IRL: Barnhart Sees More Progress

BARNHART KEEPS IRL ON STEADY PATH TOWARD SUCCESS IRL Director of Racing Operations Looks Back at First Year, Upcoming Challenges FOUNTAIN, Colo., Aug. 6, 1998 -- At dawn, he is there. At midnight, he is there. Brian Barnhart...

BARNHART KEEPS IRL ON STEADY PATH TOWARD SUCCESS

IRL Director of Racing Operations Looks Back at First Year, Upcoming Challenges

FOUNTAIN, Colo., Aug. 6, 1998 -- At dawn, he is there. At midnight, he is there.

Brian Barnhart says he doesn't count the hours involved as director of racing operations for the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. If the IRL practices at a racetrack early in the day, he's there shortly after the sun peeks over the horizon. And if the IRL races under the lights, as it does three times this season, then he's the last man driving out of the track before they padlock the gates.

"I enjoy my job, and a 75-hour work week is not uncommon," Barnhart said.

Barnhart, 37, will be in charge of all on-track activities Aug. 14-16 during the Radisson 200, the IRL's second visit to Pikes Peak International Raceway. At the inaugural IRL race at PPIR in June 1997, Barnhart took full command under IRL Executive Director Leo Mehl after the league assumed the sanctioning of its events from the United States Auto Club.

Barnhart, an Indianapolis native, has helped the league take another step forward as a major-league auto racing entity. This is not to say he hasn't faced some critical situations in the garages and on the tracks, but he quietly has faced each of them and brought harmony back to the situation.

Despite those obstacles, the Pep Boys IRL comes to the shadow of America's most famous mountain with its own Mohammed keeping the tempers calmed and the racing hot.

"I don't know if you ever can control egos," Barnhart said, "but we do our best to control speeds. I don't think we'll ever get egos in check.

"Our competition on-track is a wonderful product and very entertaining to the fans, so there is a lot of positive aspects going forward that gives you a lot to take pride in and to look forward to the future in."

Barnhart believes the Pep Boys IRL has not taken any backward steps in its third season of existence but admits there have been times when the league hasn't taken any steps at all. But he said there has been much progress, and the league is progressively getting stronger.

"Obviously, we've had hurdles to overcome," said Barnhart, who was crew chief on Al Unser Jr.'s Indy 500 winning car in 1992. "We've had a lot of them since we started. Each hurdle as it comes down the road, we'll just face it as it happens and deal with it."

Perception and image, he said, are the foremost hurdles at the moment. He sees solid developmental growth among the teams over the past 18 months but pointed out a definite need to elevate the marketing and corporate sponsorships.

And he assures that these hurdles, like the others, will be cleared.

Barnhart is particularly pleased with the way Pep Boys IRL Founder Tony George and Mehl have structured the league so that it isn't just one person making all of the calls.

"It's got theories that have checks and balances in place that I think works very well," Barnhart said.

He believes the executive part of the league has excellent communication not only in-house but also with the teams, owners and drivers. Beyond Mehl and himself, he points to the solid contributions by Technical Director Phil Casey, Technical Manager Mark Bridges, Technical Consultant Les MacTaggart and Manager of Administration Joie Chitwood III.

"It's definitely not one person," he said. "There's a number of people who are responsible for the success of this league."

Looking to the future, Barnhart is excited about the prospect of some new engine manufacturers joining Oldsmobile (Aurora) and Nissan (Infiniti) in producing affordable powerplants for competitors. Nissan has a limited number of teams using its engine, but the Infiniti has shown improvement in horsepower in recent races with Dr. Jack Miller getting his first career top-10 finish last month in the VisionAire 500 at Charlotte, N.C.

Of course, the Aurora has been in a majority of the cars and has improved not only its reliability but also its speed capability. Speeds at Indianapolis, for instance, jumped some 7 mph over 1997, and Tony Stewart turned a 228-mph lap during the True Value 500 on June 6 at Fort Worth, Texas.

"Oldsmobile has done a wonderful job ... and we've got interest from two or three others in the very near future, so I'm pretty happy with that," Barnhart said.

He is particularly pleased with the chassis development in regard to improved safety by builders Dallara, G Force and Riley & Scott.

The racing has been fierce, with several events decided by fractions of a second. At Phoenix in March, only a second separated the starting field. With that type of competitions, tempers have flared.

Barnhart points out that when the adrenalin is surging, competitors tend to say what they feel or things they don't mean. That's where he must step in as a mediator.

"When everybody sits down and looks at things objectively, I think definitely cooler heads prevail," he said. "Everybody realizes that the league's in a pretty strong position from how well we treat everyone of our competitors from top to bottom."

Barnhart notes that in the three years of the league, no driver has won more than three races. And only three drivers -- Scott Sharp, Tony Stewart and Arie Luyendyk - have three career victories.

"That's a whopping average of one per year," he said.

The lack of a dominant car in victory lane speaks very highly for the technical package, the rules package and how it is enforced, Barnhart said. He defends the league against charges that Stewart is its only star driver.

Barnhart thinks there are several drivers of Stewart's status. He said that without the formation of the IRL, Stewart might not have emerged from the dirt, sprint and midget ranks to a driver wanted by both the IRL and NASCAR.

"He's done wonderful things for our league, and he'll do wonderful things no matter where's he's racing," Barnhart said. "We'll have to hope somebody will come along and be as good a racer down the line as well, and I think there's a decent chance somebody will be able to take his place and be an addition to the Indy Racing League."

Barnhart also would welcome any driver from the CART or USAC ranks into the IRL because when a league improves its competition, the product on the track becomes better. That makes the league more attractive to fans.

Barnhart spent 10 years as a crewman for Indy 500 Hall of Famers Foyt, Emerson Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. before being named as superintendent at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, replacing the late Charlie Thompson. When the IRL needed on-track direction, he moved into that vital role in March 1997.

"The years I had being a mechanic I think have been very beneficial for the job I have now, in that I can definitely relate to what the guys are saying whether it's the owners, team managers, crew chiefs or drivers coming up to me and voicing their opinions," Barnhart said. "I think my background definitely gives me a lot of experience in understanding where they're coming from.

"I think it's a difficult job that we have now, but jobs as team managers and chief mechanics are difficult jobs as well. You're in big business, a lot of money is involved, the competitive juices are flowing, the adrenalin is up there, and tempers flare. This is a highly competitive sport. People are going to voice their opinions. It's never taken personal either way. It's a two-way street whether I'm on the receiving end or the giving end. It's not a personal deal."

Finally, Barnhart said he is proud to be associated with the IRL.

"The Hulman-George family has done so much for racing in general," he said. "And I think given the time and opportunity, the Indy Racing League will prove to be very beneficial to race fans worldwide, because it is providing exciting open-wheel racing on ovals for everyone."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Al Unser Jr. , Scott Sharp , Arie Luyendyk , Emerson Fittipaldi , Tony George , Brian Barnhart , Jack Miller
Teams HART