View Full Version : More Idiotic IRL Coverage

03-07-05, 12:38 AM
Some of the crap that real openwheel fans in Indiana have to contend with. :rolleyes: Here is some sewage from the Summitt City---Fort Wayne that is.

IRL at 10: Critics defied, future unsure

By Ben Smith

The Journal Gazette

Eddie Cheever wanted somebody’s hide.

Ten laps from the finish, he and Scott Sharp had gotten together, and now his race car was a piece of junkyard art, suitable only for the Jiffy Louvre. He was done for the day, dammit. Stationary and steaming.

“I was pissed off,” Cheever admits now, almost apologetically. “As a race driver, you’re very myopic. You’ve had an accident, so you’re upset.”

And so forgive him if there was no wonder in him at that moment, as Tony Stewart chased Buzz Calkins toward a landmark checkered flag. Forgive him if history was just something to be left at the side of the road with its thumb out, as he sat there in the Florida sun watching one man’s 14-month-old vision unfurl on a 7-month-old racetrack.

The date was Jan. 27, 1996. The place was Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla., site of the inaugural Indy Racing League Indy 200.

Eddie Cheever wanted somebody’s hide.

A whole lot of somebodies wanted Tony George’s.

From 10 years away now it seems like some distant relative, a barely acknowledged cousin’s cousin twice removed.

Say hello to the Indy Racing League, circa 1996.

It was used cars and used engines and used drivers, obscurities such as Brad Murphey, a one-time rodeo cowboy, and Dr. Jack Miller, the Racing Dentist. Seven drivers who raced in the Indianapolis 500 that year never did so again. There were just three races that first season; Buzz Calkins, who had raced Indy Lights the year before, and Scott Sharp, who heretofore had made his mark primarily in sports cars, tied for the points title.

Today, Sharp remains, one of two drivers in Adrian Fernandez’ stable. But hardly anything else does.

As it begins its 10th season today, the IRL is the dominant Indy-style racing series in America, encompassing 17 races at 17 different venues in two countries. Widely derided as a joke by rival CART, the IRL now has two of CART’s former engine builders (Toyota and Honda), and races on three of its old venues (Michigan, Milwaukee and Twin Ring Motegi in Japan), and includes almost all its major team owners.

All of this is Tony George’s doing. Or his fault, depending on who’s doing the talking.

The president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was just 34 years old when he stood up that March day in 1994 and announced the formation of a new Indy-style racing series. It would an oval-track series he said, using the Indianapolis 500 as an anchor. There would be strict rules regarding costs. The goal was to make the sport affordable again, to open up opportunities to owners and homegrown drivers shut out by CART’s closed-shop mentality.

Not everyone bought this, or even knew what to make of it at first. A painfully awkward communicator, George had never really been taken seriously by CART, which regarded him as something of a lightweight. There was widespread feeling that his proposed new series was less about opportunity than it was a reaction to CART moving away from its traditional oval-track base, thus undercutting the importance of George’s Speedway.

The IRL was a power grab, in other words. And destined to flop.

“Anything that challenges the establishment to the magnitude of what Tony did, 99 out of 100 ventures fail,” acknowledges Brian Barnhart, senior vice-president of racing operations for the IRL. “You look at the XFL, that’s probably the most recent one to come on and challenge the establishment of the NFL. It had primetime Saturday night network television with NBC, and it failed in one season.

“So when you stop and consider what Tony did to create the Indy Racing League and challenge the establishment, his dedication and commitment is validated by the fact we’re starting our 10th season.”

But first they would have to get through season No. 1.

A stone miracle. That’s pretty much what this was.

Late January, 1996, and workmen were still putting the finishing touches on Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, where Tony George’s IRL would conduct its first race on the 27th. Construction had begun in June. The first cars had gotten on it in November.

The first cars . . .

“The teams, some had Lolas and some had Reynards,” remembers Phil Casey, the IRL’s senior technical director. “We had ‘x’ amount of cars and guys were short of equipment, and some teams had brought cars but weren’t capable of running them . . . right up until race time we were still getting stuff for teams. We were down to the last minute.”

And then the last minute was gone, and something astounding happened: Actual racing.

In the end Calkins held off Stewart by 0.866 seconds, and none of the dire predictions came true. Nobody got hurt. A sellout crowd of 51,000 showed up to watch. And the finish would become something of an IRL hallmark: 46 races since have had margins of victory under a second.

“You thought ‘Wow, this thing’s got some legs, it’s gonna go. Let’s see what happens,’” Sharp remembers.

“First and foremost, there was an incredible sense of pride,” Barnhart says.

And Ron Hemelgarn, whose driver, Buddy Lazier, sat on the pole that day?

“I remember Donald Trump was there with his wife and they were standing next to my car,” he says. “We filled the stands and had a full field and it sort of knocked all the critics down. We knew it would be a hard road. But somehow we survived it, stuck to the game plan and didn’t deviate from it.”

Even when the game plan came under attack.

That May, CART boycotted the Indianapolis 500, protesting George’s edict that 25 qualifying spots would be reserved for IRL regulars. Then it staged its own race, the U.S. 500, on the same day at Michigan International Speedway. Neither race was a resounding success; only 10 cars were running at the end in Indianapolis, where Lazier won, and the CART race was marred by a crash on the pace lap.

In the meantime, the rift between CART and the IRL became a chasm, fueled by the sniping between Michigan and Indianapolis that went on throughout May. Bobby Rahal called the IRL’s Indy a “sham”; after polesitter Scott Brayton died in a practice crash at Indy, Michael Andretti suggested George was endangering lives by putting inexperienced drivers in hand-me-down equipment that could exceed 230 mph.

Rahal is now the head of Rahal-Letterman Racing, one of the IRL’s top teams. And Andretti is the head of Andretti Green Racing, which won the IRL points title last season with Tony Kanaan.

So how did that happen?

Well, having the Indianapolis 500 as a hammer didn’t hurt.

Although the rift George precipitated dimmed its light – its Nielsen ratings, once in double digits, plunged to 6.6 in that first IRL season, and continue to hover below 5.0 – it was still the biggest carrot American open-wheel racing had to offer. And because George shrewdly never burned any bridges he couldn’t rebuild, slowly the carrot began to work its magic.

“I think the series, and Tony for that matter, surprised a lot of people,” Sharp observes. “I think if you had asked a few years ago, they would have said, ‘Well, he’s never gonna get the manufacturers.’ And then he got Honda and Toyota. And he got a lot of teams people would have thought were committed to CART.

“I’ve said this before, but there’ve been so many obstacles thrown up in front of the IRL, and it’s basically hurdled every one of them. Whatever it was.”

Or is.

Brad Murphey doesn’t live here anymore.

The record book says he made one IRL start in 1996, two in 1997, and then he vanished from the scene. Dr. Jack Miller, the Racing Dentist, made 22 starts between 1997 and 2001; he hasn’t been seen since. Fred Treadway, who won the 1997 Indy 500 with Arie Luyendyk, is no longer around. Neither is Tom Kelley, who won nine IRL races in eight seasons with Sharp, Mark Dismore and Al Jr.

The league built to open doors is down to 11 fulltime teams now and four of those – Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Green Racing and Rahal Letterman Racing – account for 12 of the 22 drivers with regular rides for 2005. Andretti Green alone won eight of the 16 IRL races last season; just four teams won a race in 2004.

In short: Tony George’s creature more and more resembles the one it slew.

So where do we go from here?

Barnhart points to spiraling costs, lagging attendance at some tracks and chronically puny TV numbers as chief concerns, and hardly anyone disagrees. Despite IRL’s cost controls, by last season Kelley was spending $8 to $10 million to field one car, the same budget that used to field two. And while the IRL continues to put a quality product and engaging personalities on the track, its TV ratings averaged 0.8 last year, virtually off the scale.

“I’m still waiting for the message coming out of the IRL to be clearer, so that the fans can actually get their arms around it and say ‘Oh, that’s what it is,’” says Cheever, who’s been an owner in the IRL since 1997.

Sharp agrees.

“I think the focus really now is building the brand we have,” he says.

Once upon a time, of course, there was no brand, only the enlightened self-interest of a young racing heir who, superficially at least, hardly seemed up to the task. But he fooled ‘em, Tony George did. He fooled even those who signed on with him.

“I remember the 2000 race in Texas, where there was a train of about16 cars side by side for so many laps,” Sharp recalls. “No one with open wheel had ever really seen that before. I remember Arie Luyendyk calling on the radio, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ And everybody was, like, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’

“I think that woke a lot of people up to the product that we had. Even the drivers were like, ‘Wow!’”

Now if the rest of America would only follow suit.

03-07-05, 09:01 AM
in 10 years they have lost twice as many "Fans" as they have gained.


Yeah, that's progress.

Jervis Tetch 1
03-07-05, 09:40 AM