Roger Penske strode alone through Gasoline Alley 90 minutes before this year’s Indy 500. With 13 wins at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, The Captain certainly knows how to get his drivers around the famed Brickyard.
In the next line of garages, a crowd of race fans and media gathered before doors numbered 12, 13, 14 and 15 where Rahal Letterman was encamped. Rookie phenom Danica Patrick arrived on a golf cart and disappeared quickly into the relative calm before the racing storm.
About six hours later, team owners Michael Andretti and Kim Green faced a line of television cameras along a second-level catwalk between the Pagoda and the Media Center. With huge smiles, they gladly recounted how exciting it was to have just won what was by most accounts one of the most spectacular of the Greatest Spectacles in Racing.
Now, if the people who run the Indy Racing League and the rival Champ Car World Series can get past the egodriven mania that fuels the sanctioning split, open-wheel racing appears poised to reclaim a major piece of its glory days. If they’ll just let their collective business sense override their need for speed, the open-wheel racing that plays a critical role in the local economy will rise to greater heights.
“NASCAR has shown the way to do it,” racing guru Chris Economaki, editor and publisher emeritus of National Speed Sport News, told me. “They brought in a lot of new people to make decisions. They weren’t racing people; they were New York-based marketing people.
“They’re businesspeople,” he added. “That is what’s going to have to happen in open-wheel racing. They can’t depend on old-line racing people. They need oldline businesspeople.”
With 10 top-flight drivers among them and the best equipment, Penske, Rahal Letterman and Andretti Green know what it takes to produce breathtaking racing. They’ve also been the most successful when it comes to translating that racing into a business benefit. Their sponsors have the biggest names left in open wheel racing.
But the decade-old split, with roots that reach back another generation, cripples any attempts to capitalize on what arguably is the most intense and interesting racing on the planet. There were 27 lead changes in the last Indy 500 and IRL races regularly end in photo finishes determined by thousandths of a second.
A little history. Penske was among the team owners in the late 1970s who formed Championship Auto Racing Teams. The group split from Indianapolis-based U.S. Auto Club, which sanctioned the 500 and still oversees racing in most of the lower open-wheel divisions.
Egos were bruised and pocketbooks lightened in the bitter court battle for control. But the breach, which never fully closed after the CART/USAC split, blew wide open when IMS Chairman Tony George formed the Indy Racing League with the 500 its flagship event beginning in 1996.
Flash forward to January 2004 and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Indianapolis. In the best chance for reunification, George appeared poised to buy the remaining CART assets, merge them into the IRL, and drive into the future behind a single pace car. An 11th-hour bid from the deep-pocketed and free-spending Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe, though, thwarted the plan.
Kalkhoven and Forsythe continue to reach into their deep pockets, snapping up engine-maker Cosworth Racing last fall and reportedly spending $15 million to buy the street race in Long Beach, Calif., last month. They clearly know the art of a deal.
The thrilling Indy 500 on the strength of Danica Patrick’s charge to the front trounced a crash-filled and vitriolic NASCAR race in the almighty television ratings. Beyond Patrick’s obvious ability and appeal, a stable of young, talented and compelling drivers willingly risk life and limb for IRL glory at 225 miles per hour.
Media blinded by NASCAR’s phenomenal success have rediscovered the Indy 500 at least. Stories from IMS led sports sections over Memorial Day weekend from the Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times and at most papers in between. A palpable buzz hummed over the hallowed grounds at 16th Street and Georgetown Road.
There was a time when it looked like CART had the better plan, the better teams and the brighter future. It didn’t have the Indy 500, though, and George’s troops regrouped enough to convince CART’s best teams-Penske, Rahal Letterman and Andretti-Green-to join the IRL.
The time is ripe for rumored merger talks between what’s now known as Champ Car and the IRL to reach fruition. If Jimmy Carter could broker a deal between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat at Camp David, someone ought to have the will and ability to bring Champ Car and the IRL together for the good of everyone involved with open wheel racing.
Ketzenberger is managing editor of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to email@example.com.