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Motorsports

FORD AND STEWART BACK TO INDY

by Larry Roberts

February 19, 1999

Jackie Stewart, "The Flying Scot" who won the World Driving Championship for Formula One three times in decades gone by, is as canny a schmoozer as he was a racer. Since retiring from the track some years ago, he has been a spokesman for the Ford Motor Company. He has appeared in Ford commercials, attended Ford media junkets as an honored "guest" and driving instructor and generally been an ambassador-without- portfolio for the Big Blue Oval.

And Ford couldn't have made a better choice. The aging Stewart is personable, friendly and unaffected as well as in possession of a charming Scottish brogue that makes listening to him a pleasure.

A couple of years back, Stewart launched a Formula One team of his own using his own name. And of course, his powerplant of choice was the Ford Grand Prix engine as used by several of the other teams.

And while Stewart and his drivers aren't the "official" Ford factory team, it's obvious that Stewart and Company hold a special place in the Ford motorsports program.

It was therefore not a surprise when Ford brought over the affable Scot to give an "unofficial" evaluation of the new Formula One track that's being built in the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The world of American auto racing is a promotional battleground with the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR), the Indy Racing League (IRL), Pro Sports Car Racing (PSCR) and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) all fighting it out for TV time, spectators and media attention.

So far, NASCAR is winning the fight by a large margin, but coming up fast is the relatively new IRL which is, in effect, synonymous with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the oldest ongoing race track in the U.S. The Hulman family has owned it since the '40s and has seen its main attraction, the Memorial Day Indy 500, evolve through being sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (yes, the same AAA whose interests now lie in auto insurance and travel arrangements, was once our official racing body), the United States Auto Club (USAC), CART and now the Speedway's wholly-owned subsidiary, the IRL. The Hulman family (through grandson Tony George) swept away CART and its exotic, expensive single-seaters and replaced them with the IRL formula that is based on production car engines and features drivers that lack publicly recognizable names. One of the few bright spots in the IRL's dim firmament was Tony Stewart (no relation to Jackie), its 1997 champion who has since moved to the NASCAR Winston Cup for more prestige and money.

But Tony George and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway scored what may be a promotional coup when it landed a five-year contract to be the site of the U.S. Grand Prix for Formula One cars starting in 2000. Our fax line has scarcely had time to cool off from handling communiques from the Speedway regarding the upcoming race.

And never being one to let a public relations opportunity slip by, Ford enlisted Stewart's aid.

Stewart said that he liked what he saw, of course, and that he would "..love to see.." (a quote for a recent Speedway fax) NASCAR star Jeff Gordon join the Formula One circuit and drive at the U.S. Grand Prix in 2000. Stewart thereby ingratiated himself and the U.S. Grand Prix to the millions of NASCAR fans by paying homage to NASCAR's brightest star and the NASCAR program itself. He also hoped that Americans will consider his Stewart Formula One team "their own" by virtue of its Ford sponsorship.

Maybe a more suitable nickname for Jackie Stewart would be "The Smooth Scot."