Sunday, March 2, 2008

Countdown to the Indy 500

As I write this today, there are only 12 weeks to the Indy 500. 84 days. It is truly hard to believe that less than a month ago, the open wheel rumor mill really got cranking about a possible merger between the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series. And a week ago, it was finally done. I'm still pinching myself to be sure I'm awake.

What I don't find hard to believe is the vitriol that fans are still spewing about the merger and loss of their beloved CCWS. I don't blame them a bit, and that's one of the great things about being a race fan: passion. After all, two drugstore conglomerates might merge in the business world and no one gives a rat's ass so long as you can still go to the corner store and get your prescription filled. But merging the top US open wheel series is another story entirely and just like a merger or marriage gone bad, the hard feelings are going to take time to heal as there is always fallout, some of which is emotional and some financial.

Certainly we're seeing that already, as teams and the schedule are taking hits. With the news that Forsythe racing is closing up shop, Paul Tracy is out of a ride and a few dozen hard working support team members have to look elsewhere to stay in motorsports. Lots of money was spent developing the DP01 chassis for Champ Car and now those cars are museum pieces. Cosworth doesn't have customers anymore. And I can certainly understand how the folks in Cleveland would not be happy about suddenly finding themselves out of a race for 2008, as that event has become a showcase for the city's Erie lakefront development initiatives. Not only that, but having been to the event myself years ago, the course layout is most like an oval of any of the road courses, since it is fast and wide, and fans can see the whole track from their seats. Of course fans are going to be upset when these kinds of things happen. I expect the shakeout will continue through the middle of this year and Tony George has lots of fence mending to do to craft a 2009 schedule that shows off the best of Indycar racing for all its constituents - racers, fans, promoters and communities alike.

But racing is business and businesses must adjust to the marketplace. Tony George has been vilified over the years for changing objectives with the IRL. Plenty of blog posts exist that criticize him for modifying the original vision of an oval based series where the tradition of short track racers coming to Indianapolis could be kept alive. When the IRL started adding selected road and street courses, the howling reached a crescendo and critics ramped up their attacks. Yet how often in the business world do companies change their vision and marketing approach? It's happening in some corporate board room every single day. If they don't, they don't survive and that's what could have happened with Indycar racing if Tony hadn't done something. No one else has the financial wherewithal to make it happen. No one else was willing to go to the mat and make sure everyone could get cars and motors. And no one else has the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where 2009 will mark 100 years since the facility originally opened with balloon and motorcycle races on a crushed cinder track.

So now everyone can get down to business and go racing. Tony's grandpa saved the track from the bulldozers after World War II when developers eyed the property for housing development. I would suggest that Tony has saved Indycar racing from the scrapheap of motorsports series that peaked and then faded away. Only time will tell how Indycars will fare in the current marketplace as stock car racing has a huge head start. It's up to the fans now to decide. So as I've said before, get out and go to a race. Support what you love. Buy some IRL swag. Ignore those that pine for the good old days as they are never coming back, and let's make something greater happen under the sport's current vision. To quote Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"

I hope to see you at 16th & Georgetown in a few short weeks. Let the healing process begin.

The following link will take you to pix of drivers or car owners from last season that you can expect to see in 2008 on the Indycar circuit. I am really looking forward to adding new faces to these galleries as the Champ Car guys come back, and I'll have more to say about the season ahead, the teams to watch for and the buildup to Indy as the weeks progress. Y'all come back now, ya hear?

Indy Racing League Drivers

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