Not yet on track, IRL has growing pains Schedule changes could help 3-year-old series


Buoyed by a tight points chase and a tinge of controversy, the Indy Racing League is chugging toward the conclusion of its third season.

That's three years longer than some detractors gave the series when its formation was announced by Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in March 1994.

With the Speedway and the Indy 500 as its cornerstone, the IRL was founded with a noble agenda:

Preserve the traditions of single-seat, open-wheeled, oval-track racing in the United States.

Rein in escalating costs, while maintaining the highest levels of safety and parity.

Create a series that will give aspiring American drivers -- as well as teams, sponsors, suppliers and promoters -- the opportunity to enter the sport at a high level and race in the Indy 500.

Establish and maintain a governing structure representing all parties fairly.

Take Indianapolis-style racing to new markets.

The IRL has survived through 22 events since the inaugural race on Jan. 27, 1996. But has it thrived?

What should concern George and Leo Mehl, the league's affable executive directors, the most? Empty grandstands at most venues? The quality of fields, top to bottom? Whispers of cheating? TV ratings?

Who's got the aspirin?

With the series returning to Texas Motor Speedway for the Lone Star 500K last night, here are some suggestions to clear up the headaches paining the IRL:

Grow and tweak the schedule.

Eleven races at 10 venues will determine the 1998 IRL champion.

"I think 15 races, at our stage of growth, is good," said Billy Boat, who won the second True Value 500K on June 6 at TMS.

"Every time you add a race, you add expense. If you run a lot of races you defeat some of the cost effectiveness of the series."

The IRL recently ended its association with Bob Bahre and his New Hampshire International Speedway after last June's race drew fewer than 25,000 fans -- a logical move for all parties.

What venue should the IRL consider adding?

The 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, home to NASCAR's famed Daytona 500, would add to the series' prestige and be a major magnet for sponsors.

Book more Saturday night races.

Nothing has given the IRL more of an identity than superspeedway events under the lights, a prime-time "tradition" launched at TMS in 1997. The drivers and cars like the cooler temperatures, and passing at 220 mph is spectacular.

It also gets the IRL away from Sunday afternoon TV conflicts with NASCAR Winston Cup, rival CART events, and occasional live National Hot Rod Association telecasts.

If the IRL cuts a deal to race at Daytona, perhaps in 2000, it should be run at night.

Add an engine constructor or two.

Back in the heyday of the Chevrolet Indy V-8 in the early 1990s, the manufacturer plastered billboards outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the message that rightly proclaimed: "You can't win without one."

The same holds true in today's IRL with the Oldsmobile Aurora V-8.

The normally aspirated, production-based unit has won every IRL pole and race run to date. That's a nice return on investment for Olds, although the victories have become predictable as Nissan Motor Corp., USA, has struggled with development of its 4.0-liter (244 cubic-inch) Infiniti Indy V-8.

"I know the IRL wants to get some more people involved with engines, and there has been talk that in 1999 or 2000 there will be one or two more," said Davey Hamilton, who drives an Olds-powered car owned by Bob Nienhouse.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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