Sunday, August 3, 2003

Auto Racing Insider


IRL future lies in road courses

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It is really just a matter of time before Championship Auto Racing Teams is completely absorbed by the Indy Racing League, as evidenced by the consistent migration of CART teams to the IRL the past few years.

With that in mind, Chip Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Tomas Scheckter suggested this week that IRL examine running on road courses, as well as the oval tracks. Currently, the IRL does not leave the ovals, which is one of the priorities Tony George put in place when he founded the league in 1994. George wanted a racing league in which driver skill became the critical factor, which meant minimizing set-up and course variables.

That was fine at first. But now, IRL has a chance to tap into CART's market of fans who crave the road courses but will eventually lose out with CART's slow demise. There is also a strong driver push, much of it coming from former CART teams, for a few IRL road courses.

"I'd love to," Scheckter said. "I'm not going to lie. I come from a road-racing background and have been doing it since I was 11. We could get different fans and keep the ones that love IRL now."

As NASCAR continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, the IRL faced a marketing quandary earlier this season, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway had to advertise for the Indianapolis 500 for the first time.

Obviously, adding a road course or two isn't going to solve any marketing problems, but it would add a couple races to the schedule.

"CART has such a big fan base," said Dixon, who leads the IRL points standings. "The IRL can pick some of those places up."

But it's not a necessity. The IRL is currently strong enough as the largest open-wheel series in the nation, and as long as it has the Indianapolis 500, there will be no challengers.

"It's hard to say what CART is going to do," Dixon said. "This is definitely the stronger series."

TEN YEARS AND COUNTING: Has it really been 10 years since Hell's Angels first tore through the Garden of Eden? OK, that's not exactly what happened in 1994, but it might as well have been as far as Indy purists were concerned when Winston Cup cars showed up for the inaugural Brickyard 400.

It didn't take long for attitudes to change. As the field is set for the 10th running of the event today, Indianapolis has become one of the most popular stops on the NASCAR circuit. And make no mistake, the money NASCAR brings to town has become quite popular with Indy old-timers who are finally getting used to seeing cars with fenders navigate the almost flat track.

The stock cars will never match the excitement of an open-wheel race at Indy, but the open-wheelers don't have much on NASCAR in terms of colorful drivers and fans, who, when combined with Indianapolis' tradition, make the Brickyard 400 one of America's most entertaining races.

E-mail ddow@enquirer.com




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