INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, Jan. 19, 2004 -- Phil Casey grins like a crescent moon as he recounts events surrounding the inaugural Indy Racing League race on Jan. 27, 1996, at Walt Disney World Speedway. Recollections flow like a fountain from the...
INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, Jan. 19, 2004 -- Phil Casey grins like a crescent moon as he recounts events surrounding the inaugural Indy Racing League race on Jan. 27, 1996, at Walt Disney World Speedway.
Recollections flow like a fountain from the IRL's senior technical director, who has been on staff since the spring of 1995 and has more than four decades of automobile racing history himself. Not enough fuel hoses. Teams arriving at the new one-mile oval without tires and hubs. Disney personnel cutting down trees in the track infield during race week.
"The last couple of days before the race we were still running around getting stuff to help the teams because a lot of them were new to this type of racing and they weren't familiar with what they had to do," said Casey, with a hint of accomplishment in his voice. "We were able to get everybody fixed up to run the race."
The first IRL race went off with nary a hitch -- less than two years after Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George set in motion his plans to form a new open-wheel racing series. Before a sellout crowd of 51,000, Buzz Calkins held off Tony Stewart for the checkered flag and the $122,500 first-place check.
"(The victory) opened up a lot of doors, both within racing and outside of it as well," said Calkins, who will forever be linked to a trivia question. "I was presented with opportunities that I most likely wouldn't have had otherwise, and I think I will continue to have more options in the future than I would have had without it."
Much like the United States Auto Club -- which was formed in 1956 by George's grandfather, Tony Hulman, and others and took over the National Driving Championship sanction from the American Automobile Association -- opportunity is a key component of the Indy Racing League.
The IRL's foundation is as strong today -- if not stronger through curing -- than when the following principles were laid:
1. Establish and maintain a governing structure that represents all constituencies in the sport fairly and equitably.
2. Control costs associated with racing with a concern for safety and competitive parity.
3. Preserve and nurture the heritage of oval-track racing.
4. Provide opportunities for new sponsors, teams and drivers to enter the sport at its highest level.
5. Bring Indy-style racing to new markets for both sponsors and fans.
As the IRL's senior vice president of operations, Brian Barnhart is a steward of the principles. Closing in on 90 IRL races, he's unwavering in his allegiance.
"(The principles) are the foundation and the strength of our success that we've had and enjoyed as we've grown," said Barnhart, who oversees day-to-day activities of the Racing Operations division. "Part of the success and growth that we've seen is because our founding principles are sound and make good sense. I think our success in the future will be not straying from those principles like we haven't been.
"Tony (George) hasn't wavered one bit from what he set out to do."
The all-oval series has accomplished much in its short existence. The 16-race schedule for 2004 -- increased from 10 races only five years ago -- kicks off with the Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Feb. 29. Included on the schedule is a return to Japan for the second Indy Japan 300.
All IRL IndyCar Series races will be broadcast live by ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, along with the nearly 600 affiliates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. In 22 telecasts in 2003, 672 sponsors received visual and/or verbal recognition during IndyCar Series race broadcasts that totaled $227,521,380 of comparable value. And fans who attended races got their money's worth.
Planning and execution come together in choreographed moves -- much like IndyCar Series pit stops -- at the IRL's headquarters across the street from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Abiding by another of its principles, the league is inclusive in its decision-making process, which, according to senior vice president of business affairs Ken Ungar, has taken the bias out of racing.
"The league makes all the decisions after seeking input from those groups that are affected by it," Ungar said. "A schedule is made after seeking input from manufacturers and sponsors about where they need to be from a business perspective. They're made from the perspective of a team or driver as to places that they enjoy competing. They're made from the perspective of the fans by virtue of their attendance. Our decision to race at Texas (Motor Speedway), for example, has proven to be extremely popular. How do we know that? Because last June 92,000 showed up for the race.
"So the process is that decisions are made with input, but they're not made by those groups (sponsors, manufacturers, teams and drivers). That gives the league ability to balance various interests to create a win-win. We think that there's a strong system in place to make decisions benefiting everyone's future."
It's been a winning combination for legions of fans, who last year witnessed constant wheel-to-wheel racing. Rookie Scott Dixon, driving a Panoz G Force/Toyota/Firestone package for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, won the championship by virtue of three victories and 11 top-10 finishes.
"One way or another, every day the Indy Racing League talks to these constituencies (sponsors, manufacturers, teams, fans)," Ungar said. "And that's the only way we can keep our pulse of what's happening. Are our plans succeeding, or do our plans need re-adjustment?
"The business plans for the league are like testing for a race. The art is in the set-up. We're in an industry that is subject to constant change in an economy that is subject to constant change. We have to be on top of that change in order to make decisions that will move the sport forward."
Change is one of the constants in motor racing. Many of the safety innovations, such as the SAFER Barrier, have been pioneered by the IRL. The league has tapped new markets, such as Japan, Chicago and Kansas City. And heading into open testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Jan. 27-29, at least three drivers will be making their IRL IndyCar Series debut.
"We're creating a number of opportunities both for American and international drivers," said Barnhart, who was a member of two Indianapolis 500-winning teams in the 1990s. "That's all we've ever said from day one. There aren't any guarantees. All we can do is provide that opportunity.
"There have been an enormous number of people given an opportunity that if the IRL did not exist would never have had that shot. If you stop to think about what we've been able to accomplish, it's incredibly rare in today's society that an individual has been able to create something that he believes in and has challenged the establishment, and which in a period of time has not only survived but has become the establishment."
Buzz Calkins and 19 others drivers who took the green flag in the inaugural race in 1996 received that opportunity. There have been many more in the eight years of competition and will be many more in future years.
Wrote Jack Long, the IRL's executive director in 1996, in Volume 2, No. 1 of the Indy Racing League Newsletter: "There have been several key dates, decisions and significant happenings through the process to make the IRL a reality. But none was more dramatic to me than Roy Disney's starting command at Disney World and seeing the hands go up behind the wings of the cars in our field.
"Perhaps John Menard said it best at the Disney track's dedication in November. To paraphrase, John said the IRL would take on a life of its own very quickly. It has. It took the efforts of many, many people to create this bright new adventure in racing history."
The future of the Indy Racing League (the name was unveiled on July 8, 1994) is as bright today as the day it was founded.
"So much of what the sport is doing is breaking new ground," Ungar said. "And to be a part of that is very exciting."
This is the first in a six-part series on the founding principles of the Indy Racing League. Upcoming features will examine individual principles based on the following schedule:
1. Establish and maintain a governing structure that represents all constituencies in the sport fairly and equitably (Jan. 21).
2. Control costs associated with racing with a concern for safety and competitive parity (Jan. 26).
3. Preserve and nurture the heritage of oval-track racing (Jan. 27).
4. Provide opportunities for new sponsors, teams and drivers to enter the sport at its highest level (Feb. 3).
5. Bring Indy-style racing to new markets for both sponsors and fans (Feb. 5).
For additional information on the IRL and its founding principles, visit www.indyracing.com
The 2004 IRL IndyCar Series season opens with the Toyota Indy 300 on Feb. 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race will be broadcast live on ESPN.