What’s Right with the IRL

Yesterday’s Michigan Indy 400 showed what is right with the Indy Racing League in particular and open-wheel racing in general. The close and furiously fast action seemed to frighten newcomers among the spectators, but third-place finisher Dan Wheldon claimed the drivers had big smiles on their faces. “The cars are on edge, but you can run flat out,” he said. “Anybody who says the Indy Racing League is not the best championship in the world is a complete idiot in my book.”

Of course, Honda-powered cars dominated the race, claiming their ninth-straight victory. The crowd, slightly bigger than in the past couple of years, heavily supported Sam Hornish Jr. and would have preferred seeing him challenge more strongly and more often in his Dallara Toyota. Tony Kanaan led 183 of the 200 laps, but someone, usually Buddy Rice, was right behind. Rice passed for the lead on lap 190, held on for the close win, and with his Indianapolis 500 victory in May has now won the two biggest races of the season.

“I’m sure there were times [Kanaan] wanted out of the lead, but there were no takers,” said Rahal Letterman Racing’s team boss, Scott Roembke. The wait-and-see, fuel-saving strategy paid off perfectly, with Rice being able to run full-rich in the last 20 miles.

Meanwhile, uncertainty about fuel was Kanaan’s undoing. “I did my job-what I was told to do,” he said. “Somebody [on the radio] asked me to let him by.” Making a stab at retaking the lead on laps 198 and 199, he missed by a whisker but made it look interesting, and everybody went home feeling their tickets were worth the money.

The IRL has moved well down the road toward developing some personalities, which it lacked at the beginning in 1996. Even though he was bitterly frustrated by the defeat, Tony Kanaan still was funny and charming, admitting that Rice, who should have been as low on fuel as him, did a “pretty impressive” burnout after the checkered flag. Rice is intense, plain-spoken, and as dumpy-looking as the average guy coming through the factory gate, but continuing his winning ways will be very good for the series. With a foursome of three charming Brits and a Scotsman in the field, along with the crafty New Zealander Scott Dixon, the mercurial South African Tomas Scheckter, and of course the endearing Brazilian Helio Castroneves, the IRL presents competitors who are smart , likable, and fun to listen to. And it helps that these men express their belief in the IRL’s formula.

Keeping in mind the continuing development of young A.J. Foyt IV and the fact that the third Al Unser is just a step away from the IRL-not to mention the likelihood of road racing in 2005-there could be the makings of real success for this outfit before too much longer.