Sunday, March 2, 2008

What should the IndyCar World Series Comprise?

I’m guessing we’ve all heard this before; which came first, the Chicken or the Egg? The Roadrunner or the Coyote?

Or Oval tracks vs. Road Courses, which seemingly digresses into are you a “Meat ‘N Potatoes” type of guy or “Juan ‘O Dem” Wine ‘N Cheese types? You know, are you a Hard chargin’ take no prisoners Roundy-round good ‘Ol boy or “Juan ‘O Dem” string back glove gentlemen who like’s his martini; Shaken, not stirred…

Which inevitably leads us to the question of Ovals vs. Road Courses, as some fans are urging Mr. George to NOT meld the united series into CART Lite, claiming Tony should stay true to his original vision of an ALL Oval series which would “Taste Great and be Less Filling;” As originally the Indy Racing League would cost less and cater primarily to American Open Wheel drivers…

Yet, I’ll leave it up to you to decide which Tastes great or is Less filling? Since a quick look in my history book reveals that the Championship Auto Racing Teams organization derived from the United States Auto Club sanctioning body originally began as an ALL Oval Track series with the exception of one road course, the wonderful Watkins Glen International in upstate New York.

The 1979 CART season consisted of 14 events being held at seven venues, comprising of shorter dual “Sprint” races and longer endurance events, i.e.; 500 miles. Yet of those seven tracks, only two remain on today’s Indy Car calendar, ironically being split evenly (1-1) Oval/Road Course, while the rest of the venues have either ceased operating, lost their event or have been gobbled up by the two megatropolis corporations running the majority of today’s NASCAR events…

Yet from this humble beginning of an Oval heavy series, by its tenth season CART had diversified its schedule of 15 events into three disciplines comprising of six Ovals, four Permanent Road Courses and five Temporary Street Circuits.

Ironically the CART/PPG World Series (arguably) reached the zenith of its popularity a single year after Tony George’s advances to revise the series management structure had been rebuffed. That season was 1993 when Nigel Mansell, the reigning Formula 1 World Champion drove for Newman/Haas Racing alongside teammate Mario Andretti. Thus, forgive me for nick-naming Tony George’s newly consolidated Indy Racing League, err, Indy Car Series what it will hopefully be transformed into over the next few years; The IndyCar World Series…

Here’s a brief overview of the inaugural CART schedule and venues

1979 CART ChampionshipPhoenix; Atlanta 1 – 2; Indianapolis; Trenton 1 - 2; Michigan 1 – 2;
Watkins glen; Trenton; Ontario; Michigan; Atlanta; Phoenix

Track OwnershipInternational Speedway Corp. (ISC) Phoenix; Michigan; Watkins Glen
Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) Atlanta
Hulman & Co; Indianapolis
No longer in existence: Trenton, Ontario

Phoenix International Raceway
The unique 1.0 mile D-Shaped “Tri-Oval” racetrack was built to replace the existing venue run at the nearby Fairgrounds. The track opened in 1964 with its unique layout being attributed to the rocky landscape, along with incorporating a drag strip and external road course. With the advent of Firebird International Raceway’s facility becoming the preferred drag racing venue, the PIR strip eventually disappeared, making way for an internal road course which has hosted Gran Am events in the past.

The track played host to the USAC National Championship and CART Championship Car schedule from it’s inception thru 1995, before becoming part of the rival Indy Racing League schedule from 1996-2004. Yet, upon the track’s owners abruptly changing the facilities focus, the annual Indy Car race was dropped in favour of a second NASCAR event being added to the track’s schedule.

Atlanta International RacewayI’m having a hard time finding any information on the Championship Cars competing here, since the track was purchased by Bruton Smith in 1990 and renamed the Atlanta Motor Speedway in order to secure its stature as one of NASCAR’s super speedways.

The track was opened in 1960, costing $1.8 million to build and according to the race track’s history was hardly finished, as one ‘Ol Timer suggests that the 1.5 mile Oval was a real mud bowl with just one three hole outhouse in the track’s infield to accommodate it’s state of the art wooden bleachers.

And apparently the track teetered on the brink of insolvency multiple times over the 1960-70’s, even filing for chapter ten bankruptcy before General Manager Walt Nix came onboard and stabilized the track’s financial footing.

Atlanta played host to the CART championship with a pair of “Sprint” races in 1979 and 1981, while also hosting feature races in 1979, 1982-83 before apparently falling off the Championship Car trail. With Bruton Smith’s purchase of the 876 acre site, it was renamed Atlanta Motor Speedway, ultimately being rebuilt into a 1.54 mile Quad Oval with 46 Condominiums overlooking the track’s vista.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway
What can I say about the Speedway? As almost everybody who’s a fan of Open Wheel Racing already knows the history of this iconic race track, which opened for racing in 1909 before being repaved with over three million bricks prior to the very first 500 mile event held in May, 1911. The track has remained in the Hulman family’s grasp for over six decades, with Tony George’s diversifying the track’s events in order to prop up the yearly Memorial Day classic once fondly known as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Trenton Speedway
Originally opened in 1900, regular motor racing began in 1912, continuing until the advent of Pearl Harbor in 1941. in 1946 racing resumed on a new 1.0 mile Dirt track before being paved over in 1957. In 1968 the track was enlarged to a 1.5 mile kidney bean shaped Oval, which remained as the track’s ultimate configuration.

Trenton not only featured NASCAR Grand National racing, but Was a long standing stop on the AAA/USAC Championship Car trail held at the Trenton, New Jersey Fairgrounds with AJ Foyt winning a total of twelve times. Trenton’s last year of Open Wheel Racing coincided with the inaugural CART Championship season in 1979. The race track was closed in 1980, with the Fairgrounds being shuttered three years later. Sculpture now resides where the race track once stood.

Michigan International SpeedwayGround breaking began in 1967 with two million yards of dirt being removed in order to build the 2.0 mile super speedway, which features mile 18 degree banking with its wide open spaces offering very fast speeds. The track opened in 1968, costing its original owner approx. $4-6 million to complete before being sold to Roger Penske in 1972 for $2 million. This oval which served as the basis for Fontana has hosted some spectacular 500 mile races with multiple lead changes, as I fondly recall it being the site of Scott Pruett’s maiden CART victory, upon pipping Al Unser Jr on the final lap.

The track was also the host site of the infamous US 500 going head to head with the Indy 500 on May 26, 1996, during the first year of the Open Wheel split. Although the race drew 110,000 spectators, the “Star’s” made a mockery of themselves with a 12 car pile-up during the parade lap, while all of the “Car’s” were at the rookie laden Brickyard. The US 500 would be run three more times, but on a non-opposing date, while The Captain would ultimately sell out to International Speedway Corporation in 1999, with the track joining the Indy Racing League in 2002. Ironically Michigan’s loss of it’s traditional Indy Car race in 2007 reportedly stems from relations being strained by the advent of Detroit’s Belle Isle event occurring too close to MIS’s NASCAR race date, as it’s worth noting that the chief instigator of Belle Isle’s return to motorsports competition is none other than Roger Penske.

Watkins Glen InternationalThis fantastic 3.375 mile, 11 turn road course ultimately gained notoriety as the home of the United States Grand Prix, serving as the longest running stateside venue of Formula 1 from 1961 to 1980.

The track origins began in 1948 with SCCA Amateur racing being run on local town roads comprising of a 6.6 mile circuit. The race was moved to a new wooded hilltop 4.6mile public road course upon the death of one spectator in 1952. Yet, a 2.35 mile permanent road course’s construction began in 1956 under the design assistance of several college professors’ from the nearby Cornell University.

Hosting Formula Libre events with such luminaries as Sir Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney and Phill Hill from 1958-60, the track was awarded the USGP in 1961. Prior to the 1971 USGP the track’s distance was lengthened to 3.375 miles with the addition of four turns in what became known as the “Boot” section of the course, but the escalating speeds of the ground effects chassis and growing crowd rowdiness along with the failure to pay the F1 teams prize money in 1980 led to it’s being dropped from the Formula 1 calendar in 1981.

In December of ’81 the track filed for bankruptcy and sat abandoned for two years prior to Corning Enterprises and International Speedway Corp. purchasing the dormant facility. In 1997, ISC bought out Corning and became the track’s sole owner, with the venues premiere event focusing upon the yearly NASCAR race while the IRL joined the track’s schedule in 2005.

Ontario Motor Speedway
This 2.5 mile rectangular oval was built to mimic the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a few exceptions, being slightly wider and having banking in the short chutes, yet a gift of original pavers were given to the new venue by the Speedway, which were incorporated in a circle of bricks adorning the tracks victory lane.

In honour of its desire to associate itself with the Speedway further, noting that Indy’s annual race was held on Memorial Day, it was decided that Labor Day would be a good weekend to host its race and hence the first event, the California 500 was held on September 6, 1970.

The track also hosted a Formula Libre event won by Mario Andretti in the spring of 1971 along with the California Jam, but subsequently lost favour with mismanagement ultimately leading to filing for bankruptcy in 1980.

Unlike Indy at the time of its inception, OMS not only hosted NASCAR Grand National events, but featured a infield road course and drag strip hosting NHRA events, along with being envisioned as part of Open Wheel’s 500 mile triple crown, consisting of Indy, Ontario and Pocono. Upon it’s filing for bankruptcy, Ontario’s CART date was picked up by Michigan.

The city of Ontario sold the financially insolvent property to Chevron Land Management for $10 million, prior to Chevron spending another $3 million to demolish the facility. The site than sat dormant for several years before a Hilton hotel was built on the former turn four location, with much of the adjacent property having now been commercially developed. Ironically the current Fontana race track built on an ex-Alcoa smelter is located just two miles away.