New Chicago speedway shifts old horse track into high gear


Auto Racing

August 22, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

There is horsepower, and then there is horsepower. And Charles Bidwell III is feeling the heartbeat of both.

Bidwell is a man who wears many hats. He's a businessman, involved in telecommunications, and president of the National Jockey Club.

And this weekend, he has put on another one as he and partner Chip Ganassi open the new Chicago Motor Speedway. The one-mile oval racetrack has been built within Sportsman's Park horse track in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill.

The design is only the second of its kind in the country. Chicago Motor Speedway and Dover Downs International Raceway are the only two tracks to feature both motor racing and horse racing.

Today, the Target Grand Prix for the CART championship series is the inaugural event at the new track, which cost about $65 million.

"We've been on the fast track getting this track built," said Ganassi, who is president of the facility. Ganassi is also the owner of the cars that have won the past three CART championships with drivers Jimmy Vasser (1996) and Alex Zanardi (1997 and 1998). And Ganassi's rookie, Juan Montoya, is just one point out of first in the current points chase.

Bidwell, chairman of the board, said they've done in 14 months what usually takes 18 to 22 months and expect close to a sellout today in the 67,000-seat facility.

"The only criticism we had to handle came from the horsemen, who thought we might not be paying enough attention to that part of the equation," Bidwell said.

"But we've brought in experts from Churchill Downs to help us figure out the best way to handle the conversion of the track from cars to horses. We built a test track in our parking lot, had the horsemen in and we're very confident that we'll be ready for horses to start working on the track in November and racing here in February and March."

Bidwell owns several gambling facilities, including a riverboat casino outside St. Louis, and has seen horse racing benefit from slot machines at tracks like Dover. But he also has seen drawn-out and sometimes unsuccessful fights to get slots in states such as Maryland.

"Here," he said, "we decided to try something else to bring in the additional revenue."

Auto racing.

Today, motor racing returns to the Chicago area for the first time since 1918 and Bidwell begins finding out if it will work.

Farther afield

Ganassi, thinking of wearing a few more hats himself, said he has been prowling around Winston Cup garages lately. "At some point in the near future I think I'll be involved there. I don't know if it will be with a full-blown, two-car team like I have in CART, but I will be there in some capacity."

Smooth ride

While the Indy Racing League and CART still haven't found a smooth track to a compromise that will bring them back together, construction of the new Formula One road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been moving along without a hitch.

Kevin Forbes, the speedway's director of engineering and construction, says the 2.61-mile road course, which includes Turn One and the main straightaway of the speedway's oval and winds through the infield, is ready to be driven on.

"We could run a car on it now," Forbes said. "But it depends on how fast."

Before high-speed testing can begin, Forbes said a gravel runoff area, safety barriers and safety fencing have to be completed.

"We are on target," Forbes said, adding the racing surface will be ready for inspection by the end of October or mid-November.

As for the IRL/CART talks, the two sides continue to talk.

Walk of Fame grows

It's official. Jeff Gordon, Harry Gant and Lee Petty have been voted into the Talladega/Texaco Walk of Fame and will be inducted Oct. 16. Gordon, 27, is the youngest driver to be chosen and joins Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Ernie Irvan and Bill Elliott among the active drivers.

Gant, the oldest driver ever to win a Winston Cup race, at age 52, and Petty, the patriarch of the Petty clan and winner of 55 races, joins inactive Walk of Fame members Richard Petty, Benny Parsons, Alan Kulwicki, Cale Yarborough, Ned Jarrett, Buddy Baker, Junior Johnson and David Pearson.

Nuts and bolts

Potomac Speedway in Budds Creek will have its usual racing program Friday featuring Late-Models, Semi-Late-Models, Street Stocks, Four-Cylinders and Enduro Stocks. The Christmas In April program will benefit.

CART driver Gil de Ferran doesn't want much: "I want to be the best in the world at this job. I want to be the guy who is the fastest over a single lap. I want to be the guy who is best over 200 miles, the best over 500 miles, the best on a mile oval, the best on a super speedway, the best in traffic, the best on a road course, the best in the wet, the best in every situation. I acknowledge that I am not the best at this point in my career. But I've been working on it throughout my career, on what I perceive are some deficiencies in my driving, my style, my attitude, whatever. I might die frustrated, or I might not."

Ricky Rudd, 42, is talking to potential sponsors and says maintaining his record 16-year winning streak is important.

"It's important to me because it's a record and it's important to me because it's a reminder to potential sponsors of our success. Some other teams who are talking to the same sponsors we are haven't won. That's the thing we have," he said. "The other teams might win someday, but we've done it, every year for 16 years."

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