Sign of unity
Once rivals, Newman and Penske form partnership
Posted: Thursday April 3, 2008 7:16PM; Updated: Thursday April 3, 2008 7:16PM
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Once bitter rivals in the early days of the Indy Racing League, actor Paul Newman and team owner Roger Penske have joined forces in the spirit of unity.
While Penske was first to come back to Indy and break ranks with the former CART Series, Newman was steadfast in his opposition of two open-wheel series during the split that lasted from 1996 through 2007, remaining loyal to CART and later Champ Car.
Now that open-wheel racing is united with Champ Car having ceased operation and joined IndyCar, Newman hopes to heal old wounds by inviting disenfranchised fans back to the Indianapolis 500.
A letter was recently sent out to Indy 500 ticket holders who have not been back since 1998. The letter is co-authored by Newman and Penske promoting the unified IndyCar Series and inviting fans to return to the biggest race of the season.
These are exciting times for open-wheel racing in the United States, the letter opens.
With the official announcement on Wednesday, February 27, 2008, our sport is truly unified for the first time in many years. Everyone involved in open-wheel racing is a winner as a result -- drivers, teams, sponsors and most important, you, the fan.
Unification has created a new level of enthusiasm for the IndyCar Series, but the hard work is just beginning. A major part of our efforts will be directed toward fans like you, ensuring that we build a strong, fan-friendly series for the future.
We write to ask you to come back this May for the running of the 92nd Indianapolis 500, the cornerstone of open-wheel racing, our marquee event and "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
From Opening Day to the run for the pole, Bump Day to Miller Lite Carb Day, the pageantry and tradition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway await you. Drivers and teams spend the entire month of May working hard to earn a spot in the field of 33 starters, with the ultimate goal of that drink of milk in Victory Circle. Having your name etched on the Borg-Warner Trophy is one of the greatest accomplishments in all of sports. To be honored alongside some of the greatest that have competed at the hallowed Brickyard -- Rose, Mears, Unser, Foyt and Andretti -- is truly the pinnacle of motorsport.
We hope you will join us both in celebrating one of the world's greatest sporting events
The letter is signed by both Newman, co-owner of the Newman/Haas/Lanigan IndyCar team and Penske, who brought his team back to the Indy 500 in 2001 and left CART for IndyCar beginning with the 2002 season.
"If Paul was interested in supporting the idea, I was for it 100 percent," Penske said. "He's been my friend for a long, long time. He was an advocate of one side and I supported Tony George [founder and CEO of the IRL IndyCar Series] when we came over here in 2001. We're business guys and we put all of that stuff behind us.
"If you worry about all of the things that happen to you in the past you won't be on offense going forward. I said all of the feelings we've had, the comments we've made, let's forget about it and move forward. Now, it's one open-wheel series and if everyone feels that way, we'll all be better off."
It's another example of the spirit of unity and the realization that IndyCar racing has a tremendous opportunity to rebuild itself into a prominent, relevant series.
It is also a first step toward admitting that, while mistakes may have been made, the future can be significantly brighter.
Newman would not discuss his reasons for taking part in the letter but Penske spoke of the positive signal it sends to fans regarding the Indianapolis 500.
"Indianapolis, the Indy name, is a premier sports brand," Penske said. "The problem is we've had so much negativism around that brand for the last six or seven years -- we've had some great racing and developed some new teams -- but today having it under one roof will grow it.
"It took a long time to grow it where it was and it took a long time for it to fall where there wasn't as much fan interests. But to me, if we get behind this -- we have to talk in one voice, talk about new drivers and new teams and forget about whose fault it is and if we can move on to second base here it will be better for everybody."
Penske tried to bring the two sides together several times, including 1996 when CART teams had voted to stay away from Indy and hold their own race on Memorial Day Sunday called the US500.
He tried again when he left CART and joined the IRL at the end of the 2001 season.
Finally, the deal came together when George and Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe reached an agreement that finally ended the open-wheel war.
"I think it's terrific that Tony George was able to negotiate a fair deal; at least it was good enough to have Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe decide we would end up with one series," Penske said. "It's great to see the number of cars we have to start the season [26 for Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg]. What I love is seeing the number of cars on the race track right now. They are new cars and new people; a lot of good cars and driver combinations. The Champ Car guys were at a little bit of a disadvantage the first week with many of them not running on ovals for quite a while. But I see them getting up to speed rather quickly.
"When we get to St. Petersburg with all of them having superior road racing experience it will be a much more level field."
While the new teams and drivers that came over from Champ Car struggled to get up to speed with the new equipment, by the time those same teams arrive at Indianapolis for the 92nd Indy 500, Penske predicted a real battle on race day and into the future.
"They will have been at Homestead, we will have been to Motegi and all of us will have been to Kansas so when we get to Indy, we'll have a real good race," Penske said. "From a sponsor standpoint, we'll now have an opportunity to talk about one series and have the ability to see more sponsorship.
"This is probably the most inexpensive series today to race in compared to NASCAR. We have less races. The cars are about $300,000 and the engine leases are $1 million for the season. There is a used car market. We ran a car at Homestead that had pieces on it that were 3 years old. What I hope the IRL does now is get some stability, race in the best markets, Long Beach and Canada are important. Let's not change the specifications overnight.
"We've got enough parts. We've got wings and what everybody wants. Other than that, everybody is here."
Penske realizes there is a tremendous different demographic that supports NASCAR to IndyCar and believes it is the differences that make both types of racing unique and different. A strong IndyCar Series will help some of the bigger tracks on the schedule, especially those that only have one NASCAR race date a year.
"I don't see the two on a collision course at all," Penske said. "I think the two can actually add to a race venue."
According to sources at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, reaction to "The Letter" as it is being called has been quite positive from those who received it.
While IndyCar racing has been blasted in the past for not properly marketing and promoting its product, this is an example that a new era in the sport has brought some fresh ideas to promoting and that could bring a homecoming feel to this year's Indianapolis 500.