Yup, that’s right. I said it. I think the Indy Racing League is well on it’s way to competing with NASCAR for America’s top racing series. Right now, NASCAR is whooping all of its competitors, but with the shows being put on by the IRL, it’s only a matter of time before everybody catches on. The competition, the sponsorship, the tracks, the teams, the drivers, there is no way you can ignore the IRL.
The single biggest reason for me saying this, is the drama around last year’s final race. The IRL point leader, Sam Hornish Jr., came into the final race with a slim 12-point lead after taking the lead with a win the race one week earlier (at Chicagoland). The second place driver was two-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves, a fan favorite who is also know as “Spider-man”, for his post-win celebrations. The difference between first and second in an IRL race is 12 points. And the race was to take place at the IndyCar version of Talladega and Daytona, Texas Motor Speedway.
With seven laps to go, Hornish pulled to the outside of leader Castroneves. First and second in the standings, battling for the win and the championship. Side-byside, lap after lap, Hornish and Castroneves battled. Sometimes another car would peek in the battle, but would fade in a lap or so. Hornish and Castoneves were still side-by-side as they came to take the white flag. As the drove into turn one, Castroneves got a little bit in front of Hornish, as he had the inside line. As they cam off of two, Hornish pulled back into the lead, albeit by a nose. They dove into three, and Castorneves’s nose peeked out front again. They came off of four, and Hornish ran higher then usual, jumping up the RPMs and pulling out the win and championship, by just a nose. Just incredibly exciting. Neither man could back off, as Hornish needed a win to guarantee the championship, and Castroneves needed a win to get the most points possible and to give himself the best chance to win the championship.
Only the week before did Hornish set the closest finish with a similar side-by-side duel with the legendary Al Unser Jr. Two consecutive races where the win was decided by inches. Hornish also worked a similar wonder early in the season at California, beating Jacques Lazier by less than a hundreth of a second. These are all tracks NASCAR goes to on their schedule, but they didn’t produce three finishes like these. It’s almost a travesty that NASCAR is the series getting all of the attention.
But, the IRL has made significant strides since the beginning of 2002. That was the time when Penske Racing announced it was jumping from the much older CART series to the IRL. That was a major shift in power in the Indy Car wars, as Penske was a CART mainstay, pretty much since the inception of the series. Penske drivers Gil de Ferran and Castroneves quickly started competing for the championship. It is a lot easier to go from road course to oval then oval to road course (but I still think that F1 drivers wouldn’t be able to hold their own in NASCAR). They immediately came in and challenged reigning champ Hornish. It almost looked like a Penske sweep of the top two spots. They claimed several wins in the early part of the season, including a Castroneves win in the Indianapolis 500. But Hornish went on a tear, and at Chicagoland, then point leader de Ferran crashed, injuring himself and giving the point lead to Hornhish. You know the rest.
After 2002, several CART drivers jumped ship to the IRL. Michael Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Kenny Brack, Scott Dixon, Tora Takagi, and Dario Franchitti all jumped ship. With the exception of Brack, none of these drivers had ever competed in a full season in the IRL. Michael is the winningest driver in CART history, while Franchitti and Brack have competed for the championship in the past couple of years. In fact, de Ferran and Brack competed all year in 2001 for the championship, with the nod going to de Ferran after a late-year charge. Also, engine manufacturers Honda and Toyota jumped to the IRL as well, leaving only Ford to power CART vehicles. Not only that, the Twin Ring Motegi race track jumped ship as well, making last month’s race there the first time the IRL has raced outside the U.S. Motegi isn’t the first track to move to the IRL from CART. Last year, the IRL had it’s first race at Michigan International Speedway. CART no longer makes stops at Michigan.
Is the IRL the next NASCAR? It may be. If it continues to put on the kind of shows it has, the world can’t ignore it. While there are bad races (Gateway and Homestead don’t produce much good racing anywhere), the good definitley outweighs the bad. Watch out Mike Helton. Tony George is coming for you.
One last note: Big props to Homestead-Miami Speedway for taking steps to produce good racing. I am so excited now about this year’s Ford Championship Weekend, because this banking might produce close, side-by-side racing that all fans love. It might take a couple of years for grooves to develop, but hopefully 5 years down the road, Homestead-Miami Speedway will produce finishes closer than Darlington’s .002 finish.