MILLER: The deep roots of IndyCar's one-day show

Rockingham, 2001. Image by Motorsport Images

MILLER: The deep roots of IndyCar's one-day show

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: The deep roots of IndyCar's one-day show

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The consternation over running IndyCar’s season opener all in one day this weekend at Texas might be more justified if there weren’t already some precedents.

Like events in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, CART’s race at Rockingham, England in 2001 and a few other ovals in recent history that were shortened by Mother Nature. But even though drivers will ‘only’ get two-and-a -alf hours of practice at Texas Motor Speedway and nobody has turned a wheel since the COTA test back in February, it’s the best thing economically for the teams and promoter. And history has shown us the drivers can handle it.

The pandemic has made paying customers off-limits, but there hasn’t been a decent crowd (other than Indy) at oval-track qualifying since the heydays at Milwaukee. So, even though this shortened schedule was mandated by the coronavirus, doing everything in one day makes more sense than dragging things out for three days. Especially at Texas where there’s always a practice session in the heat of the day for a night race.

“There has been some bitching, and I told the drivers in an email that this is what we’ve got, we’re all in the same boat because nobody has tested, so be grateful we’ve got Roger Penske and we’re coming back to race,” says Tony Kanaan, whose scored 15 of his 17 career wins on ovals. “Be thankful you can put your helmet on, and be glad you’re not racing a sim the rest of your life.

“It’s not ideal, but what’s ideal nowadays? We could be running one-day events for a long time; nobody knows. But we can do it because we’ve done it before.”

Kanaan was part of one of the finest performances ever turned in by IndyCar drivers in 2001. Because of rain and weepers, the debut of the oval in Rockingham was a disaster for the first two days because nobody could practice. On race day, they managed to get in 90 minutes of practice, but it was the first time anyone in the field had been on the track.

“There has been some bitching, and I told the drivers that this is what we’ve got, we’re all in the same boat because nobody has tested, so be grateful we’re coming back to race. Be thankful you can put your helmet on, and be glad you’re not racing a sim the rest of your life,” says Tony Kanaan. Image by Levitt/Motorsport Images

The 38,000 spectators never booed, stomped their feet or threw anything throughout the three days, and even though the race finally started an hour late and had to be shortened from 210 laps to 140 because of darkness, those patient Brits were treated to an amazing show with a phenomenal finish.

Kenny Brack and Gil de Ferran passed each other for the lead three times in the final two laps, with de Ferran’s ballsy outside pass in the final corner giving him the eyelash victory and leaving the road-racing crowd roaring. There were a couple minor accidents, and 21 of the 26 starters finished – 11 on the lead lap – and T.K. placed eighth.

But until road races came into prominence with USAC in the mid-to-late ‘60s, one-day shows were the rule rather than the exception all through the 1950s and 1960s because USAC was all ovals – pavement and dirt.

“We unloaded at Milwaukee the Sunday after Indy but couldn’t practice until noon because of church,” recalls Johnny Rutherford. “Next was qualifying, and sometimes there was a semi because we might have 40-50 cars and then we’d run the 100-miler. And when I started, only 18 cars made the main event.”

A lot of big names failed to make the A-Main back then if they drew a bad number for a dirt race on the mile, and or missed the setup. Practice periods were only 60 minutes everywhere, so it was all about figuring things out in a hurry and then hauling ass under the stopwatch. Today, everyone starts every race except Indianapolis, but back then the pressure was on to perform or go home after qualifying.

“These kids today don’t know anything about pressure,” declares A.J. Foyt. “Pressure is going for one of the 33 spots at Indy when there was 60-70 cars, or going out 50th at Springfield when the cushion is almost gone and they only took 18 cars. I always liked that kind of pressure, and it’s good they’re doing everything in one day at Texas. I think it separates the men from the boys. I like it.”

Rutherford thinks IndyCar will be just fine this Saturday despite the fact three rookies have never started an oval in an IndyCar.

“It will show them they can do it in a couple hours,” says the three-time Indy 500 winner. “I never missed a show unless it was something mechanical and never worried about it, but I think it was because we were racing three or four times a week in midgets and sprinters and were really sharp.

“Today’s engineers always think they need more time, but racers can figure it out and get the job done. They always have.”

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