Turning Left and Right in the IRL

INDIANAPOLIS, August 3, 2004 – We all knew it would happen and now the Indy Racing League has confirmed it will contest two races (at least) on road courses during the 2005 IndyCar and, conceivably the Menards Infiniti Pro Series seasons.

The venues were no surprise either, as the rumor mill has stated all along it would be Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen International that would hold the first League road-racing contests.

In releasing the schedule today, the Indy Racing League confirmed the two dates and issued another 16-event calendar that goes from March to October, similar to the 2004 campaign.

President and CEO Tony George did state the tenth season for his sanctioning body, created when it became impossible for George, who also owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to do business with Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), includes road racing because it was always his vision to have such events.

“All along we contemplated road and street courses but we also intended to preserve the oval racing legacy” that Americans have grown up with. The League has helped develop new ovals in its nine years of existence and has assisted in keeping some oval tracks open when it appeared they’d go down the tubes. One, Nazareth Speedway will close after the IRL race this month.

Tony George always speaks of opportunities and, when the chance to work with Steve Payne at Infineon Raceway and Craig Rust of Watkins Glen International came about, he wasn’t about to turn them down. Of course, both circuits will need specific changes to accommodate the Indy cars like added run-off areas. Neither track operator seems loath to handle demands from the IRL.

“This is a very exciting day,” Payne exulted. “In my 13 years here, one of my objectives has been to bring open wheel racing back” to the Northern California area. “There’s a lot of excitement” at Watkins Glen, according to Rust. “”We’ve been intent on getting this race and believe it will do very well and be very popular.” Both operators believe they’re returning to their properties’ roots in gaining an IRL date.

There aren’t many changes in the complete 2005 IRL schedule, other than moving the Phoenix race to a Saturday in order to get TV airtime and taking the Twin Ring Motegi event back to the end of April. (A six-week gap between Phoenix and Japan though, which could yet be filled by another road/street race.)

Oh, and the lawsuit giving Texas Motor Speedway a second NASCAR Nextel Cup race means the Indy Racing League will, for the first time, end its season at California Speedway in Fontana, thereby allowing Toyota to bookend the year by sponsoring the first and last races at opposite ends of the country, Florida and California.

The doors aren’t closed to other road and street circuits, the IRL concede. They’re still talking with Portland International Raceway, speaking with to St. Petersburg promoters and waiting for the other shoe to drop with regard to Long Beach, whose contract with the Champ Car World Series is up after next year’s race.

“Growing our schedule in a methodical way,” Ken Ungar admits, “is something we’ve done to establish relationships.” While he believes the maximum number of events the IRL can handle well is 20, the League’s senior vice president of business affairs also notes the road and street courses IRL can accommodate is “in a range of six”.

That won’t sit well with oval racing aficionados who believe one road or street circuit is one too many, but they’ll get used to it, right?

Along with changing things around vis–vis Texas Motor Speedway, which bills itself as the “Indy Racing League’s Second Home”, the IRL tried to find a way to move its Kansas Speedway race to a date when the air outside was somewhat less devilish than Fourth of July weekend.

The League likes the idea of racing in Kansas on a holiday, though, and there simply wasn’t another date available. A night race perhaps? Ungar says the League really doesn’t want to move races from Sunday to Saturday night contests unless it’s absolutely necessary. Three is quite enough, thank you.

What looks good about the 2005 schedule is the fact that there won’t be as many back-to-back events as there are this year (or maybe it just doesn’t seem that way yet?).

What doesn’t look good is that the first road race, at Infineon on August 28th comes along as the third in a stretch of three straight weeks on the road: it follows Kentucky Speedway (1.5-mile oval) and Pikes Peak International Raceway, a one-mile oval.

That means teams will have about four days to change their cars and make the trip from Colorado to California. Groups with light budgets might find this a big problem; those who smack ’em up at either venue will be facing challenges they never have had in the nine previous years of IndyCar Series events.

The way the League is expanding its horizons without engendering Formula One budgets is commendable piece of work. Brian Barnhart, senior vice president of racing operations has been hard at work getting the chassis makers up to speed on what he wants from the cars in their two scheduled road course appearances in 2005.

Obviously, brake cooling is a major factor. According to Nicholas Alcock, chief aerodynamicist for Panoz G Force, brake cooling and front aero balance are the two major items his team is looking at in the wind tunnel testing just underway.

With modified uprights to accept larger brake calipers, a faster steering rack and limited slip differential, together with the use of wet tires on slippery pavement the package should be complete. Barnhart has decreed the use of short-oval wing packages, which should be just fine.

Today’s schedule announcement is only the beginning of changes for the Indy Racing League. With discussions ended between the League and Champ Car World Series, the addition of two road courses makes the idea of joining the League a little bit more inducing. What will that mean for the Champ Car guys? We’ll just have to see.

(c) 2004 Anne Proffit