February 20, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
That’s about to change.
In 10 days the IRL season will open up at Homestead, Fla., for what promises to be a watershed year for the youthful series. One week later CART will debut its new season at the popular venue in Monterrey, Mexico.
Focusing on the IRL for now, this series is starting to show signs of maturity.
League officials have reorganized the business management side and expanded the schedule and - most important - have the best television package in this type of racing. Many of the underfunded teams have been shaken out of the system, but that’s even happening in NASCAR, where teamowners are learning that, more than winning, perception - in the form of popularity - is the key to attracting and keeping sponsorship.
As for racing, the IRL philosophy has been to design cars that allow close competition. People in the United States don’t want to watch a follow-the-leader series. The higher downforce in IRL cars has produced the wheel-to-wheel, heart-stopping racing fans want.
What’s been missing has been star power in the cockpit. Tony Stewart could have been the first one, but he left for the greener (financial) pastures of stock-car racing.
Sarah Fisher has that draw, but she hasn’t had the results for Walker Racing to draw sponsors to keep her steadily in the news. The team missed the Test in the West because of a lack of funding.
Eddie Cheever has charisma also. Sorry, Eddie, you are not in the MTV generation anymore. Men’s perfume sponsorships are going to twentysomethings.
In that marketing sweet spot, Sam Hornish Jr. pushed by Helio Castroneves will be the media darlings this year.
I’m not putting down Buddy Lazier, Scott Sharp, Greg Ray or Robbie Buhl, but they’ve been on the market too long for some “new media” to discover them. Gil de Ferran, is just a little too cool (that’s a compliment) to get that type of notoriety.
Going out on a limb, it’s Castroneves, with his fence-climbing antics, his irrepressible attitude and infectious grin that will push awareness of the series to new levels. Once he started winning, his confidence came out in public and he’s willing to pose for People, or do whatever it takes, to keep his image in the public.
Hornish is a little shyer than Castroneves, which might hurt his marketability. Make no mistake, Hornish is no less aggressive on the track.
Put your money on the Sam and Helio show to be the best attraction in town. There was a little preview of that in the first IROC race at Daytona last Friday as they banged door handle to door handle on the first start of their race.
The Pennzoil Panther Team, as defending champions, will have a David vs. Goliath mentality to beat the vaunted Marlboro Penske Racing Team, which has won 11 Indy 500s. A couple of wins could give Hornish the confidence to show more of his personality, also.
No grass is growing under the Menard or Kelley Racing Teams. On a personal level, Tom Kelley, who has had associations with Penske in the past, would dearly love to beat the Captain in a series of friendly rivalries.
Then there is Buddy Lazier and Ron Hemelgarn Racing. They will be a constant threat. Additionally, there is the double motivation of taking on his brother, Jacques, at Menard, and I’m sure Ron has some ideas on how to take on the Penske, Panthers.
Just to keep the pot boiling, we’re expecting a Chip Ganassi Racing announcement as early as today. Down in Daytona, Jeff Ward and Al Unser Jr. were leading candidates for that ride.
Also, A.J. Foyt, who knows a thing or two about winning in Indy cars, is returning with Eliseo Salazar. While their audience may be more AARP than alternative rock, this potent veteran combo could spoil an MTV Spring Break party of the younger set.
New for this year will be Larry Blair’s team for driver Alex Barron and Mo Nunn Racing’s Felipe Giaffone. Eddie Cheever has hired Tomas Scheckter, the son of Formula One World Champion Jody Scheckter, but he has never raced on an oval. Watching his development could be fun.
Finally, the old Nissan vs. Oldsmobile rivalry didn’t have a lot of zing. With Chevrolet taking over for Olds, which is phasing out of the automotive game, with a new engine and youth-oriented image, maybe civilians will even be talking about technical subjects.
The open-wheel series conducted their preliminaries just as Daytona was heating up with preliminaries for the 500, which may have limited viewership.
Since the March 2 IRL opener falls on a Saturday, not conflicting with the later NASCAR races from Las Vegas, there should be a wide-open opportunity for creating new fans.
That would earn a gold medal in my book.