Last week I referred to the Fontana CART race as an anti-climax due to the lack of a championship battle. But it turned out to be perhaps the best race of the decade, with a record number of lead changes and lots of excitement.
At times, it looked almost like an open-wheel version of a Winston Cup restrictor plate race. Unfortunately, the racing has been overshadowed by behind-the-scenes maneuvering and defections by teams and fans alike.
As I mentioned last week, wealthy wunderkind Jon Vannini (owner of about a million and a quarter shares of CART stock) has been stirring the pot, submitting filings with the Securities Exchange Commission to reconstitute the CART board and replace CEO Joe Heitzler and other management types.
His latest missive claims conflicts of interest by six members of the CART board, and calls for their resignation. It seems that some board members are concurrently team owners and track owners, which raises the conflict of interest questions. Strangely enough, one of the board members named by Vannini is Gerald Forsythe, who was believed to be behind Vannini's maneuverings.
I hate to say it, but CART is in serious trouble. The only good news lately is the announcement that Federal Express has renewed its title sponsorship of the series for up to four years. Strangely, the announcement came not from CART, but from the Fed Ex people. A Fed Ex spokesman referred to the international flavor of the CART series as important to Fed Ex's global marketing strategy.
So CART has a title sponsor, a tire supplier (Bridgestone), no engine providers after the 2002 season, and several top teams looking at the IRL. I don't know about you, but I don't think this is a totally healthy situation for the series. It looks like Tony George and his Indy Racing League spec cars have finally worn CART down.
Roger Penske has seen the handwriting on the wall, and has strengthened his ties with the IRL's Kelley Racing team. Penske and Kelley are combining in the Ilmor/Chevrolet IRL engine program for 2002, and may be joined by Morris Nunn's new IRL team with that powerplant. Remember when Penske used a loophole in the rules a number of years back and ran a pushrod Ilmor/Mercedes at Indy that blew everybody else into the weeds? Expect an announcement from Penske any day now that he's IRL-bound for 2002 and beyond.
The situation affects more than just the two series, however. It has splashed over into the International Race of Champions (IROC), where the top three IRL finishers from 2001 will challenge the NASCAR boys in the prestigious invitational series. Sam Hornish Jr., Buddy Lazier, and Scott Sharp have all accepted invitations to race in IROC in 2002.
No CART drivers will be included, primarily because of scheduling conflicts. The IROC California Speedway event will be held on the same weekend that CART is in Motegi, Japan. Kenny Brack was the only CART representative in the 2001 IROC series. In any case, IROC has become primarily a NASCAR benefit, run in stock cars on big ovals, with two-thirds of the field occupied by NASCAR drivers.
As the Winston Cup season winds down, is there any way Jeff Gordon can be denied his fourth Championship? He would have to have disastrous luck in all three of the remaining races for Ricky Rudd to have even a shot at catching him.
Even then, Rudd would have to win and lead the most laps in every race to have a chance. Nobody can say that Gordon didn't win this year in true championship fashion. His six wins top the victory chart (Jarrett is next with four), he has more top-five finishes (18) and more top 10 results (23) than anybody else. Of course, I realize that there are a lot of Gordon-haters out there, but there were a lot of Dale Earnhardt non-fans around before he died at Daytona. In fact, just about all NASCAR champions have had a significant number of folks who didn't like them, with the possible exception of Richard Petty. Only the Allison brothers didn't like The King, probably because he beat them on such a regular basis.
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal motorsports columnist. He can reached at email@example.com