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Race Is Not Over for IRL

February 07, 2003|SHAV GLICK

When Tony George's Indy Racing League was in its formative years in the mid-'90s, it was held together by the Indianapolis 500.

Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti and most of the other open-wheel campaigners who stuck with CART showered the IRL with invective, claiming it would fold in a year or two, that even the Indy 500 was no longer worth entering. In the first year of the split, CART went so far as to stage its own 500 on the same day.

How times have changed. Now Rahal and the younger Andretti have joined the IRL, Rahal taking former Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack with him, and Andretti taking Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan with him.

The IRL, with its new IndyCar Series name, has moved into the driver's seat, as far as American open-wheel racing is concerned, and the Indy 500, which had dipped in fan interest, is once again America's biggest race.

George, while not mentioning CART by name in his annual state-of-the-series address Monday during the IRL's "Test in the West" at California Speedway, left no question about his feelings when he said, "It is with a great deal of pride that I can state that never before in the history of American racing have we had an open-wheel, oval series with celebrated drivers, the established owners, the significant committed players from the auto industry ... that the IndyCar Series will have in 2003.

"When the league had its first race in January 1996, it was the realization of a vision to create a series where competition is close, costs are controlled, the same quality of equipment is available to all and where teams and sponsors can afford to compete. Eight years later, we are realizing that vision.

"We had nine different winners in 15 races, including six first-time winners in 2002. Sarah Fisher became the first woman to capture a pole position in the history of major league racing when she led the field to the green flag at Kentucky Speedway."

(Fisher was honored in Paris last week as racing's "Discover of the Year" at the Festival D'Automobile where Ferrari's Michael Schumacher was honored for winning his fifth Formula One championship.)

There are still areas to be improved, however, not the least of which is interest in the Southern California market.

The IRL was embarrassed last year when its March 24 race in Fontana attracted only about 15,000 -- some observers said not even that many -- compared to 120,000 for the Winston Cup race only a month later, on April 28, and 60,000 for the CART race Nov. 3.

Or CART's nearby Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which attracted 90,000 for its race through the streets on April 14.

Ken Ungar, IRL senior vice president for business affairs, emphasized that increasing attendance, particularly at California Speedway, was a top priority this year.

He outlined the IRL's five business goals:

* Increase attendance.

* Improve television ratings.

* Improve the IRL's image.

* Cultivate driver development.

* Increase engine manufacturer participation.

"The attendance for the California race was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected," Ungar said. "It was hastily arranged at the last minute for March, which was quite early on our schedule to build up interest in the race. This year, we have moved it to Sept. 21 and expect by then to have generated a great deal of interest in our drivers, if last year's racing was an indication."

IRL champion Sam Hornish's last-turn pass of Jacques Lazier gave Hornish the victory in last year's race by .028 of a second and became the hallmark of a series of photo finishes. Hornish's margin over Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the season's final race at Texas was even closer, .009 of a second, and that not only gave Hornish the race but the championship as well.

"California is important to us," Ungar said. "Two of our new partners, Honda and Toyota, have their headquarters in this area and we expect their presence to enhance interest in our series."

Dennis Bickmeier, California Speedway public relations director, said there were extenuating circumstances surrounding the poor attendance, pointing out that the race had not been part of the track's season-ticket package; that the infield, which can hold 15,000 spectators, was closed because of sports car races on the same weekend, and that three major Southland races were crammed into a six-week period.

Toyota-powered cars, driven by Felipe Giaffone and Tomas Scheckter, were fastest in two days of testing. Giaffone hit 225.714 mph in one of Mo Nunn's Panoz G Force machines.

While IRL drivers were testing California Speedway's two-mile oval, CART and its drivers were conducting their "Champ Car Spring Training" at Se- bring, Fla. Oriol Servia of Spain had the top speed of 117.951 mph on Sebring's tight road course in Patrick Racing's Lola-Ford.

Roger Penske's two drivers, Castroneves and former CART champion Gil de Ferran, who switched to the IRL a year ago, said open-wheel racing and its fans are the losers with two similar series.

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