Window Over Terre Haute
January 21, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The confirmation of Team Marlboro Penske returning to the Brickyard for this year’s race reminds me of that little saying. Things are looking up, but the sun isn’t quite out yet.
Last year, Chip Ganassi’s venture - taking his two CART drivers, putting them in IRL cars and Juan Montoya’s victory - showed it was possible for a team from the rival series to have a special unit devoted solely to the Indy 500.
Ironically, the IRL’s cost-containment policy has made it viable for other CART teams.
I’ve been wondering just how long it would take for other CART owners to follow in Ganassi’s footsteps. While there doesn’t seem to be a stampede to Tony George’s door for entry blanks, this may be the start of a trend where we’ll see the best of CART battle the best of the IRL on the same playing field. That’s good for racing.
If you race in the open-wheel series, it’s impossible to ignore the Indy 500.
As the Joyce Julius and Associates Sponsor’s Report summarized, the Indy 500 returned – after a two-year hiatus behind the Daytona 500 – as the top sponsor exposure grossing telecast in the United States. That was only for the race, and didn’t include the practice or qualifying shows.
In plain English, the sponsor report doesn’t count heads or television sets. They measure the number of times, and for how long, you can see a sponsor’s image or name appear on the race cars and anything else within camera range.
While that’s not Nielsen rating points, you have to consider that many of the sidepods of the IRL cars were devoid of any sponsor logos.
Can you imagine what the numbers would look like if the top CART sponsors were there?
One IRL insider claimed the Target Chip Ganassi cars got more sponsor exposure in one month than the rest of the season.
Ganassi said in Fontana that he's leaning in the direction of defending his title with his rookies Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian. Also, Derrick Walker - a CART owner who fields an IRL team for the budding star Sarah Fisher - will be at Indy in May.
So, it’s not quite an invasion, yet.
Perhaps the other owners are mindful of the early infamous days of “the split” when the IRL announced a policy, much like a protective tariff. This policy guaranteed 25 spots in the 33-car field to IRL points earners, leaving the remaining eight to everyone else. CART owners cried foul and boycotted the event.
If CART owners came as a group, in the early days of the IRL sanctioned 500, it was likely that they would shut out the smallest, and most neediest of the IRL loyalists, depriving them of the rich finishing prizes they needed just to finish the rest of the season.
The IRL insider said it was unlikely there would be a return to that policy in the future.
This insider pointed out that the Ganassi team was treated like any other entrant, and Ganassi personnel agreed.
It’s ironic that Indy 500 runner-up Buddy Lazier lamented the fact he was held up by IRL drivers trying to chase Montoya down in the closing stages of the race.
Between CART’s acceptance of teams running in other series and the IRL’s unspoken policy of no more protective measures, the atmosphere is clearing up for a possible return to the best open-wheel contest in the U.S. since 1995.
I just hope there are no storm clouds in the future to wash out such an event.