(by Dave Lewandowski on indycar.com 12-15-08)
Less than 10 months ago, Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George seized an opportunity to unify North American open-wheel racing after a contentious and monetarily costly decade.
The 2008 season was quickly approaching, allowing little time to integrate and update teams that sought to transition to the IndyCar Series from Champ Car. While the process wasn't without headaches, results on and off the racetracks were immediate and portend for steady growth.
"I think the first year of unification went as well as anyone could have hoped," George said during a wide-ranging question and answer session. "There was plenty of opportunity to have not lived up to anyone's expectations. Given the late opportunity -- the season was about to start -- there's was a tremendous amount of challenge to be overcome. But everyone pulled together and made sure that the equipment was in the hands of the teams so they could go about their business."
Officials of the sanctioning Indy Racing League, manufacturers and teams worked with new entrants to get them up to speed as quickly as possible. With Graham Rahal of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing winning on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., in the second race of the season - becoming the youngest winner in IndyCar Series history - it validated the procedures and spirit of cooperation. Rahal was among the six first-time winners in the 2008 campaign, and one of nine different victors.
"After we got through the first couple of races, it was always my feeling that by Indianapolis we would really start to come together and I think we did," George said. "There was still some uncertainty in the minds of many that whether the (new teams) were going to be competitive. Getting to Indianapolis you had a couple of weeks of practice and four days of qualifying and then a 500-mile race with the big stage and the spotlight on everybody. I think it kind of settled everyone and that's when we started coming together as one.
"Up until that point, there was still a lot of talk about Champ Car drivers and IRL drivers, and I think we all became IndyCar teams at that point. We went from transition teams to we're all one series. I would view 2008 as a great success and I look forward to 2009."
Now the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Centennial Era, which kicks off in 2009, dovetails with unification under the IndyCar Series banner. The Speedway celebrates its 100th birthday next year, with programs and special events planned to commemorate its contributions to American automobile history and sports.
"It's nice to have a big milestone or a big anniversary to celebrate on the heels of unification," said George, the CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "We look to take full advantage of the beginning of our Centennial Era celebration and I'm excited.
"I think unification was a long time coming, but it's now behind us and we have a very deep and competitive field of cars. We're all looking forward to next season. There will be some challenges pulling things together for next year, but we've been through the biggest challenge and I think that was pulling it together at all.
"I hear every day of more drivers that are interested in coming to the series and hear talk of new potential teams for next year. There will probably be one or two that don't return, but hopefully a team that comes in will be able to take advantage of this opportunity that's been created."
George also sees opportunities in the long term, such as two IndyCar Series seasons.
"In 2013, we'll be through our Centennial Era and our new technical package will have been introduced for a couple of years," George said. "I think you'll continue to see a predominantly North American-based championship. I think 16 to 20 races for what we do now is a comfortable number. I know there will be opportunities for us to do some more international outreach, whether it's through licensing or actually taking our product and creating a winter season.
"Drivers want to drive every week and if the operating budgets and sponsorships we depend on are there I think you could see us do as many as 22, 24 races a year. Or you could see something like ALMS has done in licensing our specifications, our name and brand for a European schedule."