Nuts and Bolts: Open-wheel needs to keep stars
Next to the Knoxville Nationals this is my second favorite weekend of the summer. Few people realize this weekend we have the opportunity to see a modern version of open-wheel racing’s glory days. Knoxville plays host to the USAC Midgets for the Knoxville Pepsi Midget Nationals and the IndyCar Series tackles the high banks of Iowa Speedway. USAC racing is the root of open-wheel racing. In the 1960s, USAC was the pinnacle of motorsports. They had three divisions of cars: Midgets, Sprints and Champ cars. Today, IndyCar teams have to worry about oval and road course packages, but in the ’60s Indy cars raced at Indianapolis then would hit the dirt at DuQuoin or Springfield among other tracks. Drivers that raced a USAC or Outlaw sprint show at Knoxville could be seen at Indy in May. Knoxville’s reputation is larger than life and that was evident last year. During the IRL autograph session Andretti Green Racing teammates were passing notes back and forth, making plans to go to Knoxville afterwards. IndyCar drivers were present at the Midget races last year and many signed autographs. IndyCar lost its place atop motorsports hierarchy to NASCAR in the early- to mid- 1990s when the series split and NASCAR started its marketing blitz. Looking back, three people brought NASCAR to the front: Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon. Waltrip’s team showed the world that products other than beer or auto parts sell racing when they brought Tide on board. That and Gordon’s age and good looks brought women into NASCAR’s grandstands. Earnhardt was as American as John Wayne. His tough, rebellious and daring demeanor made him the most popular driver because Americans could relate to him. Sprint car and Midget drivers seem to win immediately when they move to racing’s major league because of the characteristics of those cars. Sprints and their two pounds of weight per every horsepower develop a driver’s “seat of the pants” skills as well as their courage. Midgets and their short wheelbase and lower horsepower create very smooth driving skills. Don’t believe me? Look at the list of winners in NASCAR and Indy cars. Gordon, Tony Stewart, JJ Yeley, Kenny Irwin, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards all came from Sprints and Midgets. What IndyCar needs to do is funnel drivers like these back to Indy cars. How? Money. Why else would Stewart, Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. head south to NASCAR? Stewart’s and more recently Hornish’s departure from the IRL has greatly injured IndyCar’s popularity. IndyCar lost another up and coming star in Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who now holds the ARCA points lead. He will be present at Knoxville wheeling a Midget this weekend. If Tony George wants to put more prize money into his series he needs to put people in the stands. He can do that by putting guys like Stenhouse, Brady Bacon and Tracy Hines, Midget guys, in his cars. His series races primarily in the United States. Americans like ovals and people they can relate to. The most popular drivers are Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and Sarah Fisher. Watch Ed Carpenter this weekend and remember he came from USAC. Penske and Ganassi use drivers like these in their development teams for NASCAR. Why don’t they in their Indy Lights cars? Make it to both events this weekend and you’ll see why they should. I am afraid if they don’t, you will continue to see the Montoya’s and Hornish’s heading south along with the Edwards’ and Newman’s. Finally, did you know this is one of the IRL’s favorite stops on the circuit? In Kansas I was told by an IndyCar employee that when they came into Newton and saw posters in every window and “I am Indy” flags flying around the square, along with the hospitality our city provided, they were overwhelmed. They know the series has something special here. We can help improve our reputation by all of the season ticket holders getting to the track very early on Sunday. This will help to alleviate traffic problems. IndyCar has worked hard to improve their part of the event, let’s do the same for them. Have fun this weekend and if you have an extra ticket stop by and pick up Ron Foreman on the way out. Come on Iowa, let’s show them what we got!
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