SPORTS Bill Benner: IRL vision falls short for driver on outside looking in

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This will be the 10th Indianapolis 500 since the split-or chasm, or Grand Canyon-wide divide-in American open-wheel racing, and there is no question that the Indy Racing League and CART/Champ Car continue to suck the exhaust fumes of NASCAR. They lag well behind the taxi-cab series in crowds, television ratings, media coverage and corporate support.

Why the knuckleheads who rule both open-wheel circuits stubbornly continue to go their own way is way beyond me, but I suspect the reason can be found in two words: pride and power.

I mostly have been supportive of Tony George’s vision for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy 500 and the IRL. Certainly, in regard to the first two, no one can deny that IMS and the race still have enormously positive impact for the city and region. George has built the finest racing facility in the world and its three races pump three-quarters of a billion dollars into the local economy on an annual basis.

Applause, applause.

But the IRL continues to struggle to gain a national identity and the 500 has suffered because of it. What does it say that the IRL’s best-known and most-marketable commodity is a 23-year-old Indy rookie with all of four IRL starts under her belt?

Danica Patrick, you (better) go, girl.

Folks say, give the IRL time. Gee, you’d think 10 years would be plenty.

Yet, I’m an optimist. Perhaps it all will work out.

What apparently isn’t in the works, however, is one of the IRL’s early goals: to provide the logical last level of advancement for American drivers who came up through the midget and sprint car ranks. After all, if they could make it on the high banks of Salem or Winchester, or if they could slide it through the dirt at the Terre Haute Action Track or the State Fairgrounds then, by God, they should have a shot at Indy.

At least that was the theory. Regrettably, that isn’t the reality.

Oh, sure, former U.S. Auto Club midget and sprint champions have moved up the ranks all right. In fact, they’ll be in action on Race Day-Race Day in Charlotte, N.C., not in Indy. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Mike Bliss and Jason Leffler are all driving in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series and will compete in the Coca-Cola 600 that day.

Of the probable 33 starters at Indy, only one, Ed Carpenter, has a USAC background. And Carpenter, of course, is Tony George’s stepson, driving for George’s team.

I asked around-OK, I asked my pal Robin Miller, who remains the most knowledgeable (and opinionated) motorsports journalist anywhere-for an example of an Indiana short-tracker who, on ability, should be at Indy but likely will never make it because of the way openwheel opportunities are now structured (hint: bring sponsorship money).

“Jason McCord,” he replied.

So I gave McCord a call. McCord, 35, from Anderson, has been driving USAC sprinters for 13 years and, along with Kokomo’s Dave Darland, is probably Indiana’s best short-track driver.

Would he like a try at Indy?

“Oh yeah, without a doubt,” he said from his racing shop in Anderson, where he builds the cars he races. “You grow up around here, you can smell the yard of bricks.

“When the concept first came out with the IRL, for myself and a lot of the other guys I race with, that was our hope and our dream that maybe finally we could get it back to the way it was in the ’50s and ’60s, when your talent took you to Indy. Above and beyond corporate America running this sport, anybody who has any salt as far as talent is whisked away into NASCAR.”

Case in point was last week’s NASCAR race in Richmond. The top three finishers were former USAC champs: Kahne, Stewart and Newman.

“It’s not a fluke,” McCord said. “Anybody who leaves our division and goes somewhere else, if they don’t dominate, they’re [at least] very successful.”

The reason?

“The way we race, we learn so much car control,” McCord said. “There’s so much horsepower in such lightweight race cars. We know how to run a car on the edge.”

Doesn’t matter. The edge goes to the driver with a bankroll and marketability.

Nonetheless, McCord will be busy race week. He’ll drive in a USAC sprint car race on Wednesday night, qualify for the Little 500 Thursday at Anderson Speedway, run in a Silver Crown race at the State Fairgrounds on Friday, and race in the Little 500 Saturday.

And on Sunday, he’ll be at Indy. In the stands.

“I love it and I hate it,” he said. “I love being there, but I hate that I’m on the outside looking in. It’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow. Still, I have to go. It’s part of me.”

So close. So far.

Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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