April 17, 2014

Elyria
Mostly clear
37°F
test

IRL, Champ Car standoff good for nothing but hurting racing

Somehow the world averted nuclear annihilation in the darkest days of the cold war.  We came closest in 1962 when President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev went eyeball to eyeball over the missiles in Cuba.
“The other guy just blinked,” said Adlai Stevenson, our ambassador to the United Nations, when the Soviets did not try to break through our naval blockade.
Things were tense for
45 years until the Soviets threw in the towel, tore down the Berlin Wall and released all their hostage nations in 1989. During all that time, nobody pushed the nuclear button. They kept their heads.
But not in the world of open- wheel racing. Nobody blinked and the bomb went off. Rubble is scattered all over North America.
Back in the 1990’s, Tony George, whose family owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500, the world’s most famous race, split from the traditional open-wheel racing circuit, known by the acronym CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams).
Things got crazy and they’re still crazy. George started his own racing circuit, the Indy Racing League (IRL), anchored around the Indianapolis 500, which was heavy leverage. For several years the stars of the rival CART series were banned from the Indy 500, either as retribution, meanness or an attempt to lure them to the IRL. Some caved in and crossed over to the IRL because their entire racing identities were linked to the 500.
Attempts have been made at reconciliation, but that requires compromise and George won’t compromise. He aspires to be the emperor in chief of open-wheel racing in America. The divide between the IRL and CART widened.
I have met George, but I can’t say I know him. I don’t know his motives. People say he’s a pigheaded egomaniac, one of the kinder descriptions. I cannot refute that, based on the “walks like a duck, quacks like a duck” premise.
This war has lasted for more than a decade and nobody is throwing in the towel, even though they’re both hurting. If this were boxing, the referee would stop it and declare it a double TKO. They’re both out on their feet. The cost is obvious on both sides.
Winning the Indianapolis 500 is still a life-changing accomplishment, even though it has lost some of its luster. It has become difficult to fill the field with the traditional 33 cars. The race still attracts some 300,000 fans on race day, but qualifying is done in virtual privacy. There was a time when 200,000 race fans would pack the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the first Saturday of qualifying  —  two weeks before the race. Now it’s only a few thousand.
The CART circuit – it’s name shortened now to Champ Car — has dropped some races from its schedule.
But here in Cleveland the race goes on and despite a flat economy the race seems to have turned the corner toward prosperity under new promoter Mike Lanigan from Chicago. This is the 26th year of the Cleveland Grand Prix at Burke Lakefront Airport. For Saturday’s practice and qualifying, I noticed more cars in the parking lots. There were more families with small children. And a new presenting sponsor.
The race hasn’t had a title sponsor for several years and it still doesn’t. (You may remember when it was known as the Budweiser 500 and later the Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland.) But Lanigan brought in LaSalle National Bank from Chicago as a presenting sponsor this year, introducing a name foreign to most Clevelanders. LaSalle has had an upscale but low-key presence in Cleveland with one downtown office. This suggests, perhaps, that LaSalle Bank intends to elevate its image here.
The IRL always has the Indy 500 winner as its most celebrated star.
Champ Car’s No. 1 celebrity is Sebastien Bourdais, a Frenchman from LeMans who has won the Cleveland race twice and who is the favorite to win this year.
Wouldn’t it be nice to put these guys side-by-side into the hairpin first turn here at Burke Lakefront?