IRL on the road and street

INDIANAPOLIS, September 7, 2004 – When the Indy Racing League announced its schedule about a month ago, two venerable road courses were added to the series regular venues for a 16-event campaign in the 2005 IndyCar Series season. Would there be more road courses?

The League was vague about its intentions at that time, but last week made the profound decision to add a street course to its calendar for a total of 17 races next year.

The road courses are Infineon Raceway Sears Point in Sonoma on August 28th, which is, as I write this is on the verge of being part of the annual Northern California inferno, as wildfires congregate on the rain-parched hills surrounding this lovely 1.77-mile road circuit.

The second road-racing venue is Watkins Glen International on September 25th, the 3.4-mile much-maligned former home of the United States Grand Prix that is known as much for its Bog as it is for great racing.

Both of these road circuits will be great additions to the Indy Racing League’s 14 regular oval circuits, but were two tracks holding IRL road races enough?

Apparently not, as last week the League announced it will holds its first race containing both left and right-hand turns on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida on April 3rd. The 1.806-mile street circuit used last year by CART is a lovely street/airport venue with great runoff areas for the IRL’s drivers to utilize. Quite frankly, I think it was a wise choice for the League to take on the St. Pete circuit, which yielded good racing and excellent attendance in 2003 for CART.

This new race means the League won’t have a horrid gap between its Phoenix round on March 19th and the Twin Ring Motegi trip on April 30th, both of which are Saturday events. That’s going to give the Indy Racing League three warm weather races leading up to the Year of May and the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, set to take the green flags on May 29th.

The addition of St. Pete to the lineup also brings a venerable racer back into the business. Welcome back a guy who departed the industry after selling his team to another great competitor back in 2002. Yes, Barry Green, who took Jacques Villeneuve to Indy for his 500 victory in 1995 and got Dario Franchitti a heartbeat away from a CART title in 1999 is coming back to major open wheel motorsports.

And that is a good thing. Green, a longtime driver, mechanic, team manager and team owner has agreed to become part of Andretti Green Promotions, a new enterprise that will manage and promote the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg next spring. Green, who got so burnt out during his final years in CART has spent the last couple of seasons getting to know his family and, essentially smelling the roses.

It must not have been enough for this staunch competitor and now we’ll get to watch Master Green work his magic with the politicians on the west coast of Florida as he puts together an enthralling event.

Why did he get back in? Obviously the competitive fires must still burn in Barry Green, who was present for the past two Indy 500 races, assisting Andretti Green Racing’s co-owners, Michael Andretti, Kevin Savoree and Barry’s younger brother Kim Green. These two Aussie brothers have been such a refined part of American open wheel competition that it is difficult to even think of ’em as “furriners” anymore, even though the accents belie the heritage.

What will it take for the Indy Racing League to put on three good, exciting and competitive road/street competitions in 2005? They’ve got plenty of drivers champing at the bit to get back to road racing. The League also has two chassis builders who face the compromises of making stronger tubs for the punishment these cars will endure. Brakes have to be beefed up, suspensions must be stronger, refueling has to be applicable for either side of the car.

Wind tunnel testing has been ongoing for both Dallara and Panoz G Force chassis up to the time when the League intended to hold its first closed test at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the road course configuration it intends to use. Unfortunately, that was last week and Hurricane Frances intervened, forcing that date to be rescheduled.

Engine makers General Motors (Chevrolet), Honda and Toyota have to make revisions to their three-liter power mills to get them ready for action on road courses too but, for the most part, they profess to be ready.

Firestone has to produce (gasp) wet weather tires for the League’s events and the humor of watching IRL IndyCar Series veterans with minimal road course skills could be a good enough reason to head to the west coast of Florida next April.

Admitting my age, I must confess I recall the last time inveterate oval racers were introduced to road racing back in the 1970s. At that time they were running the Formula 5000 series and it was co-sanctioned by USAC and the SCCA.

Mario Andretti, Brian Redman, Gordon Johncock, the Unser brothers (Bobby and Big Al), John “Boom Boom” Cannon were among those partaking of that series, which ran on both ovals and road courses, albeit with more of the latter than the IRL intends to use.

I fondly remember Johncock’s inability to take the final turn at Road America during the 1975 season. Each time he’d come to the bottom of the start/finish hill, wee Gordie would find a way to pitch his Lola off the road. It was fun to watch but not much fun for him or his mechanics, as I recall.

I don’t think we’re in for antics of this sort once the Indy Racing League takes to the streets and roads, but I do think we’re in for excitement. And to tell you quite frankly, as much as I’ve come to be enthralled by the oval contests the IRL produces that give us heart-stopping tight finishes, it’ll be nice to head to the California Wine Country and back to the Glen next fall.

It’s going to be even more exciting to see who’s done their homework in St. Petersburg next April. To be quite frank, I can’t wait.

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