AGUANGA, CA - The past few weeks have been a celebratory time for the Indy Racing League, marking its 100th race, the Firestone Indy 225 that ironically took place at the soon-to-be-shuttered Nazareth Speedway. Another bit of irony: the first CART race run at Nazareth Speedway was won by Nazareth native Michael Andretti (1987); the final visit to Victory Lane went to Dan Wheldon of Andretti Green Racing, co-owned by Michael Andretti.
After its genus in 1994, first race in 1996 and upwards to the latter part of that decade, it's highly unlikely anyone - other than Tony George and those close to him - could have envisioned what the League, its IndyCar and Menards Infiniti Pro Series were to become.
Bred to be inclusive, the IRL initially served as a place to compete in open wheel racing where the entry fees weren't astronomical, the cars were relatively simple to work on and no one really had an unfair advantage.
Just like everything else in this world, the Indy Racing League has changed. The fees are high, the cars' engines are sealed, and everyone thinks the other guy has an unfair advantage.
Where once no major self-respecting CART team owner and/or driver would consider joining the "Irrelevant Racing League" as one media type re-named it, most are now part of the IRL environment.
Former CART suppliers are active in the League and one, Bridgestone/Firestone USA supplies racing rubber to both disciplines. Toyota and Honda are now consecutive champions in the IRL; Cosworth, the sole supplier to the current Champ Car World Series sold its designs to rescue the Gen III Chevy Indy V8 in 2003 and continues to share its expertise with General Motors, a paradoxical situation for the Ford-owned entity.
The competition level in the Indy Racing League is rising to a level that shows no plateau; engine and chassis reliability are remarkable despite on-going changes wrought by the IRL's genuinely fair and equitable senior vice president of racing operations Brian Barnhart.
The League's side-by-side, taut, hair-breadth racing and finishes have become more comfortable for drivers who were accustomed to follow-the-leader CART parades. Even whining is at a minimum in the League, although bleating can be heard behind closed hauler doors from time to time. After all it is the nature of these beasts.
Once the 100-race huzzahs are over, though, it's time for the Indy Racing League to take a deep breath and think about where it's been and where the IRL needs to plot its future path. In particular, it is extremely important for the League to make certain it does not grow too fast, become too top-heavy and behave like the group from which the IRL has inherited many of its current best and brightest stars.
The Indy Racing League must retain its homey feel and accommodating attitude in order to continue growth. It cannot become the next CART, in which arrogance preceded a big, big fall.
The IRL's media and marketing departments have, in particular become large and unwieldy, with layers of people working at, well, I'm not really quite sure what. Each race weekend the Indy Racing League's marketing and sales department produces a preview that includes directions to each track, collaborative activities, race schedule and contacts. At this point in time the list of IRL contacts is into three pages.
At its height, CART's marketing and media layers became ineffective with their enormity and lack of direction. There were too many people doing nothing - and being paid huge salaries for their inefficiency - in the old CART. Is the IRL doomed to repeat that history?
With its competition department, the Indy Racing League has a jewel headed by Barnhart and the inimitable Phil Casey, who's been integral to the organization before the first IRL race at Walt Disney World in January of 1996. With few exceptions Barnhart, Casey and Co. have hired the right staff and trained them well. Some, such as electronics guru Jeff Horton were cast off by CART and happily picked up by the IRL.
Yes, the League continues to have growing pains in its racing realm, but these are [mostly] due to the fact that the competition is so darn strong. Pit road mishaps over the summer have been the biggest problems in 2004 and those must be chalked up to the heightened level of challenges when you've got 22 extremely strong car/driver combinations on the grid. Everyone wants to win.
That's what makes it so much fun to watch and so darn exciting to watch. At least, with the competition department's chassis and engine changes there have been no flying cars as with the 2003 aerobatics of Mario Andretti, Airton Dare, Kenny Brack and the late, great Tony Renna, to name a few.
There are many things right about the Indy Racing League as it enters the end of its first decade; there are also quite a few things that need improvement. It is my hope that Tony George and those closest to him make the advances that take the IRL to that "next level" everyone keeps talking about.
More important than any upgrades to departments within the League is the reminder, the caveat that the IRL do something Honda promised to do when the company first began selling road cars in the United States: keep it simple.
(c) 2004 Anne Proffit