Significant Events Of The Past Decade
A few years ago, the Speedway released an excellent series of DVD’s that covered decades at the Speedway. The 60’s were called “A Decade of Change”, referring to the innovation that took place; the 70’s were named “A Decade of Legends” due to the number of multiple winners at the Speedway during that time; and so on.
After ten years, I’m still not sure what we call this decade…the 00’s? The naughts? The 2000’s? I’m also not sure that history has decided what the first decade of this new millennium in the Izod IndyCar world will be called; but in this last week of the decade, it is almost obligatory that we look back at some of the most significant events in open-wheel racing – both the good and the bad. In no particular order, these are the events that I consider the most significant to affect open-wheel racing this decade.
Juan Montoya’s domination at Indy: From 1996 through 1999, the Indianapolis 500 had gone from featuring some of the best open-wheel drivers on the planet to some of the most obscure and insignificant names in motorsports. No matter which side your allegiance fell, this is not a matter of opinion – it’s just a fact.
When Chip Ganassi decided to break ranks with CART and run the 2000 Indy 500, it set the tone for the entire decade. It was the first experience that Ganassi or Montoya had with the IRL chassis/engine package, yet the team and driver absolutely dominated the Month of May – to the point of boredom. It laid the groundwork for the next three years, when other teams from CART would migrate to the IRL.
The CART domination of Indy: Following the success of Target Chip Ganassi, more top teams from CART tried their hand at the Indianapolis 500 in 2001. In Marlboro Team Penske’s first race at the famed oval since their win in 1994, they showed their might as Helio Castroneves won in his first try and teammate Gil de Ferran finished second. In fact, the top six positions were filled by full-time CART teams that had come over in one-off attempts at Indy.
This turn of events combined with the domination of Montoya the previous year, further cemented the perception that the CART teams were playing at a higher level than the full-time IRL teams. It also proved that the allure of the property at 16th and Georgetown was too great for the CART teams to ignore. This also set the stage for years to come.
The CART Migration to the IRL: For the most part, the CART migration to the IRL was complete by 2004. Although most of the top teams in CART had crossed over to full-time IRL status in 2003, the last of the hold-outs crossed over in 2004. Marlboro Team Penske was the first to switch to the IRL’s full season in 2002. Target Chip Ganassi Racing made the full-time jump along with Team Green (re-badged as Andretti-Green Racing), in 2003. By 2004, other longtime CART stalwarts such as Fernandez, Pat Patrick and Rahal-Letterman had made the jump; leaving the Champ Car Series as not much more than a battle between Newman/Haas and Forsythe Racing.
The presence of the power teams from CART also drove up the cost of doing business in the IRL. The strong teams of the early days of the IRL were reduced to backmarker status or out of business entirely.
The Women of Indy: Although Janet Guthrie raced three times at Indy in the seventies and Lyn St. James raced five times at Indy in the nineties along with her final appearance in 2000; history may show that it was this decade when the female driver was actually taken seriously as a legitimate threat to win. Unlike Guthrie and St. James who were on the backside of their careers when they came to the Speedway, Sarah Fisher burst onto the Speedway in 2000 as a 19 year-old. She had a successful background in Sprint cars and was a crowd favorite – not so much as a statement for her gender; but because of her likeability, her talent and the fact that she had paid her dues along the way. She ultimately ran in eight Indy 500’s in this decade. She is now an owner-driver in the series.
Milka Duno first appeared at Indy in 2007. I’m not really sure if she is likeable or not. To make that determination, I would have to be able to understand what she is saying. One thing I do understand is that after three years, she has not demonstrated that she possesses the talent to belong in the Izod IndyCar Series. If she did not have the backing of CITGO, it is almost certain that none of us would have even heard of Ms. Duno. I consider it quite fortunate that after three seasons, she has not caused anyone to be seriously injured.
Certainly, the most significant female driver to ever come from the Speedway is Danica Patrick. While she may have as many critics as she does supporters, there is no denying the significance of her impact on the sport.
Manufacturer’s arrivals and exits: The decade began with two chassis manufacturers (Dallara & G-Force) and two engine manufacturers (Oldsmobile & Infiniti). In the ten years that followed, G-Force became Panoz and began supplying cars to the Champ Car Series. Oddly enough, at this same time, the Panoz chassis suddenly fell out of favor among the IndyCar teams. The Falcon chassis was set to join the fray in 2003, but never turned a wheel. By the end of the decade, the Dallara chassis that began running in 2003 was the only chassis allowed to run in the series.
Honda and Toyota both entered the IndyCar series in 2003. It was just after GM pulled the plug on Oldsmobile and the Olds engine was rebadged as a Chevrolet. The Infiniti engine quietly went away at the end of the 2002 season. Honda began to flex their muscle in 2004. At the end of 2005, Honda had unwittingly run off their two competitors – Chevy and Toyota. The unintended consequence was that they would be forced to become the sole engine provider to the series beginning in 2006.
At the end of the decade, Honda was the lone engine to be found in the only chassis in the series – Dallara.
CART’s Bankruptcy: At the end of the 2003 season, the once proud CART series was forced into bankruptcy. Tony George and the IRL sought to buy the CART assets through bankruptcy court, but a judge ruled that the team of Paul Gentilozzi, Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe would be awarded the assets. They continued to operate a competing open-wheel series known as the Champ Car World Series for the next four seasons.
The migration to NASCAR: A rather new phenomenon to plague open-wheel racing sprung up this decade – the flow of open-wheel drivers to NASCAR. Only rarely, did a driver leave an open-wheel series to tackle taxicabs. John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart left open-wheel in the nineties, but this decade saw an exodus of top drivers to head south. In the span of two years, open-wheel champions Juan Montoya, Sam Hornish, Jr. and Dario Franchitti all began NASCAR careers. Add to that list open-wheel drivers AJ Allmendinger and Scott Speed. At the end of the decade, Danica Patrick announced what is generally considered to be her long goodbye from IndyCar to NASCAR.
The loss of ovals: 2005 saw the first time that an IndyCar turned right intentionally, as they series took to the streets of St. Petersburg. That season also included two natural terrain road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. The end of the decade saw the announcement that the next season would feature more road/street courses than ovals. This is an ironic twist for a series founded on the premise of all-ovals in contrast to the CART series of the nineties. Fifteen years later, the same series now embraces what it once openly despised.
The economic downturn: Almost every aspect of racing has been effected by the current economic environment. However, it is probably most evident in sponsorship and driver opportunities. While many of the established names are not required to bring sponsorship dollars, it is now almost unheard of for a driver to be hired these days on talent level alone. That is why you now see drivers such as Paul Tracy, Sebastian Bourdais, Buddy Rice, Bruno Junqueira, Oriol Servia and Frank Montagny all on the sidelines, while drivers such as Milka Duno, Robert Doornbos and Mario Moraes all have full-time rides.
Title-sponsorship deals: After disastrous deals with Pep-Boys and Northern Lights, all indications are that the IRL hit a homerun this time when it struck a six-year title-sponsorship deal with Izod. Parent company Phillips-Van Huesen has the marketing wherewithal and the deep pockets to bring some long-term value to the league. All early signs point to this being the shot in the arm that the series needs as it heads into the next decade.
The upheaval within the Hulman-George family: Soon after the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 this past May, word quickly spread of a meeting of the board of directors of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In that meeting, the sisters of IMS CEO Tony George expressed their concern that their family fortune was being squandered. Tony George, the grandson of Tony Hulman, was given the task to devise a plan of action to relinquish some of his duties, which included running the Speedway, running The IRL and being team owner of Vision Racing. In the subsequent meeting, George dropped a bombshell that he would step aside from all of his responsibilities except for those at Vision Racing.
While I certainly disagreed with many of Tony George’s decisions, I never questioned that he was doing what he thought was best for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He sometimes led more with his heart than his head, but his passion for racing was never in doubt. Now the Speedway and the league are both in the hands of Jeff Belskus, who is known primarily for his focus on the bottom line. It is yet to be determined how his leadership will translate to success in the next decade, but it will certainly be a story to watch in the coming years.
The re-unification of U.S. Open-Wheel racing: Without a doubt, the biggest story of open-wheel racing was the “merger” between Champ Car and the Indy Racing League. It wasn’t exactly seamless as it took place only a few weeks before the 2008 season opener. The “transition” teams struggled initially, especially on the ovals. However, Graham Rahal showed early on that they would not simply take a backseat to the established teams – as he and Newman/Haas/Lanigan scored a victory on the first street course of the season.
The car count enjoyed a boost for the initial post-unification season, but it fell back to around twenty-two cars per race for 2009. Although several concessions were offered to the Champ car teams and fans, the Champ Car fans have been slow to embrace the IRL. Instead, they seem to relish the role of sour grapes and criticizing every move that the combined series makes.
So what will the next decade hold for the Izod IndyCar season? If anyone claims that they know, I would suggest they may be less than genuine. Yes, there are many problems to work out; but I also see that a lot of progress has been made in the world of open-wheel racing to offer a great deal of hope. Now it’s up to the powers that be at 16th and Georgetown to figure out how to capitalize on it.