Menards Infiniti Pro Series executive director Roger Bailey is charged with finding new young drivers to compete in the steppingstone series for the Indy Racing League's premier IndyCar Series. The job has been difficult for the start-up Pro ...
Menards Infiniti Pro Series executive director Roger Bailey is charged with finding new young drivers to compete in the steppingstone series for the Indy Racing League's premier IndyCar Series.
The job has been difficult for the start-up Pro Series (currently in its fourth season) as open wheel up-and-coming drivers have opted for NASCAR careers in lieu of an assault on Indianapolis-style racing.
The League has chosen to go outside the norm in its driver search for this ladder series and has inked a pact with Knoxville Raceway to bring the highest placed rookie in the 45th annual Knoxville Nationals to the Menards Infiniti Pro Series.
The creation of the "Knoxville Nationals Rookie of the Year Fast Track to Indy" program hasn't come easily. First proposed more than two years ago, the program has been talked about. Until Tom Savage of the IRL's communications staff got involved, nothing really happened.
Savage is a self-proclaimed "sprint car guy" who grew up in South Dakota and spent his youth at the Knoxville Nationals. "We've gotten away from the sprint cars and I think since that was one of the IRL's founding tenets, it's time to get back into it."
Losing potential stars to the stock car set doesn't fit with the League's intents and purposes, so Savage initiated meetings with Knoxville Raceway's director of business development Bruce Neimeth to remedy the situation.
"What we didn't want was PR," Neimeth accentuated. "We wanted something real with business results that would track young, talented drivers." The proposal came to a stall about two weeks ago but the principals revived it and the culmination of their efforts was announced today.
"We let the connection go with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Neimeth recalled. "We've had a great connection with Indy car racing since 1961 and let it go around 1998. That was the last time one of our guys (Jack Hewitt) made it to the [Indianapolis] 500. Since then the connection went away.
"We've recognized that we've left an opportunity on the table and it hasn't taken us long to figure out that we need to get that opportunity back," Neimeth continued. "We do not see a downside to this program. We know the Menards Infiniti Pro Series is a steppingstone for the IndyCar Series and we want the Knoxville Nationals to be a steppingstone for the Menards Infiniti Pro Series," he declared.
To that end, a mutually benefiting agreement has been hammered out. This year's Knoxville Nationals Rookie of the Year - provided that driver is at least 18 years of age - will receive an October Pro Series test with development training, under the auspices of Pro Series entrant Brian Stewart Racing. The rookie with the most points over the four days of Knoxville Nationals competition will be the test winner.
The test will be held under the guidance of League driver coaches including Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr. and Johnny Rutherford. If the driver passes the test, the IRL and Knoxville Raceway will work together to secure sponsorship for the 2006 Menards Infiniti Pro Series for a minimum of six races (in what is intended to be a 14-event campaign).
"This is the way to do it," declared IRL president Brian Barnhart. "This is an exciting day for us because today, the road to Indy has changed. One thing hasn't changed, though," he remarked. "To race at Indy you have to know how to race on ovals and the Pro Series is the platform for that. There's a lot of talent running the Knoxville Nationals and we need to tap into that."
There are 22 eligible rookies entered in the 45th annual Knoxville Nationals set for August 11-14 this year, an event that boasts spectator attendance well over 30,000 daily for the four-day contest in this small Iowa town. There is a huge corporate following for the event as well as great interest amongst all sprint car drivers.
Seventeen drivers have competed in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Knoxville Nationals. They include Tom Bigelow, Billy Boat, Larry Cannon, Sarah Fisher, Hewitt, Bubby Jones, Sheldon Kinser, Steve Kinser, Lee Kunzman, Jud Larson, Jan Opperman, Roger Rager, Joe Saldana, Al Unser Jr., Rich Vogler, Greg Weld and Carl Williams.
Saldana was on hand for the announcement, as was Doug Wolfgang, a five-time winner of the event. Wolfgang admitted, "I always wanted to race at Indy but when I began winning a bunch of races, the path to Indy had gone away because I didn't have any rear engine experience. The phone never rang and I had nowhere to go. Heck," he said, "I wouldn't have hired me either."
The director of racing at Knoxville Raceway, Ralph Capitani understands "Our heritage is open wheel racing. We want to see our stars of today move up in the sport and the Knoxville Nationals Fast Track to Indy program does just that. It can and should put some talented dirt track drivers behind the wheel of good equipment in the IRL.
"Just think," Capitani mused, "about five years from now when we celebrate our 40th Knoxville Nationals, we can invite some of that year's Indy 500 participants to 'come home' to Knoxville Raceway."