IRL FOUNDING PRINCIPLE SERIES: PART 3 OF 6

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NOTE: Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, let the world in on his vision for a new open-wheel racing series on March 11, 1994. This is the second in a six-part series examining how the Indy Racing League has adhered to the principles laid out by its founder.

IRL FOUNDING PRINCIPLE 6-PART SERIES:
Part 1: INDY RACING LEAGUE SUPPORTED BY STRONG FOUNDATION
Part 2: INDY RACING LEAGUE SYSTEM BENEFITS EVERYONE
Part 3: SERIES PRESERVES HERITAGE OF AMERICAN RACING (Story located below)
Part 4: WHEN IRL OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS, DRIVERS ANSWER
Part 5: IRL ACTION ELECTRIFIES FANS IN NEW MARKETS

INDY SERIES PRESERVES HERITAGE OF AMERICAN RACING:

With all the movement in open-wheel racing in the mid-1990s, the Indy Racing League's third founding principle didn't need much explanation.

In a letter to The Indianapolis Star published on Oct. 22, 1995, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IRL president Tony George put it clearly: "There is much I would like to do in my life but I'll be unable to enjoy any of it if the '500' is not secure. That's why the Indy Racing League was formed. I felt the long-term protection of the '500' depended on a solid series of top-level, open-wheel oval-track races."

Entering its ninth year, the IRL has conducted races exclusively on ovals. League officials have said that a limited number of road races likely will be added in 2005.

Competing on ovals, in a counterclockwise direction, should not come as a surprise to racing neophytes. They were readily available last century.

"In this country, it became easy to race cars on horse tracks, which were ovals," Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson said. "There was a little of the European influence of city-to-city racing, like Phoenix to Los Angeles. But mostly they used the oval horse tracks. There seemed to be a mix before World War I. But after the war, the road courses were pretty much gone.

"Then came the board tracks. You had super speedways 80 years ago on wood. By that time, road racing went completely away. The Vanderbilt Cup races in 1936 and 1937 may have been the first time ever a road course was laid out, actually built as a road course track.

"The board tracks went away in the Depression years and championship racing dropped down to almost nothing. In 1938, Indianapolis and Syracuse were the only races. Coming back after the war, there was a real effort to bolster championship racing. But all the races were on dirt. Darlington was the first paved track, and then came Milwaukee in 1954 and Trenton by 1957. The roadsters would run at Indy, but owners found their dirt cars were better on the other ovals.

"Then there was the landmark decision in '65 to run the road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park. In '67 came Mosport, St. Jovite and Riverside. (Roger) Penske was coming into the sport and other road racers were also joining."

Dirt tracks and the Pikes Peak Hill Climb were also part of the series, which ballooned to 28 races in 1968.

"At the same time, people started building super speedways. Michigan was the first, and others were Texas (World), Ontario and Pocono," Davidson said. "We had so many races that USAC made separate divisions for the road courses and the dirt. The road race thing died and the dirt thing took off.

"The road courses started to come back in '77 with Mosport. Wh

en CART split in 1979, more road races were added."

League benefits from boom

Through its formative years, the staple of the series surrounding the Indianapolis 500 was oval-track racing -- whether on boards, dirt or pavement. The 1990s produced another construction boom of super speedways like Las Vegas, Texas, Kentucky, Nashville, Pikes Peak and Chicagoland. That coincided with the IRL's desire to build an open-wheel oval-track series.

Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, a driver coach and consultant to the league since its inception, has seen the IRL's commitment to its principles as it has expanded into new markets.

"We've had some shows that are unbelievable," Unser said. "Tony George and the IRL have accomplished what they set out to do. You talk to most race fans at those (new) places and they've never seen cars run at those speeds. It looks like inches but it's a foot or so (between them). The fans there are very excited."

Johnny Rutherford, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner who is involved in special projects for the IRL, said the heritage of oval-track racing mixes well with the new tracks on the circuit.

"Oval-track racing is American," he said. "It started in the early days of the automobile and it was easy with the horse tracks. The IRL has done a great deal to put big-time oval-track racing back on track. I think the 21st century has brought us a lot of changes in the way we do things. It's a new style of racing on the high-banked super speedways and the other various types of tracks. The fans like to see it on the super speedways and it's part of the evolution.

"Back in the '60s, it was a new type of event on 1?-mile high-banked ovals like Atlanta. It's come back with tracks like Texas. You still have to have a variety. Kansas, Kentucky and Chicago are not quite as banked but produce the competition and speed that excites the fan."

Ready to mix it up

Rutherford and Unser said adding road courses would enhance the IRL's schedule.

"We've obviously seen a need to diversify a little bit," Rutherford said. "The league has made sure it has become a solid part of motorsports. I think we need to be cautious in presenting road racing, make it a specialty event. We have the Indianapolis 500 and now, to accommodate the road racing fan, we can pick the better venues to make it something special to bring road racing to the fan again.

"It's a good show and we have the best racing going right now. Sometimes you get carried away and try to do too much too fast. But I think the progression has been right on."

Said Unser: "Road racing is very good. Let's throw in dirt tracks, too. If we can reach out to the fans of both kinds, that's what we should do. The Speedway reached out to NASCAR and Formula One and it's been successful."

During a career in which he chalked up four wins and six poles in the Indianapolis 500, Rick Mears came to be known as the "Master of Faster" on the ovals. He's now a driver coach for the Indy Racing League Menards Infiniti Pro Series?.

"I like all forms of racing," said Mears, whose only oval experience leading up to his career in Indy-type cars was a season in stock cars on a quarter-mile. "I doubt if there's any track I've disliked. Oval racing has its own art form as far as technique and style of driving. It's different, even as it's different from a one-mile oval to a speedway. It's more of a mental drain on a speedway, a different mind-set. You have to learn to let the car carry you instead of you carrying the car."

Mears concurred with Unser and Rutherford that broadening the schedule to include road courses would benefit the IRL. But the focus should be on ovals.

"In today's market with motorsports the way it is, you have to try to capitalize on audiences," Mears said. "We're entertaining, putting on a show. It just helps to put our show in front of more audiences."

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