Some Quotes, Notes and Observations from the IRL WDW 200
28 January 1998
Three years ago at the inaugural IRL WDW 200, it was hard to pull a field together to have a race. There were three year old, sponsor-less racecars in that race. Tony George was paying teams to field as many cars as they could. Just ask AJ Foyt. In that first race, some teams showed up without the benefit of a semi-hauler, much less a hospitality area.
Two years later, all of the teams have semi-haulers, plus some teams had hospitality tents. A couple of teams still compete without a major sponsor, but the series is light years beyond where it was positioned just two years ago. The paddock area reminded me of a CART paddock in the early 1990's. In 1996, 21 IL cars were on hand for the green flag. This year 28 cars qualified, and three teams were sent packing to wait for the next race at Phoenix. The decision to start only 28 teams was based on safety concerns.
The IRL v.CART War, Part II, is over. Tony George, despite all of the criticism, has been able to pull off what many thought impossible. Part I was the split in 1969/1970 when CART was established. Whether we will ever see a reunification of the two sporting bodies remains to be seen. CART looks more and more of a threat to Formula 1 than to the IRL.
The addition of Pep Boys as the series sponsor solidifies the future of the IRL. IRL Chief of Operations Leo Mehl must be the most underestimated deal-maker in America. Several well-known CART pundits said it would be four years before a name sponsor would come on board. Hmmm, they [IRL] seem to be two years ahead of that forecast. The task of returning the Indianapolis 500 to pre-split prestige will still take some more time, but, the fact that 31 cars showed up for the first race bodes well for a large number of entries to that race in May. Whether we admit it or not, people have a short memory. Put on a good show and people will show up. In last year's Indy 500, 10 cars were on the lead lap at the finish. Granted a signaling snafu caused more pain to Scott Goodyear, but like Arie Luyendyk said "the starter has the last word until the chief steward overrules."
Concerns over live TV programming also appear to be over. All 11 IRL races will be televised live over ABC, CBS or TNN depending on the venue.
Last year Oldsmobile was having a tough time delivering engines and supports during the season. Now there are over 300 powerplants either in use or on-line for delivery. Nissan's engine program appears to be getting close to making a comeback. We will know by May.
The race crowd, while not a sell-out at the first race, was a good one. Also, unlike at the first-year Disney race, the league did it give out tickets. No official attendance numbers were given out, but estimates range from 35,000-45,000. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
In its first year, the IRL had three races. Now this year, with 11 races and two new venues (Dover,DE and Atlanta, GA), the series is obviously trying to convert some NASCAR fans to become loyal to both closed and open-wheel racing. For the sprint car fans, it has to be gratifying to see so many sprint drivers involved in the IRL series.
Like it or not the IRL is here to stay.
David Treffer -- The Auto Channel