INDIANAPOLIS, June 29, 2004 - Since the running of the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and same-day editorial by Marlboro Team Penske owner Roger Penske in the New York Times advocating a return to one prime North American open wheel series, there has been some hope for fans of the genre.
Federal Bankruptcy Judge Frank J. Otte in Indianapolis gave Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) a "second chance", as he called it back on January 28th when he awarded OWRS the assets and liabilities of CART. That was six months ago and since that time both OWRS and the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series have gone about their respective businesses with a sense of urgency.
Continuing to play to descending groups of fans and reaping ever smaller numbers on their telecasts of six rounds of competition for the Indy Racing League and the four Champ Car World Series events put on by OWRS, it's apparent The Captain is correct: something needs to be done about North American open wheel racing.
A secret meeting was held last week in the Detroit area with Penske and the three OWRS principals: Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi. While word has leaked a bit as to their discussions, it is apparent open dialogue needs to continue in order to affect a compromise between two headstrong groups.
Ever since Tony George announced the formation of the Indy Racing League back in 1994, there's been anger on both sides of the fence. While George today insists that he didn't intend for the League to strictly benefit American drivers and teams, that was the point he got across with the formation of a rival to [then] omnipotent Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART).
Over the years defections from CART bred strength to the League as first Derrick Walker, Penske, Chip Ganassi, Morris Nunn begat a tidal flow of teams, sponsors and suppliers from one side to the other. It's not been pretty in either direction and the ill will has flown with tsunami-like force back and forth across the great open wheel divide.
Walker is with OWRS fielding a single car for Mario Haberfeld this season (and has been part of the CART/OWRS family all along, entering teams in both camps), but he also leases part of his shop to Patrick Racing, which joined the defectors at the end of last season. Mr. U.E. "Pat" Patrick, for those just returning from Mars was one of CART's founders. By 2003, even he had enough of the series' arrogance and mismanagement.
Unfortunately, Judge Otte never looked at the reality of motor sport before making his decision to allow stand-alone continuation of OWRS, even though IRL/Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George offered more money than the three principals of OWRS. Much more money.
And that's the way the cookie has crumbled since January.
It's evident even to the casual observer that North American motorsports needs a single premier open wheel series. It is apparent something should and can be done. All that's necessary is for some huge egos to put their desires aside and try to work together.
That Roger Penske has already placed himself at the head of the line trying to reach compromise in the Great Open Wheel Civil War is a wondrous thing. That Penske is meeting with OWRS and that they are willing and able to listen and talk about a cohesive future is terrific.
Engendering hope for the future, meetings like the one held last week need to occur in short order. They can be casual or they can be formal, but the fans want these meetings, the teams, sponsors, suppliers among other supporters need these meetings and the sport is ready to succumb without them.
It is easy to say the sky is falling and there is no hope for the future because that's just the way it is right now.
The Indy Racing League has stated its intent to go road racing in the coming years and is looking at the cessation of certain OWRS contracts in addition to tracks run by or affiliated with 800-pound gorilla International Speedway Corporation (ISC), owned by NASCAR's France family as suitable road/street racing venues.
Nothing has been set in stone yet for the potential of the sport, but the fact that people who can effect change are talking gives us all hope for the future of open wheel racing.
As the Indy Racing League's two series, IndyCar and Menards Infiniti Pro march toward Kansas Speedway to race on the July 4th holiday weekend, so too do OWRS' three groups - Champ Car, Toyota Atlantic and Motorock Trans-Am - hit the road to Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport to provide their own holiday entertainment.
For the fans, the choices have proven to be too much and too many most of the time. They'd like to see better racing and I know, because I've heard the kvetching for nearly ten years now.
So here's a message for all the principals involved in reconciliation talks: keep on yakking about it. We can't wait too much longer.
(c) 2004 Anne Proffit