IRNLS: Our Stars Just As Bright

Earlier this past summer, Michael Andretti was released from Newman-Haas Racing in the CART FedEx Championship Series. Then, in the same weekend in August, Chip Ganassi announced that he would buy out the rest of Jimmy Vasser’s contract.

Two high-profile American drivers were suddenly unemployed for 2001.

Just as suddenly, speculation centered on those drivers possible making the move to the Indy Racing Northern Light Series. It didn’t happen, but for a short while it seemed the IRNLS was indeed a possible destination for the two American drivers. Fans and some in the media suggested attracting a high-profile driver such as Andretti or Vasser would "validate" the IRNLS and give it the "superstar" it needed to get the upper hand in the open-wheel market.

IRNLS officials didn’t feel that way.

"There was a rumor that Michael Andretti was going to come to the series, and everybody thought that was going to be it for us, and we win, we win," said Bob Reif, chief marketing officer and vice president of sales and marketing for the IRNLS. "Well, it’s not about that. It’s about developing your stars and having these stars perform on the track and let their performances speak for themselves."

And Brian Barnhart thinks the on-track message was clear.

"Our racing is phenomenal," said Barnhart, the IRNLS vice president of operations. "The closeness of the competition and the level playing field we have speaks volumes about what our racing is all about."

To continue to spread the IRNLS message, Reif believes it’s pointless to try to find the "magic bullet."

"Every year in the NBA or the NFL, there’s a new person all the time," Reif said. "But there are few people in sports like Tiger Woods or Joe Montana that completely transcend the sport.

"We’d be thrilled to have somebody like that, but I don’t think that’s what it’s going to take. I think it’s going to take a lot of hard work and people taking notice of what our people are able to do."

Barnhart thinks the IRNLS already has its superstar.

"I think that with Al Unser Jr.’s participation in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, I think we’ve got that superstar status," Barnhart said.

But he didn’t stop there. Barnhart says the IRNLS roster is stocked from top to bottom with stars or potential stars.

"We’ve got an awful lot of talented race car drivers. Eddie Cheever, Buddy Lazier, Scott Goodyear, Scott Sharp, Robbie Buhl, Al Unser Jr., Greg Ray, Jeff Ward, Billy Boat, that’s a solid lineup, and that’s just off the top of my head," he said. "You combine that with our young talents of Sam Hornish, Airton Dare, Jeret Schroeder and Sarah Fisher, we have a pretty bright future ahead of us, and we’re well-stocked now."

Stability is one that Barnhart would like to see improved, however.

"I think what I would like to see us have happen is, I think from a League standpoint we to improve the situation of our series to make the Indy Racing Northern Light Series more of a destination series and where a driver wants to get to and where he wants to stay, instead of using us as a springboard into NASCAR.

"We need to strengthen our series in the number of events and the awareness and the television package, the entire package of the Indy Racing series needs to be improved to a point where a driver wants to get there and stay there.

"I think at that point in time it’ll take care of itself."

Expanding Lineup: As for next season, Barnhart said a number of teams are talking about expanding their current one-car operations.

"I would think we’re probably going to be anticipating between 26 and 30 cars on a full-time basis," he said.

Hemelgarn Racing announced last week that it was expanding to a two-car effort with the addition of IRNLS veteran Stan Wattles. Galles Racing is working on adding another driver, as is Bradley Motorsports, Mid-America Motorsports, Team Cheever, Panther Racing and Team Coulson. Those additions should offset the merger of Treadway Racing and Hubbard Racing and the possible one-car only effort from A.J. Foyt Enterprises, which fielded two cars this season.

Veteran Raul Boesel is looking to get back into the IRNLS full-time, according to his spokesperson, and he has been talking to one team seriously. Arie Luyendyk looks likely to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in a one-off effort.

In addition, a number of drivers have passed their IRNLS rookie tests, and Barnhart anticipates at least one of them, Cory Witherill with Indy Regency Racing, will run a full season.

Chris Bingham, a road racing specialist who passed his rookie test in October, is actively seeking a ride. Other drivers who are eligible to compete in their first season next year include David Pook, Dave Darland and Brandon Erwin.

USAC standouts Tracy Hines, Derek Davidson and Kasey Kahne also are expected to pass their rookie tests before the 2001 season.

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