IRL rolls confidently into 4th year

International flavor, all races on live TV give open-wheel circuit boost

January 24, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

As the Pep Boys Indy Racing League kicks off its 1999 season today at Walt Disney World Speedway near Orlando, Fla., it isn't out of line to say it really is a small world.

After all, it is Kenny Brack, a native of Sweden, who will be driving Texan A. J. Foyt's Aurora-powered Dallara chassis in defense of their IRL championship.

The race will be broadcast live by ABC. That network will also carry the Indianapolis 500, and Fox will carry the other nine races.

It is the first time the young series has had all of its races carried live.

The IRL, a purely oval-racing series, is going into its fourth year Brack since splitting from Championship Auto Racing Teams, which competes in four foreign countries on both oval and road courses. And it is the goal of the IRL to become known beyond the tracks where its cars perform.

Already, Brack has brought the league its own share of international recognition in Sweden.

"Racing was kind of forgotten at home since Ronnie Peterson died at Monza [in a 1978 Formula One crash]," says Brack. "But this past year, it has turned around. It's not just tennis, golf and hockey anymore. For Orlando, I hear that four or five journalists are coming over, including one from the biggest paper, like your USA Today. I always kept them up to date and I've had a good relationship with the journalists. The IRL now is pretty well-known in Sweden."

Closer to home, the challenge is greater. The league sees itself as the Winston Cup stock car series of open-wheel racing.

The IRL races on ovals, like the popular Winston Cup series, and its drivers aren't afraid to rub walls and make passes, also like the Winston Cup series.

And, unlike Formula One and CART, the IRL is a less technical series and thus has put the driver back in the equation, again, like Winston Cup.

"In Formula One, I know when I step out of my bed in the morning that I can't win," Brack says, "unless I'm in [one of the top three teams]."

"In the IRL, even a rookie has a chance," says Robby Unser, last season's IRL Rookie of the Year, who will drive today for Team Pelfrey. "In this series, there is racing -- like when Parnelli [Jones], Mario [Andretti] and my dad [Bobby Unser] used to race. This is the kind of racing I grew up watching. It's more than a guy riding a machine. Somehow, we've got to get people to see and understand that. Our racing is a lot like NASCAR; victory goes to those who make intelligent decisions."

Brack admits that he made at least one intelligent decision last year, when he agreed to meet Foyt for breakfast in Las Vegas.

Even before coming to the United States two years ago and hooking up with car owner Rick Galles, Brack had heard of Foyt, the cantankerous cowboy who holds most of the records in Indy car racing.

So, when Foyt called and invited Brack to fly from Florida to Las Vegas for breakfast, Brack knew who he was talking to.

"The call came from out of the blue and I was about to do a contract the next day with another team," Brack recalls. "I told him I'd really like to drive for him, but that I wasn't going to fly all the way out there unless he was pretty sure we could do a deal."

Foyt called back. Brack made the flight.

"We met the next morning for breakfast," Brack says, grinning as he recalls the scene. "I had yogurt, and he was sitting across from me behind a mountain of pancakes with a steak on the side. He looked over this big stack and says, `What's that?' I said, `Yogurt.' He looked at it funny and then said: `I had that once. I didn't like it.'

"He was a lot more pleasant than I'd heard."

Foyt might not have liked yogurt, but he did like Brack, 32, who had driven in European Open Wheel series and performed as a Formula One test driver before coming to the United States.

Under Foyt's direction, Brack won three straight races at Charlotte, Pikes Peak and Atlanta to secure the championship -- the first by a Swede in any major racing series in the United States and the first for Foyt as a non-driving car owner.

"It's always difficult to win a championship, whether it's the first, second or third," Brack says. "It was my first year with A. J., and we were fast from the beginning. We just weren't finishing races because things kept breaking. Here at Orlando, we led and had the fastest lap, but then two bolts broke in the rear suspension."

Seven races into the season, however, they found reliability to go with their speed, and the three-race winning streak was the result. Now, Brack says he expects his team to be good from the moment the green flag falls at the track just outside Orlando today.

"It's our second year," he says. "I'm confident we'll start out smoothly."

Indy 200

What: Indy Racing League season opener

Where: Walt Disney World Speedway, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

When: Today, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7 Pole sitter: Scott Sharp

Outlook: A year ago, Tony Stewart won this race, but he has moved on to the Winston Cup team of Joe Gibbs, opening the door to a new winner. Among the 28 cars in the lineup, the Foyt teams of defending series champion Kenny Brack and Billy Boat will be among those to watch, as will Eddie Cheever, Scott Goodyear (whose team ownership includes Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh) and rookie Jason Leffler. Pub Date: 1/24/99

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