Wednesday, October 29, 2008
IRL still considering 'a few issues' before it commits to Gold Coast deal
By John Oreovicz Special to ESPN.com
The 1991 event in Surfers Paradise, Australia, marked the beginning of CART's international aspirations. With great fanfare, the chief sanctioning body of Indy-car racing in those days took its show Down Under; in the process, it sparked a philosophical debate within American open-wheel racing that continues to this day.
The inaugural Gold Coast Indy represented the first time Indy-style racing had been exported outside the United States and its bordering nations since 1978, when the USAC-sanctioned series traveled to England to race at Silverstone and Brands Hatch. Within 10 years, CART would stage races in Brazil, Japan, Germany and England -- and it would also have an American-themed competitor in the form of the Indy Racing League.
Scott Dixon, above, finished second in Sunday's Nikon Indy 300, trailing Ryan Briscoe across the finish line by 0.5019 of a second.
Tony George founded the IRL on the basic tenets of oval racing and American participation, but as the 12-year war with CART and later Champ Car unfolded, compromises were made. By the time the IRL finally put Champ Car out of business earlier this year, the "unified" Indy Racing League looked a lot like CART in its heyday, with a similar roster of teams, drivers and events.
As part of the merger agreement with Champ Car, the IRL took over the Surfers Paradise event contract, and in July, it was finally confirmed that the IndyCar Series would honor the Oct. 26 date in Australia. However, the race would be run as a non-points exhibition, because Chicagoland Speedway's contract with the IRL specified the track would host the championship finale.
When the IndyCar Series announced its 2009 schedule a few days later, Australia was conspicuously absent from the docket. In the ensuing weeks, it became clear that the IRL and race promoter IMG were locked in a battle about rescheduling the event. The IRL wanted to twin the Australian race with its event in Motegi, Japan, moving the date to late September or even to the spring. The Australians were firmly set on keeping their late-October date, which fit well with the Australian sporting calendar, including the V-8 Supercar Championship Series and the AFL football playoffs.
"They would prefer to come in March, and we have said March is not an acceptable time for us," said Queensland Sport Minister Judy Spence. "It takes 100 days to construct the track, and we just cannot start that in January in the middle of a Gold Coast holiday season."
Both sides eventually agreed to postpone serious negotiation until after this year's non-championship race.
"We have every intention of hopefully working something out," said Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL's commercial division, on his way to Australia. "When we unified open-wheel racing this year it brought both opportunities and challenges. You can imagine when you're trying to blend two racing series and make one better series it really does bring challenges, and this has been one.
"We think it's one that we can overcome, embrace and make work," he added. "I think both sides enter in with a great spirit of cooperation to get this worked out."
The race weekend got off to a bad start PR-wise when a lower-level representative from Bartercard, a major race sponsor, claimed that the IRL had already decided against returning to Australia. Denials were quickly issued, but then Craig Gore, an outspoken Gold Coast-based businessman and property developer who is the driving force behind the Team Australia sponsorship program, said he will pull his support from KV Racing if the Australian race is dropped.
The Australian newspaper Gold Coast Bulletin quoted Gore as saying: "I just hope that Tony George and the rest of his boys of the IRL see sense and recognize that this is probably like throwing away the Indy 500. It is far and away their second-biggest race. They probably need to hand out corncobs at some of the races to get people to some of them.
A date is the first issue; money is second. [The event] has certainly lived up to everyone's billing, but nothing has really changed. There are still a few issues we have to come to agreement on before we can make a decision on the future.
-- Tony George
"I can tell you now if there's no IRL on the Gold Coast, there's no Team Australia," Gore added. "I have invested $20 million into this event and this team and flying the Australian flag, and made a significant contribution to the state and the country. Hopefully we can win it this year so if I do have to walk away, I can say we that have achieved what we set out to do."
On the track, the IndyCar Series put on arguably the best open-wheel race Surfers Paradise has ever seen. Two drivers with strong Australian ties -- Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon -- waged a dramatic shootout Sunday, with Broscoe edging Dixon by 0.5019 of a second.
Many Australians seem affronted by the fact that the unified American open-wheel series would turn its back on one of its premier events. But the Gold Coast event doesn't need Indy cars to survive; the V-8 Supercars have been part of the bill since 1997 -- ironically, first as a non-championship exhibition race, and since 2002, a points-paying round of the championship.
"If they don't decide to come back next year, we will have a great event here on the Gold Coast at the end of the year," said leading V-8 driver Garth Tander. "I think you only have to look at the merchandise walking around the Indy precinct -- that tells you who the fans are here to see."
Some view the departure of the IRL as a formality and are already lining up open-wheel replacements. The 1980 world champion Alan Jones, the last Australian to win the F1 title, is lobbying to bring in the A1GP series.
"What I have to stress upon people is that we aren't an alternative; we're actually an improvement," Jones said.
From the IRL's perspective, the Australian race is difficult and expensive to get to, and its scheduling could impact deals with other tracks. The IndyCar Series wants to have its championship decided on American soil, and it wants to wrap up its season as early as possible to avoid competing with the NFL for television viewers.
Speaking to the Bulletin at the Surfers Paradise race, George remained noncommittal on the future of the event.
"A date is the first issue; money is second," George said. "[The event] has certainly lived up to everyone's billing, but nothing has really changed. There are still a few issues we have to come to agreement on before we can make a decision on the future."
Greg Hooten, the general manager of the Gold Coast event, says the show will go on whether the IndyCar Series decides to return or not.
"The government is committed financially, the V-8s have committed, so it's two-thirds of the pie," he said. "Racing will continue here right through until 2013, and it will still remain the most iconic event in Australia.
"From our perspective, the ability to make some changes is there, and we will still have a great event."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.