2001 Indy 500
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Thawing out

CART, IRL continuing to grow closer

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Posted: Thursday May 24, 2001 6:01 PM

  Michael Andretti Michael Andretti is one of several CART drivers who have been welcomed back to Indy this year. AP

INDIANAPOLIS (CNNSI.com) -- The only picture hanging on Mike Hull's office wall is the scoring pylon from the end of the 2000 Indianapolis 500.

It's a moment the team manager for Chip Ganassi Racing cherishes every bit as much as the unprecedented four straight CART championships his team won from 1996-1999. It's also a sign of the new relationship building between CART and the rival Indy Racing League.

The bad feelings and heated rhetoric of the early days of the split, which began in 1996, are gone.

"If it was a Hatfield and McCoys type of thing, we wouldn't be able to cross the line," Hull said. "We obviously have different opinions, but we want to be competitive on the track and the people that race in their series are up to that task."

Such kind words did not seem possible after the IRL was formed and the CART teams and drivers began to stay away from its showcase race at Indy.

At first, the IRL limited teams not competing in the news series to eight at-large spots in the 33-car Indy lineup. It was known as "The 25-and-8 rule" and was the catalyst for the boycott by the older series.

CART responded by starting a new race -- the U.S. 500 -- to be run on the same day as Indy. There were nasty exchanges between league officials and team owners.

Time, though, has seemingly healed the wounds.

"I think you have to look forward," IRL team owner Tom Kelley said. "There's no reason to look backward. But I think they're looking forward, too, and I think that's why they're here. They're not crying over spilled milk."

Actually, they're sipping it.

Last year, Ganassi driver Juan Montoya drank the milk -- symbolic of victory at the Indy 500, while teammate Jimmy Vasser finished seventh after a late fuel stop.

Afterward, Ganassi spoke glowingly about the reception he encountered in his first Indy visit since 1995. The response helped convince CART team owner Roger Penske and CART driver Michael Andretti that they, too, should return to Indianapolis.

And Ganassi is back with NASCAR star Tony Stewart, Vasser and his two CART rookies, Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian, joining Andretti and Penske drivers Gil de Ferran -- the reigning CART champ -- and Helio Castroneves.

"What really made it easy for us last year was that everyone in the IRL wanted us to be here, they wanted us to pass tech; they wanted us to practice," Hull said. "So they've made things easy for us."

Even at its worst, though, the attitudes between the two circuits may not have been as strained as it sometimes appeared.

"I don't think it was quite as bad as people thought," said Derrick Walker, the only owner who runs separate teams on both open-wheel circuits. "There was some friction and some disappointment there, but I think what's really happened since then is that we're all learning how to live and coexist as two separate series."

What you find in the garage area are examples of that. In fact, Penske and Kelley have become friends.

There is harmony in the words of most owners and drivers and, on track, the competition looks on a par, with the teams motivated by competition, not retribution.

"There was disappointment they won the race last year," said John Menard, an IRL team owner. "But I think everyone kind of accepts it now."

While the circuits have different technical rules and differing philosophies, Walker believes they are beginning to look more similar -- and that they will continue moving in that direction.

CART, which runs unlimited turbocharged engines, is considering a change that could bring its engine rules closer to the IRL's, which dictate no turbocharger and limit rpms. The difference means that CART cars have about 300 horsepower more.

"I think for the benefit of open-wheel racing, they need to have a similar formula engine," Walker said. "The reason I think they do is it's about value.

"I think we could greatly accelerate the appeal of open-wheel racing if we could choose a similar formula."

It's a formula that has brought Penske to the IRL -- at Phoenix last fall for an Indy warmup, and to the 500 itself.

It brought Ganassi back to Indianapolis, too, and it's a formula that Hull admits, in this peaceful time, has worked well.

"What makes the IRL so competitive is that the cars are so equal," Hull said. "No one is going to out-hardware you in this league. You have to race for a living, and that's something that they've done really well."


 
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