An Amazing Season

AGUANGA, CA, October 19, 2004 – The Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series has completed the season and, in most cases the 2004 edition was classic. Spaghetti western classic, that is.

The microcosm was visible last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, that heavily banked 1.5-mile oval just north of Ft. Worth. Clint Eastwood would have loved the good, bad and ugly aspects of the Chevy 500K weekend, the ironies and destinies of all players. If nothing else, the Indy Racing League knows its pathos and comedy.

The Chevy 500K, run on Sunday after both the Menards Infiniti Pro and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series had each completed their parts the trackside entertainment a day earlier, gave us a final look at the greatness of Tony Kanaan’s championship season, one in which he completed every single lap of competition (3305), led more trips around the 15 ovals on this year’s schedule than any other driver (889) and did so without seemingly angering anyone around him.

How can this possibly happen? This season Tony and the balance of Andretti Green Racing’s Four Musketeers managed to show that having a well integrated four-car team (four kings?) beats just about anything.

The combination of Kanaan, Dan Wheldon (P2 in the standings), Dario Franchitti (6th) and Bryan Herta accomplished so much together in 2004 that individual achievements became less important. Consider that AGR won eight of 16 races and now, pick your chin off the floor. Amazing, isn’t it?

Nothing broke on Tony Kanaan’s car in competition this year. Although Kanaan had an engine malady that kept him from qualifying at California Speedway, that was it. No other engine, gearbox problems, no setup difficulties, no blown Firestone tires. Tony Kanaan had none of the usual troubles and used his talents to advance a well-prepared car. After finishing fourth in last season’s title chase, Kanaan had mojo from Homestead to Texas this year.

Nobody was happier for Tony Kanaan when he won the 2004 IndyCar Series championship than Wheldon, Franchitti and Herta. Will they all be together next year doing their personal rendition of “Animal House”? It sure looks that way.

Another notable sign of good karma was the competitiveness of Rahal Letterman Racing with Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira at the controls. These two guys, while nowhere near the camaraderie of AGR managed to put on some awesome shows, including victory in the Indy 500, at Kansas and at Michigan for Rice. Meira hounded his teammate the entire season and, while he never made it first to the checkered flags Meira’s performances earned a second season with the team.

Rahal, Letterman and GM Scott Roembke now have more talent than they know what to do with: Rice, Meira, Kenny Brack and Danica Patrick, with Roger Yasukawa, who ran with the team for two spring dates waiting in the wings. Do these guys intend to become the next AGR if sufficient sponsorship heads their way?

Then there was the case of Adrian Fernandez, who joined the League with Honda‘s blessing and buckaroos shortly after the Mexican realized he wasn’t really welcome in the Champ Car World Series where his team intended to race this season.

Fernandez needed a few races to get up to speed with these very different cars, but once the eldest Indy car driver got with the program, Fernandez snared three wins. His latent abilities also helped teammate Kosuke Matsuura harness the Bombardier Rookie of the Year award.

This was the year of the Honda, for sure, but it was also a breakout season for American chassis builder Panoz G Force. Yes, the PGF tub is designed and built in Georgia, not Italy like Dallara and Britain like Lola, which talked its way into and out of the League a couple of years back.

Toyota won two races after earning the title last year: they secured the first and last contests of the season, both with Marlboro Team Penske drivers. Team Penske has had some damn good seasons of late, but this sure wasn’t one. Book ending a season isn’t what Roger had in mind, believe me.

And how about Target Chip Ganassi Racing? This squad won the title in 2003 and looked like a bunch of wankers in 2004. Scott Dixon, failing to secure the F1 ride he really wanted signed again with Chip for next year and beyond. Darren Manning was a wee bit on the wild side and finally paid for his indiscretions when he wasn’t cleared to drive in the season finale after crashing on his second qualifying lap in the penultimate race at California.

Did Pennzoil Panther Racing really think they could plug Tomas Scheckter into the seat formerly occupied by Sam Hornish Jr. and just go out there and win? It’s been a costly 2004 season for the former two-time championship team, who had to replace rookie Mark Taylor with Townsend Bell at mid-year. Everything seemed to go wrong for Panther and, while Scheckter, Taylor and Bell can’t shoulder all the blame, they’ve got to accept some.

Teams who joined IRL in 1996 or 1997 are nearly all gone. A.J. Foyt will likely continue with phantom Conseco funding, but Tom Kelley is talking about closing his doors (we don’t print rumors here), Ron Hemelgarn showed up for Indy only with a cooperative venture and veterans Dreyer & Reinbold had a moribund year.

Greg Ray had to pull himself from the drivers’ seat in order to gain funding with Taylor and did so with extreme reluctance. Eddie Cheever, who expected great things from Alex Barron and Ed Carpenter was rewarded with a sole podium (Barron at Texas I) for high profile sponsor Red Bull and is remaking the team – again – even as we speak.

Those occurrences are sad for the old-timers but that’s racing.

Probably one of the ugliest visions of this season was watching Tora Takagi, the 2003 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year trundle around at the back of the pack in Mo Nunn Racing’s Dallara/Toyota. Since he left Ganassi’s outfit and began his own [first CART and now] IndyCar Series team, Nunn hasn’t looked at all like the magician he was with Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Even U.E. “Pat” Patrick, who bolted from Champ Car to the League this season, looked totally out of place. It’s hard to remember – as we watched first Al Unser Jr., then Jeff Simmons, Jaques Lazier and finally Tomas Enge – that this team finished second in the CART standings with Adrian Fernandez in 2000 and took Emerson Fittipaldi to his first Indy win.

Next year should, even more separate the haves from have-nots in IndyCar Series racing. With the sale and possible shuttering of Cosworth Racing in the UK and Torrance, CA, Chevrolet‘s best hope for a viable engine goes away. With the pummeling they took in 2004, Toyota ought to be a valid competitor (with some good teams on tap) for the strong teams running engines from Honda Performance Development and Ilmor in 2005.

Who will challenge Kanaan? If his mojo continues unabated likely no one, but look for Penske and Ganassi to rebound, Wheldon to try and usurp the unflappable Brazilian and for both Rahal Letterman and Fernandez Racing to be right up there too.

Yes, the ninth season of IRL racing was good, bad, ugly, and with the challenge of road and street racing on tap for 2005 we ought to have even more of the same. My withdrawal symptoms are starting already.

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