IRL: IndyCar looks toward second half of season

IRL: IndyCar looks toward second half of season

INDIANAPOLIS, July 8, 2003 - After eight races in the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series, the competition is hot. Tony Kanaan leads Scott Dixon by 31 points, thanks to consistency that has seen the Brazilian finish all but one race - the...

INDIANAPOLIS, July 8, 2003 - After eight races in the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series, the competition is hot. Tony Kanaan leads Scott Dixon by 31 points, thanks to consistency that has seen the Brazilian finish all but one race - the one in which this duo crashed together battling for first place, at Twin Ring Motegi - coming to the checkered flags in the top five each time.

Scott Dixon.
Photo by Greg Gage.
Kiwi Dixon, of course, is the only multiple winner thus far in the season, taking three victories at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Pikes Peak International Raceway and Richmond International Raceway. Dixon, however, hasn't had the consistency of Kanaan, who has one win on his resume, failing to finish the Indianapolis 500 in addition to the IndyCar Series' first race outside the United States.

Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran lie third and fourth, with Kenny Brack and Al Unser Jr. completing the top six, all within 100 points of Kanaan. Twin Ring Motegi victor Scott Sharp is seventh, giving the United States two drivers in contention for the title.

Is Brian Barnhart pleased with the way things are going thus far in the 16- race campaign? The Indy Racing League's senior vice president for racing operations likes what he sees in the first year of a three-season rules package. "The level of competition is about as good as we've ever seen it.

"Our engine manufacturers are in a tight battle and that's one of the most pleasing aspects to the first half of the season," Barnhart says. "We're pleased with their level of competition and I think it will make for an interesting second half," which begins next Saturday night at the 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway.

With new engine and chassis designs for this and the next two years, the Indy Racing League's premier IndyCar Series looks different than before. In addition to General Motors' Chevrolet division, which has been part of the League over the last year (and Oldsmobile, which owned the IRL title up to 2002), Honda and Toyota have joined the fray and have taken all eight victories thus far: Honda has two and Toyota owns the balance.

"The new designs could have upset the competitive nature of the IRL, but I don't think they have. We've had four races in which the finish was less than one second," Barnhart stresses. This May's 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was the third closest finish between de Ferran and Castroneves, with the fastest top five in its long history. That's a point of pride for Barnhart.

Race winner Gil de Ferran.
Photo by Earl Ma.
"Indy is back as a media headliner. Gil is a deserving and great champion of the Indy 500 and we had a deep and a great field." Barnhart did add his view on another of de Ferran's "talents". "I heard him sing the 7th inning song last night and I'm not sure that's where his talents lie" after de Ferran sang "Take me out to the ballgame" at last night's Chicago Cubs game.

Barnhart's also had three IndyCar Series events come to an end under caution, and he isn't too pleased about that. "Those have been disappointments, for sure, but I don't have any answers to finishing under caution." Not yet, anyway.

"I have to compliment (senior technical director) Phil Casey on the quality of the competition to date," Barnhart states. "At Kansas last Friday afternoon, I looked at the practice standings and was pleased to see that the lineup read 'Dallara/G Force, Dallara/G Force, Dallara/G Force. It also showed parity between the engine makers, going Toyota/Honda, Toyota/Honda, Toyota/Honda in the top six. That's what we had in mind when we made our changes for this year and beyond."

Missing from that note of parity is, of course, Chevrolet. "They are investigating all the different opportunities and avenues open to them to improve their competitive outlook, from both inside and outside the company. We're just going to have to wait and see what they submit in the way of changes. Any changes that Chevy submits must be tested to be both reliable and competitive and must be approved by the League," he emphasizes.

With six winners in eight races, Barnhart is pretty happy with the competitive nature of the current IndyCar Series. "When Tony [George] created this series, he wanted an open avenue for young American drivers. He wanted to create opportunities for drivers. In this year's Indy 500, for example, 60% of the field was American-born.

Race winner and IRL 2002 Champion Sam Hornish Jr..
Photo by James Spires.
"To those who complain about the lack of American-born drivers, let me remind you that the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race has always had foreign winners. I think Tony achieved his goal of creating opportunity for any driver to compete in major open wheel racing. The trouble is perception. Sam [Hornish] would not be in open wheel racing without the IndyCar Series."

Barnhart wonders why "racing is the only one of the major sports with an emphasis on having American-born competitors. Why single out racing?" he asks. "All major sports have foreign competitors. So many of our foreign- born drivers have infectious personalities and Gil was well received at the Cubs game last night. I get defensive when some people look at our [foreign] drivers as a negative.

"About a dozen in our field wouldn't be here without Tony's vision of the IRL. We're proud to promote them and give our message that we do have great drivers. We're so happy to have the quality teams and drivers here and the increased support from manufacturers and sponsors."

Barnhart pointed to the first use of special paint schemes by sponsors in the IndyCar Series. At Richmond points leader Kanaan had a "Hulk" design on his #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda. In Kansas, Sam Hornish Jr.'s #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet carried the "Terminator 3" movie graphics. This is good for business in the Indy Racing League, he believes.

The 1996 position paper release put out by the League did acknowledge the fact that road racing could be included in the future. "From a business standpoint, that hasn't come along, but we're starting to get opportunities presented to us," Barnhart acknowledges. "I'm not sure about it for the 2004 season, but down the road it could happen, sure."

Asked about a second date at California Speedway in Fontana, Barnhart says the IRL wants to up the current fan participation before adding a second race. "The LA market is very important to us and we were pleased to add Fontana to our schedule last year.

"With Honda and Toyota both having their headquarters there, it becomes even more important. But before we add a second race, we need to work with our promoters to make sure we've got the right date in mind. We have to look at other series and sporting events that might be in the area and the TV windows. We have to improve the date we have."

Barnhart thinks the points leader at the halfway mark, Tony Kanaan is "having so much fun" working in the IndyCar Series. "In fact, Andretti Green Racing, with Tony and Bryan [Herta], Team Target with Scott Dixon and Marlboro Team Penske with Helio and Gil are all looking so strong. That makes me pleased with the evolution of our series."

Kanaan is having fun, just as Barnhart suggestions. Working on his consistency, "Scott's catching us, so we're trying to improve so we can stay ahead in the second half," Kanaan notes. "We didn't have the speed at Kansas, but I was 100% sure we had a good race car. I'm looking to win races and get the most points in the races ahead. That's how you extend a lead."

Tony Kanaan.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
Kanaan hasn't won a championship since his 1997 Indy Lights title, but he's "used to the pressure. It doesn't change my attitude. We've had a very good car and we've been able to take advantage of our opportunities. I'm worried about winning races and the championship; I'm worried about Scott and the two Penske guys."

Testing at Nashville Superspeedway for the first time tomorrow, Kanaan thinks the "concrete will be a little bumpier" than he's accustomed to. "We just have to get the balance right for that circuit."

Competing in the United States since 1996, Kanaan believes that "US fans accept us well. We're not taking points from Americans here. We're racing because the teams want winners and the fans want good racing. The fans I've met treat me really well. Who knows, I could become a US citizen and wear the flag in the next few years."

In his native Brazil, there are three top sports: soccer, tennis and motorsports. With Brazilians the top three in this year's Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, "Interest in Indy racing has been growing. When Gil went back he was treated like a king. Now kids want to be IRL drivers and race at Indy. Things are changing" with the success of Kanaan, de Ferran, Castroneves, among others. Kanaan would like to see the League go to Brazil. "We have a nice oval there. The fans would be very excited and would be great to come back home to race."

With eight races down and eight to go, the IndyCar Series is dancing to an exciting season finish at Texas in October. While Tony Kanaan hopes to make it boring by that time by pulling out an insurmountable lead, the odds are he'll be scrapping for points as the 2003 campaign draws to a close. Tony George and Brian Barnhart wouldn't have it any other way. That's the hallmark of the IndyCar Series and Indy Racing League. Tight competition and tough battles for victories and points are what makes the League great, from first race to last.

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