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by Larry Roberts

July 31, 1998

The folks over at Pontiac must be rubbing their hands with glee over the change that is going to take place regarding the Indy Racing League (IRL) lineup next year. Tony Stewart, the only truly recognizable "name" in the IRL, is jumping ship and will be competing in the NASCAR Winston Cup stock car series with new teammate, veteran Bobby Labonte on the Joe Gibbs Pontiac team.

This is also statistically good news for Pontiac, since that brand is outnumbered almost two-to-one by Chevrolet and three-to-one by the Ford juggernaut on the Winston Cup starting grids.

It has to be bad news for Tony George, however. George is the owner of the famous Indianapolis Speedway and originator of the IRL series of 11 American oval track races. His concept was to have a series to encourage "low budget" big-time racing that would motivate young American drivers competing in United States Auto Club (USAC) events to come up through the ranks of midget and sprint car short-track racing to become the stars of the IRL in general and the Indy 500 in particular.

So far the plan hasn't worked too well. The transition from driving short, quirky front-engined midgets and sprinters on quarter-and-half- mile tracks (especially dirt and clay tracks) to long wheelbase, rear-engined formula-type cars on big, paved ovals has resulted in lots of bent machinery and a high attrition rate.

But one driver who has made the transition very well is Stewart. He's been the USAC midget and sprint car champion several times and then won the IRL championship last year. He has also recently driven in a couple of NASCAR Busch Grand National (the NASCAR entry-level series) races, one of which he was leading until purposely taken out by a circuit "regular."

But Stewart says he wants to "progress" which means going into a higher paying type of competition or one that presents more public exposure. In this country, that means NASCAR Winston Cup racing.

One would think that a more logical step for Stewart would be to the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) single-seater series. The cars are faster and technically more sophisticated than either the NASCAR "stockers" or the almost "one-engine, one-chassis" car that currently runs under the IRL banner. But CART lacks public "pizzazz," among other things, and its promotional endeavors are viewed by most sports marketers as elitist and self-aggrandizing. Besides that, it has problems with its own current champion, Alex Zanardi.

The Italian born Zanardi has won so many CART races this year for the Chip Ganassi team in his Target-sponsored Reynard-Honda that he's viewed as almost unbeatable. He came from the stratified world of international Formula One Grand Prix racing a few years ago, where he was merely a back-marker. However, he then burst on the American scene as a hard-charging winner. But now he says he longs for the European "culture" that he left behind, and there are rumors that he's being wooed by Ferrari. There's no doubt that the Italian auto maker can obviously see the advantage of having an American CART champion with an Italian name and background driving on their payroll. Canadian Jaques Villeneuve bolted from the CART field as champion several seasons ago and won the Formula One World Championship when he did.

Public exposure may have something to do with the attraction of Formula One for upwardly-mobile drivers like Zanardi. While NASCAR Winston Cup racing is the box office champ in this country, it can't compare to the worldwide TV attraction of Formula One events that are run in 14 countries. Formula One "stars" command bigger salaries than their CART counterparts over here.

It's conjectural that if NASCAR will make as big a name for Tony Stewart and Pontiac as it has for Dale Earnhardt and Chevrolet. We'll be sure of it only when we see Tony Stewart dolls go on sale in toy stores next Christmas.