The Callahan Report: Dover 'Crash-Festival' Could Put IRL in Jeopardy
20 July 1998
By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel
DOVER, DE: The Pep Boys Indy Racing League went to Dover Downs with hopes of putting on an exciting show of talent and speed. Instead, the league may have signed its own death warrant.
When the dust settled in "The First State" on Sunday, there was a multitude of junk lying in the infield. Nearly half of the twenty-two cars which began the race were trashed. It was not a pretty picture considering the next IRL race will be contested within six days.
The concrete surface at Dover proved to be too rough for the Indy Cars. Many of the cars broke, causing their pilots to crash violently into the walls. The race in Dover could be the downward turning point in the short history of the Indy Racing League. The Pep Boys IRL had hoped to venture into another NASCAR hotbed Sunday. Instead, some of the car owners may be applying for food stamps Monday morning. Most teams are in serious need of sponsor dollars.
The drivers who saw the checkered flag at Dover didn't finish the race. They survived it. The concrete surface on "The Monster Mile" was jarring.
Scott Sharp was the eventual winner of the Dover Demolition Derby. Sharp commented, "After 40 laps, my hands were tired, and I knew why they call it the Monster Mile....and then I thought about it and realized I still had 208 (laps) to go." He continued, "I kept telling myself, `You can't get too tired,' and I was just holding on, trying to deal with the bumps and trying to figure out where second place was."
Sharp, who won his third Pep Boys IRL event on Sunday, had his share of close calls. He thought his day was over when polesitter Tony Stewart made a pass on the outside. Sharp nearly lost control as Stewart was making the pass. "I thought maybe both of us would crash," Sharp commented. "But he saw me more than I saw him, he steered up high and we got through it without causing a mess."
Buddy Lazier, the winner of the 1996 Indy 500, was the "survivor" in second place. Lazier said after the race, "All of my teeth are hurting. You can't use a mouth guard because you can't breath."
The rough racing surface took Tony Stewart out of the running. He didn't crash, but he had unique problems as a result of the constant vibrations produced by the track. Stewart said, "It was so bumpy out there ... it shook the dash loose, and the dash was laying in my lap. We came in three or four times to tape the dash back."
Rookie Steve Knapp, who took over as the driver for PDM Racing, suffered the most serious incident of the day. Knapp's car broke loose in one of the rough turns and went hard into the wall. His crash looked like a carbon copy of the others in the race. Knapp was air-lifted to a local hospital for treatment.
The Monster Mile was not selective. She took her toll on veterans and rookies. Arie Luyendyk was just another name on the crash list. He joined names like 1998 Indy winner Eddie Cheever, bright star Greg Ray, Jeff Ward, and Robby Unser. In all, nine Indy cars were destroyed during the racing weekend.
The IRL has thrilled fans in racing centers such as Indiana, North Carolina and Texas. The racing, with the exception of Dover, has been close, competitive, and exciting.
In order to have a successful racing series, there needs to be an abundance of cars on the track. Fans come to watch the drivers battle for first place and last place. The Dover race will have a direct effect on the car count at Charlotte. The IRL car owners already have aching wallets. There is simply not enough time and money for some of the teams to repair their damaged equipment in time for the Charlotte race.
The equation is simple. Fewer cars=fewer spectators=fewer sponsors. It would be a shame to see the all oval open wheel series disappear due to a lack of funding. If the series does die, it will be because of a lack of funding.....not a lack of talent.
Last year in Charlotte, the racing action kept fans on their feet watching the wheel-to-wheel, high- speed action. When the IRL puts on their show under the lights in Charlotte on Saturday night, the action will be hot once again, with one difference from last year.......after the carnage at Dover, there will be less traffic.