CHICAGO, September 14, 2004 - In the aftermath of the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series Delphi Indy 300 at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway this past weekend, it's time to take another look a competition, safety, security and flying cars.
This time, thank goodness, when Buddy Rice's Panoz G Force/Honda/Firestone machine got airborne, courtesy of a wheel-touch with Darren Manning on lap 185 of 200 Sunday afternoon, the driver walked away.
Rice said he held onto his seat belts and watched the view, then once the track crew and the League's dedicated Delphi Safety Team righted his Argent Mortgage/Pioneer-sponsored Rahal Letterman Racing entry, Rice climbed out and waved both arms in recognition of cheering from the crowded grandstands..
This is the way it's supposed to be when a driver's car lifts. Rice somersaulted and came down on the 4130-aircraft grade rollover bar, one of the stronger parts of an IRL race car's tub. Rules enacted by Brian Barnhart, Phil Casey and the entire Indy Racing League technical brain trust worked to enhance the 2004 Indy 500 winner's protection.
But it had to be a heart-stopper for everyone at Rahal Letterman Racing to see Rice's car become a flying machine, in an accident so reminiscent of that which nearly killed the team's sole driver last season, Kenny Brack.
The Swede is recovering from his physical injuries and, while he's not ready for prime time yet, KB will be in his first competition when he returns home to contest a Porsche Cup race as a series guest driver this coming weekend. Is Brack looking forward to the challenge? You betcha!
There have been grumblings since this particular incident suggesting Rice was driving way over his head in the race, but the Arizonan has always been an aggressive sort, making those whines less than valid. At the same time through this season, the same suggestions have come up concerning Manning's actions behind the wheel.
Darren Manning is in his first year of IRL competition, coming to Team Target following the death of Tony Renna - in a test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the Floridian ending up flying before dying - and the young Briton dedicated his season to the man he replaced at Chip Ganassi's outfit.
Manning hasn't shown the type of brilliance that would rate him with other Ganassi drivers like Alessandro Zanardi, Jimmy Vasser, Juan Pablo Montoya or even Scott Dixon, whose moribund season has most everyone in the League scratching their heads. Still Manning has been renewed for next year in a deal that allows him to (in his own words) "but some new trousers."
The stakes have become so high in the Indy Racing League this year as competition between engine makers Honda and Toyota intensifies. It became apparent that Toyota's primary focus at the start of the season was on its NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series program as the company has won only the first of 14 races held to date, annoying the IRL teams and drivers who expected - and invested in - more.
Honda drivers have captured the balance of the IndyCar Series checkered flags, beginning with race #2 in Phoenix. Honda knew last season would be a difficult one and was pleased with any victories, winning at Phoenix and Kansas in 2003.
This year, with parallel programs focused on both the 3.5-liter engine used up to Indianapolis and the 3-liter mill in competition for the balance of the year, Honda has shown that steady homework - and sinking untold dollars, yen and pounds into development can pay off.
The battle between engine makers and also chassis developers Dallara and Panoz G Force has been fierce, making the stakes for teams and drivers even higher in the League's ninth season of competition. As is its nature, the loftier the rewards for success from those outside sources, the more chances teams and drivers take.
The plethora of pit road incidents in the League this season can easily be chalked up to this heightened level of racing and the concurrent risk versus reward factor. While Barnhart and Co. have given wrist-slaps to two of the most recent drivers who had pit road problems (Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. both instigated pit road incidents at Nazareth and had to sit out this weekend's Friday morning practice) the League has been smart enough not to issue wholesale pit road rules changes.
In the Sunday morning drivers meeting at Chicagoland, Brian Barnhart admonished the 22 combatants to take care of each other, as if this were a new episode of "Hill Street Blues". For the most part they listened, but when they didn't, off went Rice for his Sunday afternoon flying lesson.
What can be done to avert future flights? I, quite frankly don't have any answers at this time, but I think the Indy Racing League will have troubles keeping their entrants from working ever harder to win. That is why people compete and accidents are bound to happen. What the League has done so far to keep cars on the ground, with vertical wickers, stepped undertrays and viable, fair reactions to avertable accidents seems to be working.
And at least Buddy Rice, Kenny Brack and Rahal Letterman Racing have a future to look forward to. They might not win the League title this year, but at least they tried and tried hard to make the championship their own, even against the great odds of an Andretti Green Racing juggernaut of four well-sorted cars, four drivers who feel like they're doing a remake of "Animal House" and that deep engineering staff.
Will Buddy Rice slack off a bit in the final two races of the year? I don't think he (or anyone else) will stop trying to win at California Speedway and/or Texas Motor Speedway in October because of what happened in Joliet. Hopefully Rice won't be doing any more aerobatics in those two contests. He still has the opportunity to finish second to Tony Kanaan or Dan Wheldon, two of those four AGR pilots.
Rice will have to make his own destiny. I just hope he fulfills his goals on terra firma.