IRL: Indy Racing League notebook 2004-08-26

Indy Racing League News and Notes -- Aug. 26, 2004 Today's IRL headlines 1. Mehl's Contributions Paved Way For Progress 2. First-Race Victory Took Calkins By Surprise 3. Next Episode Of ESPN's Fast Live Airs Aug. 29 1. Mehl's Contributions...

Indy Racing League News and Notes -- Aug. 26, 2004

Today's IRL headlines
1. Mehl's Contributions Paved Way For Progress
2. First-Race Victory Took Calkins By Surprise
3. Next Episode Of ESPN's Fast Live Airs Aug. 29

1. Mehl's Contributions Paved Way For Progress:

Leo Mehl searches the ceiling for the words when asked to describe his legacy as the Indy Racing League's second executive director.

A humble man who is more at ease in the garages of IRL IndyCar® Series teams than in front of the TV camera, Mehl finally settles on talent scout. It's an unpretentious but apt assessment.

"I get a lot of credit for the work of a lot of people," said Mehl, who is credited with bringing stability to the fledgling all-oval open-wheel series after a distinguished career with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. "If I have any talent it is recognizing people who are aggressive, talented and smarter than me and then get them to work together. All I was doing basically was watching them."

Mehl, who had recently retired as general manager of worldwide racing for Goodyear, came to the IRL in December 1996 at the behest of its president and CEO Tony George. Mehl shared George's vision as well as concern for the future of open-wheel racing and the Indianapolis 500.

"I was concerned, as well as many people, that open-wheel oval racing was going to disappear unless something changed," said Mehl, who started his 37-year career at Goodyear as a chemical engineer. "It was evident to me, as it was to Tony George, that we needed to try to make a comeback with ovals. I was pretty excited about the challenge. Unfortunately, I didn't understand how tough it was going to be."

That's where the talent scout (some might say salesman) came to the forefront. Mehl hired current IRL Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Brian Barnhart -- who had been the track superintendent of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- as director of racing operations. Other additions, including current Senior Director of Racing Operations John Lewis, were important to the development of the League.

"At the IRL, the people we had -- many of whom were 25 years younger than me -- who were bright, dedicated and willing to learn how to do it together," said Mehl, who retired for a second time in 1999 and now is a consultant to the League. "The original bunch of people are still here, just as enthusiastic as they ever were, except they have eight years of experience.

"I come back now and talk with them and watch them and I'm just awed by the progress they've made."

Mehl saw considerable progress among the obstacles of starting a new racing series. He applied George's founding principles for the IRL to every aspect of the organization, and is proud of the accomplishments under his watch.

"We did make a simpler car, a cheaper car and made it more available to everybody, but it needed many technical innovations to become safer," he said. "All the time I was there -- and that whole staff of people still doing it -- the No. 1 goal was safety.

"The No. 1 thing is when you go to bed on Saturday night you know you've done everything you could to make sure it's going to be as good as it can be on Sunday, and better than it was before. Then you need people that have the same intense desire to race as well as protect the participants.

"In open-wheel oval racing, all the money, brains and effort is totally wasted if the drivers run into each other on the track. Perhaps our most significant safety improvement is that in Race Control, Brian demands race track courtesy and discipline and that the drivers respect and care for each other on the track."

Innovations such as the SAFER Barrier and SWEMS (tire restraint tether system) have contributed to safety as well.

"I truly believe they are the best race cars in the world as far as protecting the driver," Mehl said. "Everybody understood that if you want to run open-wheel cars at 40 mph average faster than stock cars they are going to hit something on a regular basis and you better be ready for that and not act like that is a surprise. The best way to do it is the soft walls. The result of the IRL taking the lead on that is the industry has been changed significantly.

"The progress they've made has been pretty phenomenal to me. I was fortunate when I was at Goodyear to have the same type of dedicated people."

Mehl helped develop the tires that put A.J. Foyt and Goodyear back in the Indianapolis 500 winner's circle in 1967. He still chuckles at the notoriety from his involvement.

"I was an engineer punching tires and making up rubber compounds when I first came to Indianapolis," he said. "It was the biggest challenge of my life to win the race because Firestone had won it the previous four years. You hear A.J. or Buddy (Rice) say that when I won the Indy 500 my life changed. When I made a tire that helped win the Indy 500, I got promoted."

He was posted to Goodyear's European headquarters in Wolverhampton, England, and was made head of European Racing. In October 1971, he became chief engineer of all Goodyear Racing and three years later took over as Director of Racing.

His new role is "the best I've ever had." He is part ambassador, part consultant and all ears. Mehl is a trusted sounding board.

"My role is to promote the Indy Racing League and support the people making the decisions," he said. "Things change so fast in our business that two years down the road you better be smart enough to know that it isn't like it was two years ago. And I'm smart enough to know that. They're my kind of people. I missed them a lot when I was gone and I love being back."

***

2. First-Race Victory Took Calkins By Surprise:

The mark of the Indy Racing League was made during the first race -- fast open-wheel racing with photo finishes.

After almost two years of planning, the IRL took the green flag at Walt Disney World Speedway on January 27, 1996. Buzz Calkins, a 24-year-old rookie, moved up from the fifth position to take the checkered flag by 0.866 seconds over Tony Stewart.

"We led a fair bit of the race, over half," Calkins recalled from his home in Denver. "I felt pretty comfortable. There was a yellow right before the end. We had six laps of green at the end. It was pretty packed up. There were a lot of cars with the ability to win that day. It just went our direction."

Calkins, moving up after three years in Indy Lights, took the lead for good on Lap 76. He built a 3.4-second advantage over Stewart before the race's fourth yellow flag came out on Lap 190 after Eddie Cheever and Scott Sharp made contact in Turn 1.

The yellow bunched the field together and created a six-lap shootout for the win. Calkins held off Stewart to record the first of 44 finishes with a margin of victory of less than a second.

"Going in, my expectations weren't to win the first race," Calkins said. "I knew we'd be competitive. We had been one of the quickest in testing over the winter. I figured I would go through a learning curve.

"The (Bradley Motorsports) team had a lot of experienced people and a lot of depth. We were set up to be in a successful position. When the race came along, it was one of those days when everything went our way. Like most rookies, I wanted a solid finish, but I didn't expect to win."

Calkins went on to race in 53 of the IRL's first 56 events, retiring after the 2001 season with more than $3.3 million in career earnings.

"(Reaching the 100-race mark) is a testament to the IRL," Calkins said. "The attitude at that time, if you would've asked 100 people if the IRL would make it to 100 races, outside of the competitors and those involved, everyone would've said no. It's pretty neat to see how it's succeeded."

Calkins, now 33, has several business interests in the Denver area and was recently married.

***

3. Next Episode Of ESPN's Fast Live Airs Aug. 29:

"The Fast Life," which will be hosted by Jamie Little at noon (EDT) Aug. 29 on ESPN2, will highlight the Indy Racing League's first 99 races.

Included will be a special segment on the 10 closest finishes in IndyCar Series history, a tribute to the IndyCar Series champions and interviews with drivers, team owners and IRL personnel.

***

The 2004 IRL IndyCar Series season continues with the Firestone Indy 225 at 2 p.m. (EDT) on Aug. 29 at Nazareth Speedway. The race, the 100th IndyCar Series event, will be broadcast live on ABC and the IMS Radio Network. The next Menards Infiniti Pro Series event is the Chicagoland 100 at 4:30 p.m. (EDT) on Sept. 11 at Chicagoland Speedway. The race will be broadcast by ESPN2 at 3 p.m. (EDT) on Sept. 16.

-irl-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Buzz Calkins , Eddie Cheever , Scott Sharp , Tony George , John Lewis , Jamie Little , A.J. Foyt , Brian Barnhart