By Bruce Martin
April 03, 2008

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 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race

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.

DirecTV is set to become a presenting sponsor of the IndyCar Series entering into an entitlement role. Also, Coca-Cola has been signed as a sponsor and will activate a series of regional sponsors to promote the IndyCar Series as the "official soft drink of IndyCar."

This is welcome news for a series that has struggled to attract big-time sponsors.

"I've been overwhelmed with the reaction," said Terry Angstadt, president, commercial division of the IndyCar Series. "It's far better than we thought it would be. And you never really know what to expect.

"We knew some people would use a convenient excuse of, 'Gosh, yeah, I'll invest when all of this might be one.' Well, we're calling those in. We've had some aggressive pushes into the market and have been very, very pleased with the reaction. You will see more of those come together literally over the next few weeks."

One of the more significant rules changes over the off-season was a driver/car weight requirement which was aimed at making it more fair for the heavier drivers in the series over the advantage of the lighter drivers.

It's a rule that is used in practically every other form of major racing but Danica Patrick believes she is being unfairly singled out by the new rule.

Patrick, who weighs in at barely 100 pounds, has an advantage over the bigger drivers in the series when it comes to street and road course races compared to 165-pound Ed Carpenter or 193-pound Justin Wilson.

It has been calculated that the weight disparity between Patrick and a driver 65-pounds or 93-pounds heavier could account for as much as a 1 mile per hour advantage on a road or street course.

The difference in weight is not as important on an oval because once the cars reach race speeds; it's all about momentum at that point.

"I just have the pure objection that all of us drivers are small, we are under 5-foot-8 and less than 150 pounds so it's not like we are very big to begin with and it's not like I'm going against guys who are 200 pounds," Patrick said. "They don't take away the stature of an athlete in another sport. There is no weight limit in football or height limit in basketball. The rule has never been that way before.

"What about the strength aspect? What have they done to fix that? As a smaller driver I have to work harder in that area so how does that impact me going against drivers who are bigger, so how are they going to fix that?"

The weight rule will be more relevant at this week's street race at St. Petersburg, Florida.

"I think it's kind of a touchy subject, to be honest with you," said Brian Barnhart, the president of competition for the Indy Racing League. "I don't know if I could address Danica's argument. I don't know specifically what hers is other than probably she doesn't like it because she is one of the lightest drivers out there.

"It's a challenging position and one that we have felt has not had much of an impact in terms of competition when we've been an all-oval series. Once the mass is up and moving, it really doesn't make much difference. But as we road race more, it becomes more critical because of braking and acceleration. We felt it was time to take that into consideration."

Barnhart said he continues to question what extent or extreme the rule should be taken. He said while they weigh jockeys in horse racing, they don't weigh the horses.

"All I really tried to do is reduce the difference between the lightest and heaviest and try to get it to a point where it is virtually an insignificant difference," Barnhart said. "Where we are sitting right now, the whole field, driver in car, is within 1 percent."

Barnhart has divided the drivers into five categories where three of the categories add weight to the cars. Category A adds the most weight, Category B the next most and Category C the least amount. Category D does not add any weight and drivers in Category E -- the heaviest drivers -- are able to take weight off of their chassis.

"It's hard to give all the numbers on it," Barnhart said. "When it's all said and done, all we've done is reduce the difference between the lightest and the heaviest, reduced the percentage difference between lightest and heaviest combination out there."

There will be nine rookie drivers in the combined IndyCar Series this season after Indy Racing League officials determined which of the former Champ Car drivers meet that classification and which are considered veterans.

The eight rookies include Firestone Indy Lights graduates Jay Howard (Roth Racing) and Hideki Mutoh (Andretti Green Racing), former Champ Car participants Enrique Bernoldi (Conquest Racing), Mario Moraes (Dale Coyne Racing), Franck Perera (Conquest Racing), Will Power (KV Racing Technology), Ernesto Viso (HVM Racing), Wilson (Newman/Haas/Lanigan) and Graham Rahal (Newman/Haas Lanigan).

Of the nine rookie drivers, Mutoh had one career IndyCar start on an oval in last year's Chicagoland Speedway finale. Wilson made five career starts on ovals in Champ Car and Power made two while none of the other rookies had competed on an oval prior to Saturday night's Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300.

Two former Champ Car drivers who were given veteran status included Bruno Junqueira and Oriol Servia. Junqueira has 21 career stands on ovals including four Indianapolis 500s. He won the pole for the 2002 Indianapolis 500. Servia has made 27 career starts on ovals.

"How it arrives at where we're at from a rookie standpoint, we simply looked at what we are," Barnhart said. "We're still very much an oval-based racing series that centers around the Indianapolis 500. We looked at the backgrounds of the drivers that are joining us.

"With the exception of Bruno Junqueira and Oriol Servia, who have started somewhere between 20 and 27 oval track races themselves, none of the other seven had started more than five. So based on sheer numbers of oval experiences, we decided it makes sense, based on what our series is, that we would classify them as rookies."

This will be the most rookie drivers since the Indy Racing League began competition in 1996 with eight rookies. In 200, Champ Car had nine rookies start the season opener in St. Petersburg and had eight rookie starters in the 2007 season opener at Las Vegas.

In 1994, NASCAR had eight rookies in the Cup Series.

With the increased car count giving the IndyCar Series a bigger field, George stressed there is still room for more teams to join the series.

"I kind of assumed 14 or so was a very real possibility," George said of Champ Car teams joining IndyCar. "I don't know where we would be today if that many had actually come. Where it settled out at 8, 10 that seems to be a manageable number to get the season going but we would have really been hard-pressed to come up and do a reasonable job.

"To that extent, I wish everybody that wanted to be here could be here. Derrick Walker comes to mind. I certainly wish the economy around this sport was booming from the very announcement so that guys like Gerry Forsythe would find a sponsor and be here. I've still got a car available. We could tighten our belt and try to get by running two. Dallara can still build four a month beginning in May. We'll slowly catch up but it's getting there."

Dallara has stepped up production of new chassis and can deliver four new chassis per month. According to Barnhart, Newman/Haas/Lanigan has two cars and will take possession of its third chassis this week. Conquest has two cars and will get a third this week as well while Dale Coyne Racing and KV Racing both have three cars. HV Racing has one car and will get its second car this week.

All of the two-car teams mentioned will get a fourth chassis the last week of April before the series heads to Kansas. That means all nine of the transitioning teams will have 18 cars delivered by the end of April.

Also, Luczo Dragon Racing has a new chassis being prepared for Tomas Scheckter at Kansas with the team then moving on to the Indianapolis 500 and Infineon in August with the potential for a few more races this season. Rubicon Racing with Jim Freudenberg and Sam Schmidt also has a car for an Indy 500 effort.

Angstadt confirmed that Edmonton will be held on the day before the Brickyard 400 on July 26 pending approval from the FIA. Surfers Paradise, Australia is scheduled for October 26 but will not determine the 2008 championship.

It will either be part of a separate International championship that would include Motegi, Long Beach, Indianapolis, Edmonton and Surfers Paradise with a cash bonus and significant trophy. The other option is for that race to be the first points-paying race for 2009.

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