IRL: Barnhart, Ungar on Indy Racing's future

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2001 - A 15-race schedule fits the Indy Racing League perfectly for the present. But sometime in the future it could level off at 17 races and may even include a road or street race. And a race on the high...

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2001 - A 15-race schedule fits the Indy Racing League perfectly for the present.

But sometime in the future it could level off at 17 races and may even include a road or street race. And a race on the high banks at Daytona International Speedway is not far-fetched, either.

That was part of the message delivered Dec. 11 by Ken Ungar, newly named vice present for business affairs for the Indy Racing League, and Brian Barnhart, vice president of operations for the league, as they spoke about the growth of the league and related subjects.

The league will conduct its first 15- race schedule in 2002, starting with the opener March 2 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and ending, as it has the past two seasons, at Texas Motor Speedway on Sept. 15. It will be the league's seventh season and includes new venues at Fontana, Calif., Brooklyn, Mich., and Nazareth, Pa.

"Since its inception, the Indy Racing League schedule has tripled," Ungar said. "The growth of the league has been exactly what (league president and CEO) Tony (George) was looking for.

"At this stage of our growth, 15 races is a very good schedule."

The 2002 schedule's geographical mix - with a race on the West Coast for the first time and a return to the Northeast - will provide value to sponsors, achieve merit for the competitors and grab attention of the fans, Ungar said

"We don't see any additional races being added to the schedule unless any existing races fall off," Ungar said.

But then Ungar indicated he has taken calls from several tracks interested in playing host to a race in the future. He said Las Vegas Motor Speedway officials have expressed a desire to bring Indy Racing back to that 1.5-mile oval. Indy Racing events took place at Vegas from 1996-99.

The Milwaukee Mile, long an Indy-car racing haven, also is a possibility down the road, Ungar said. And Ungar added that George's long-term plan could add a street- or road-course event at a marquee venue, similar to the annual NASCAR Winston Cup road races at Watkins Glen and Sears Point.

Indy-style cars racing at Daytona for the first time since 1959 was a hot-stove rumor in 2000, but it became no more than that. But Barnhart said he considers stock car racing's most noted facility a prime opportunity for the future.

"The thing I like about our rule package is there is not an oval we can't run on," Barnhart said.

"If the opportunity is there, we could go down and put on a good, safe race. But that's a few years down the road."

Ungar, who was deputy chief of staff for Evan Bayh when he was governor of Indiana, assumed a similar position with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1997. He now has taken on the task of organizing the business side of the Indy Racing League.

"I think we're in a great position to reach Tony George's goal to be the international leader in motorsports," Ungar said.

The daunting part of his assignment is to overcome the downward swing in the economy that is affecting all phases of auto racing. He said the league will do everything it can to support the teams.

"I have every expectation we will have full fields," he said.

A quality field is just as important as a full field, Barnhart said. For example, Barnhart noted that fans remembered that a breathtaking .0468 of a second separated the top three cars at the 2001 season finale at Texas, not that 25 cars started the race.

Other Indy Racing League news revealed by Barnhart: *Toyota is making solid strides in development of a 3.5-liter engine for the 2003 season. He said the Japanese manufacturer expects to put its first prototype engine on the test dyno in February and make its initial track assessments in June.

*Rule changes for 2002 consist mainly of refinements, with a continued emphasis on safety. The $40,000 update kits are being readied for delivery to the teams in January.

*The Indy Racing League is on the verge of limiting the maximum number of tires a team can use in private testing. Currently, the only testing restriction in the Indy Racing League Rule Book is a limit of two days per team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from January to May.

Because there will be new engines, chassis and gearboxes in 2003, testing will be needed before next season.

"I don't want to limit testing, but we've got to balance it out," Barnhart said. "There are no fans in the stands, and the cameras aren't on, so some of it isn't necessary."

-IRL-

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Series AUTOMOTIVE , INDYCAR