• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

MISing In Action

Unless an Army General travels from West Point to Michigan International Speedway soon and teaches Roger Curtis how to execute an about-face, Sunday's Firestone 400 will end a 40-year run of Indy-type racing at the two-mile Irish Hills superspeedway.

How sad. But not surprising.

When he announced the Indy Racing League would debut in 1996, Tony George repeatedly cited, as a key reason, the need to protect the American oval-track traditions of this form of the sport. The clear message was CART's expansion to road and street courses, and international venues, endanged the historical underpinnings of Indy-style racing. As recently as March 2006, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, series competition president Brian Barnhart said: "The pursuit of the ultimate achievement in motorsports, victory at the Indianapolis 500, has allowed us to preserve and nurture the heritage of Indy-style oval-track racing."

Curtis, MIS' president, confirmed the other week that George's tour won't be back in 2008 due to a dispute over an acceptable date. Series' reps said they were "surprised." Add MIS to a list already including the California, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Dover, Gateway and New Hampshire ovals (plus shuttered Walt Disney World, Nazareth and Pike's Peak) that have come-and-gone during the IRL era. Not that anyone should consider that a trend, or reversal of fortune, or left-hand turn away from the series' founding concept.

Upon receiving the word about his "home" track, Tim Wohlford of AutoRacing1.com, asked me to comment. That brought back a lot of memories.

My own involvement with MIS began when I became CART's first communications director in November 1980. In early 1981, we had a Board of Directors meeting in Houston. Roger Penske, who then owned MIS, proposed to the Board that the July race be changed from 200 to 500 miles. I remember that made for some wide eyes! There were questions if the drivers and cars would hold-up for 500 miles at those speeds on the banking. Roger said it was important for CART to have its own 500 (I agreed), since Ontario Motor Speedway had closed. Wally Dallenbach was the chief steward and, after thinking about it for several minutes, said he thought it could be done. The Board approved and we all went to work.

NBC agreed to televise the event "live," start-to-finish. That was huge because it would be the first time an Indy Car 500 would be shown "live" green-to-checkers. Unfortunately, the race was rained out, and we had to try again the next Saturday. There was a big pit fire and I vividly remember Joe Dowdall, the late, great Detroit News writer, shouting to reporters to get away from the press box window because he was afraid the glass would blow out! Fortunately, it didn't. Pancho Carter won although there was some controversy if he had received an illegal push start out of the pits.

That first 500 seemed to foreshadow the controversies which followed over the years. For example, Mario Andretti edged Tom Sneva in 1984, and Sneva complained about dangerous blocking. There was no SAFER barrier back then and so most accidents at those speeds resulted in heavy impact. A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock and Derek Daly were severely injured. Al Unser Jr. and Chip Ganassi had a spectacular tangle in '84 and it was very lucky they came out pretty much OK. Goodyear decided to introduce radial tires for the 1985 race, but after a few mysterious crashes during practice, everything was put off a week so a supply of bias-ply tires could be made. While this decision was being debated, Mario told the press he'd drive no matter what, while Emerson Fittipaldi said he would not. Ironically, Emmo got his first CART victory, but Mario had a right-rear hub failure in the closing laps while running third and was hospitalized with a hip injury. He couldn't drive the next weekend in Elkhart Lake, the first time he ever had to miss a race due to injury! It's a historical fact that the great careers of Fittipaldi and Danny Sullivan (hurt in accidents) and Rick Mears (DNF due to earlier wrist injury) ended at Michigan.

There was a lot of worry about speed in 1987. Not many people know or remember this, but a few months before the race, a loop was built at the exit of turn two. The idea was the drivers would have to brake, go through the horseshoe, and then accelerate down the backstretch. The loop was never used, though, because of concern about a lot of gearbox failures and, to be honest, fears the fans would not like it.

High speed was again a big topic of discussion in 1989. It's a cliche among drivers to say they are "looking forward" to any race, but truthfully, not many felt that way heading to MIS. Michael Andretti publicly expressed his worries. As it turned out, Michael spun on pit road, got two black-flag penalties, and still won! (I was the Newman/Haas PR director so that's me, to Michael's right, directing the victory lane photo session.) Nigel Mansell, accustomed to FIA-standard smooth tracks in Formula One, couldn't believe how bumpy the surface was when he arrived for practice in 1993. Of course, that was a constant problem, because of the effects of winter and CART veterans had come to accept it as reality. Nigel went on to win that race in his historic PPG Cup championship season. The Hanford Device era -- a big wing that created a huge draft effect -- started in 1998 and those were some of the most breathtaking shows ever. Sadly, I remember that '98 race also for the spectator fatalities, when a wheel got into the grandstands.

The watershed event at MIS was the 1996 U.S. 500, when the CART owners decided to run head-to-head against the Indy 500. That was the defining day in modern American open-wheel history and divided not only series vs. series, but fan against fan. Public interest in all of U.S. open-wheel racing has never been the same. I remember telling Pat Patrick, Derrick Walker, Carl Haas, Steve Horne, Ganassi and others -- including Andrew Craig -- that if they were going to take on an American Institution then they better make a five-year commitment to it and be prepared to approve a budget for an all-out promotional and marketing effort. My opinion was they were not going to accomplish their goal with a one-time try. It didn't happen. The race was close to being sold out but CART never ran directly opposite Indy again.

The IRL had some good Michigan 400s, especially in 2003, when Alex Barron edged Sam Hornish. The track will always have a place in the sport's history as it showcased Indy Car racing at its most exciting, and unfortunately, in decline. Tim Wohlford kindly concluded his report thusly:

"Again, Michael Knight summed it up best: 'I'm sure the news of no-more-MIS will leave those fans who bought into Tony George's original concept for the IRL, which was to protect the Indy series' oval-track heritage, with an increased sense of disenfranchisement. I don't blame them.' "
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FAST LINES: National Speed Sport News (I've been a continuous subscriber since about 1970) has completely redesigned its website. There now are daily news updates and blogs. I like that I can download the current issue as a PDF file first thing Wednesday morning. Check it out at http://www.nationalspeedsportnews.com/. . . After days of intense media attention and a true sense of national disgust about charges made against Michael Vick in a federal indictment, I was disappointed with Krista Voda's poor choice of words on the opening of SPEED's Truck telecast from Indy: "The Truck Series' big dogs are ready to fight" . . . I hope this wasn't a signal of false hype to come the rest of the season. Brent Musburger during the Allstate 400: "There's not a seat to be had" (even a casual glance revealed thousands of empty seats). To which Suzy Kolber replied: "That's for sure." Meanwhile, Rusty Wallace, gushing over Juan Montoya's runner-up finish, claimed the 2000 Indy 500 winner had "never run at this racetrack in his life" . . . Broadcast and print reporters AGAIN proved they don't know how to correctly cover Business of Racing issues. There is an important difference between a MERGER and a PARTNERSHIP. DEI-Ginn is a merger. Yates-Newman/Haas/Lanigan is a partnership. The words are not interchangeable! This was inaccurately reported on ESPN's various outlets for days and in countless print/web stories. Where are the producers and editors whose job it is to provide accuracy and oversight? . . . Last week I commented on Scott Atherton's interview on the ALMS site. Also therein it was revealed the series' current TV agreement expires after this season. Maybe it's just me, but I got the impression renewal with SPEED wasn't as automatic as one might have thought . . . Latest Champ Car TV gimmick: Title contender Robert Doornbos suddenly is "Bobby." What's next? "Sam" Bourdais? . . . By the way, just how much money did Team Australia win along with the Canadian Triple Crown trophy? The announcers made it sound like $1 million, but I never heard any amount mentioned. Hmmm . . . Good Move: John Kernan added to the ESPN2 NHRA crew as a third pit reporter for the rest of the season . . . Another Good Move: Aric Almirola getting away from Joe Gibbs Racing, as suggested here, in the wake of the Milwaukee Mile fiasco. The opportunity to understudy Mark Martin in the merged DEI-Ginn team is priceless. Almirola and his advisors now must ensure Aric gets guidance from an experienced PR professional -- he showed at Milwaukee he needs it -- even if the driver has to open up his own wallet . . . This was announced to AARWBA members a few weeks ago, but ESPN will be a co-host of the reception prior to the 38th annual All-America Team dinner. That's Saturday, January 12, at the Indianapolis Hyatt. I'm chairing the event for the fourth consecutive time . . . Tim Wohlford of AutoRacing1.com has a new blog: http://localgadfly.blogspot.com/.
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For those of us of a certain vintage, Doug Wolfgang is an unforgettable racer, and an enduring legend. It's an understatement to say he was a compelling figure behind the wheel of a winged sprint car. If you don't know Doug's story, you should, as it ranges from five Knoxville Nationals wins to a terrible fire in 1992. Dave Argabright, whose "American Scene" column in National Speed Sport News combines excellent writing with common sense, has written Wolfgang's saga in the new book Lone Wolf. Since it's scheduled to be released tomorrow, I haven't read LW yet, but knowing and respecting Dave I have no doubt it's a "must." Last year, Dave teamed with Chris Economaki to record Let 'Em All Go!, Chris' long-awaited book. Call 317-631-0437 to order or visit http://daveargabright.com/ . Dave will again be a pit reporter for SPEED's "live" coverage of the Knoxville Nationals, the World of Outlaws' premier event, Saturday night, August 11.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]