Trolling for Peace

INDIANAPOLIS, July 20, 2004 – Just around this time last week, the Indy Racing League and Open Wheel Racing Series produced identical press releases announcing they’d decided not to talk about unification in the near future.

Both entities thanked Roger Penske, who instigated the latest round of peace talks – does this sound like the Middle East or what? – then the IRL and OWRS declared there was nothing left to talk about and, essentially let’s just go racing.

While it’s true that this is no time of year for any racing organization to get into pontifical and political crises, there is also no time like the present for a congenial solution to America’s open wheel racing problems.

In addition to the questions of fan, sponsor, manufacturer and media ennui, there’s the question of dismal TV ratings, falling race gates. More than anything else American open wheel suffers from overwhelming apathy.

Who the heck cares anymore when there’s the balance of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series going from now until November? What does it matter when FIA Formula One maestro Michael Schumacher edges to the 100-win mark?

Many fans are more interested in taxicab racing than in the purest form of motor sport because the powers that be have managed to squeeze all the excitement from it by neglect and mismanagement.

Once again I am beating a dead or dying horse here, but I can’t help it. Quite frankly I had hoped (along with a lot of other folks) that the magic of businessman Penske could elevate the talks to a higher level.

After all, once Roger appealed to major players in the IRL and OWRS through the auspices of the New York Times on May 30th with an editorial asking for peace in our time, the wheels started rolling toward a cessation of hostilities.

Last week Penske met in Toronto – when the Champ Car World Series was in town for the Molson Indy Toronto, won by the fabulous Sebastien Bourdais, if anyone still cares – with the three owners of OWRS.

Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi joined Roger Penske at this meeting, as did Indianapolis Motor Speedway executive vice president and general counsel Curt Brighton; IMS/IRL president Tony George was in Joliet for the NASCAR race.

Now, this is the second time parties have met to try and find a way to resolve their differences; the first occasion occurred in Pontiac, MI a few weeks earlier and must have made some progress. Otherwise why hold a second confab?

From all accounts, the latter meeting went into specifics, rather than ideology and, obviously the specific terms each side was talking about didn’t meld into a final blueprint that would bring them together.

The three owners of Open Wheel Racing Series have plunked a bunch of their own money into the business and series’ holdings since gaining the right to operate Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford and the Toyota Atlantic Championship from Indianapolis Federal Bankruptcy Judge Frank J. Otte in January. They appointed a gent named Dick Eidswick to be president of OWRS and have gone about the business of running races since the first event at Long Beach in April.

On the other side of the coin, Tony George and the Hulman-George family have been ideologically and financially responsible for most of the success of the Indy Racing League since its 1996 inception. George is the sole owner of the League.

Many teams have taken advantage of IRL’s financial and competitive health to carpetbag from the former Championship Auto Racing Teams (predecessor to OWRS) and enjoy the riches of manufacturer involvement in the League.

Walking the two paddocks is an interesting adventure. There are a few hospitality units on the OWRS side, with new entrant RuSPORT, along with Newman/Haas’ PacifiCare/McDonald coach, Forsythe’s Indeck, Gentilozzi’s Johnson Controls, Kalkhoven’s NII Holdings and Gulfstream sponsors and Herdez Competition prime among them offering business and personal liaisons.

On the other side of the fence, Marlboro has a huge unit to entertain its clients, as do Andretti Green Racing with at least three coaches, Delphi, Target, among others. The Racing for Kids group has space for children to play – and there are plenty of ’em at the tracks these days – while the League has its own doublewide rolling coach for entertainment and sponsor relations services.

On the track, the depth of the IRL’s fields can’t be questioned while the differences between entrants in OWRS makes the competition level a bit more dubious. On the track, League finishes are a blink apart while on the OWRS side, there’s more sniping in first turns than at the checkers.

When it comes to rulesmakers’ fairness IRL has it over OWRS with Brian Barnhart, Phil Casey and Co. calling the shots.

The drivers who once ruled raceways across the United States now work for (and in) the League as coaches, in race control or as team owners. On any given weekend, one can see Al Unser, son Al Unser Jr., Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt Jr., Rick Mears, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Eddie Cheever, Robbie Buhl et al.

These gents have put their presence where they believe this discipline has the best opportunity.

Many have said the sport of American open wheel racing can only be saved with a single entity running it. In the Indy Racing League, the buck stops with Tony George.

Over the years it has been proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt that a single entity running a racing series has the authority, the mandate to effect immediate change. Perhaps the France family and/or Bernie Ecclestone could be considered despots, but we bear witness to the good they have done for NASCAR and Formula One, respectively.

American open wheel motorsports needs the same type of despot and only one guy out there can do it all. His name is Tony George and he has the infrastructure and the intelligence to make American open wheel racing whole again.

(c) 2004 Anne Proffit