and after Sunday’s extraordinary race, that might be OK.
NASCAR officials couldn’t agree more.