September 17, 2014

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Dan Coughlin: Don’t call Champ Car joining IRL a merger, call it a surrender

It’s stretching a point to call it a merger of the Indy Racing League and Champ Car after a bitter 15-year schism that almost put open-wheel racing in America out of business. Actually, Champ Car surrendered to IRL founder Tony George. Only a handful of Champ Car races will be incorporated into the IRL schedule and Cleveland isn’t one of them. The IRL already had a race scheduled for the same weekend.
It’s possible that Cleveland could be added to the IRL schedule in the future, although Cleveland doesn’t fit the IRL format, which is going in circles and bouncing off walls. After all, the Indy Racing League’s name is derived from Indianapolis 500. But Cleveland race promoter Mike Lanigan of Chicago seems to have an amicable relationship with George, the most powerful man in American racing outside of NASCAR, which keeps the embers of hope smoldering.
Champ Car specialized in twisting road races, such as the Cleveland Grand Prix at Burke Lakefront Airport. Other races were held on city streets, much like Formula I, and ultimately the concept failed in this country. The majority of the drivers were foreigners and when they became stars, such as the Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais most recently, they moved up to Formula I. Champ Car was a minor league, a development series for Formula I. (Similarly, the IRL could be perceived as a development league for NASCAR.)
Ironically, from a racing purist’s pespective, the airport layout in Cleveland was the best in all of road racing, here or abroad. From high in the bleachers you could see the entire 12-turn course, which is not possible at any Formula I race. Serious fans could time the laps and determine who was catching the leader or who was falling back.
But there were not enough dedicated fans and not enough dedicated sponsors. Most people wanted to see fiery crashes and cars upside down, and if you don’t give the customers what they want, you are doomed to go out of business. Somehow the Cleveland Grand Prix survived for 26 years and I was there for all of them.
And now I find myself ambivalent, which is odd for this reason. I always felt a parental relationship with the race because I broke the story of its birth. While covering the 1981 Indianapolis 500, I stumbled upon the revelation that an Indy-car race would be held in Cleveland the next year.
Chris Economaki, an auto racing commentator for ABC Sports, made an off-hand comment when our paths crossed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the day before the 500.
“By the way,” he said, “I’m going to be in your town next year for the race at the airport.”
“What??!!”
I spent the rest of the day piecing together enough of a story to strip across the top of Page 1 on Sunday morning. It sounded like the fulfillment of a fantasy — racing on the lakefront with yachts and sailboats in the background. It was Monte Carlo in the Rust Belt and it was exhilarating.
Several years earlier a Cleveland ad agency man named Saul Isler and I shared a vision for a race through the city streets. In our dream we had cars racing through the Innerbelt, Public Square and downtown streets. I wrote a column about it, even though it seemed outlandish. How could anyone be serious?
But I had a history with Formula I racing. It was brief but unforgettable. In 1967 I covered the Grand Prix of Monaco, the race that winds through the streets of Monte Carlo and past the harbor crowded with exotic yachts.
The night before the race, I sat at the bar of the Hotel de Paris while about 25 feet away race car legend Graham Hill sat drinking with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I can’t tell you how beautiful Elizabeth looked that night 41 years ago. Think of the most lovely object you’ve ever seen and multiply it by a thousand.
The next day I was almost as close to the podium where Princess Grace and Prince Ranier presented the trophy to race winner Denis Hulme of New Zealand, who went on to win the world championship that year. Princess Grace! Multiply it by a million.
To this day, former sportswriter Chuck Webster, now a lawyer, marvels at such an assignment.
“Whom were you blackmailing?” he once asked.
I never figured it out, either.
There is always a dark side to auto racing, however. Lorenzo Bandini, the 32-year-old star of the Ferrari racing team, crashed and was killed. His car caught fire and he was trapped underneath it. He burned to death before safety crews could get to him. Bandini was in second place late in the race and was driving like a fiend to catch Hulme when he lost control.
There you have the mystique of Formula I — movie stars, royalty and tragedy.
I tasted it once in real life. After that it became a recurrent dream, like “Groundhog Day.” I never woke up with Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Grace. For 26 years I woke up with Sonny and Cher.
Dan Coughlin is a sports columnist for The Chronicle-Telegram and a sportscaster for Fox 8. Contact him at ctsports@chroniclet.com.