Friday
May282010

Signs of life at The Speedway.

It wasn’t like the massive crowds for qualifying from the 60s and 70s - when 250,000 spectators in attendance were common - beckoned by the upward trajectory of lap speeds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as they climbed up from 150mph all the way up and through the “magic” 200mph barrier and beyond, but last Saturday’s crowd at The Speedway was clearly the biggest since the infamous CART/IRL split, which is saying something.

The new qualifying format, which had the top 24 spots in the 33-car field determined on Saturday through the traditional four-lap attempts, followed by a “shoot-out” between the fastest nine drivers between 4:30 - 6:00PM - the traditional “Happy Hour” at The Speedway when the track cools a bit and the speeds go up - added drama, interest and fun to the process, something that has been lacking for years.

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.That the run for the Pole came down to a Penske vs. Ganassi shoot-out was not unexpected (see more coverage in “The Line” this week - ed.), and even though Helio Castroneves smoked everybody right out of the box in his first “Fast Nine” attempt, there was enough excitement and build-up to sustain fan interest right up until the final gun sounded at 6:00PM.

In all of my columns about major league open-wheel racing over these last many months, my underlying interest was to get the sport jump-started again. The fact that IndyCar has been languishing in this holding pattern of indecision and stagnation for so long has been excruciating to watch. I kept asking and wondering out loud the same questions, as in how could so many smart, tremendously successful people - specifically the owners, technical experts and drivers involved - be so utterly inept when it came to promoting and nourishing the sport they love and are obsessed with every waking moment? It was one of life’s toxic mysteries, apparently, with no known antidote. And I was afraid we were being sentenced to watch this train wreck unfold as major league open-wheel racing just faded to obscurity.

And let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the one single race that more drivers, teams and owners covet more than any other in the world - the Indy 500 - I’m not sure major league open-wheel racing would have made it this far.

Is everything all wonderful and beautiful after one optimistically promising weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? Absolutely not. If anything, the fact that qualifying came down to a Penske vs. Ganassi shoot-out shined a light on the overwhelmingly glaring need that IndyCar must address immediately, and that is to get its new rules and engine specification package in place so that the series can move forward into the future.

The “reset” button needs to be pushed by IndyCar, so that new manufacturers and new teams can be drawn into the sport. Will the Penske and Ganassi juggernauts still be there, and be formidable?  As sure as the sun comes in the east, of course they will. But when you establish an all-new playing field with a new rules package, at least for a moment everybody will be starting from the same point, and I believe we will then see new manufacturers and teams come back to The Speedway, contributing to the glimpses of momentum already in evidence this past weekend.

Kudos to Randy Bernard & Co. because at least he’s trying to kick this sport in the ass and get it going again. Bernard knows that hand-wringing about it and ultimately doing nothing to improve things is a blueprint to oblivion for IndyCar, and he’s hell-bent on not letting that happen. The next 45 days will be pivotal for the sport as we will see the new IndyCar rules package come into focus.

And from what I’m hearing and what I know to be true at this point regarding this new package - especially when it comes to the engine specifications - I can honestly say that I am optimistic for the first time in a long time for the future of IndyCar racing.

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