They're still the story

Rain delays like we saw at the NASCAR Nextel Cup race in Atlanta last week aren't good for anybody.

The drivers, crews, fans, and race officials all suffer. But I really feel sorry for the broadcast teams, who have to "fill" for hours. Fortunately for them, they had the Bill Lester story to hammer on for much of the time.

But I agree with Jeannie Zelasko's comment after interviewing Lester, the first African-American driver to drive in a Cup race in 20 years. Zelasko said that we'll have made real progress in diversity in racing when Bill Lester is NOT the story.

Of course, the Indy Racing League made another minority, Danica Patrick, its big story and big draw last year. Not to be outdone, the rival Champ Car series will have Catherine Legge behind the wheel for the 2006 season.

Again, it will be a story when women in racing are no longer the story. For me, it's no big deal, as there have been women in sports car racing for years. In fact, I recall getting my doors blown off by a racing grandmother, Nancy James, at Laguna Seca twenty-some years ago. I didn't feel too bad about it, though. The same lady trounced a couple of up and coming drivers in a professional Super Vee race a couple of years later - Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr.

Speaking of those two drivers, both are slated to come out of retirement to run the 2006 Indy 500. Andretti will drive a fifth car for his Andretti-Green racing team, while Unser will team with Buddy Lazier on the Dreyer & Reinbold team. Also un-retiring for the 500 this year is Eddie Cheever, who will do not only Indy but the first four races of the season with his own team.

I suspect that these guys have come back to make sure that a full field of 33 cars is on hand for the race, since a short field has been a real concern for the past few years. Of course Andretti has the most to prove, never having won the 500 in 15 starts. Unser has a pair of wins under his belt, and Cheever has posted a single victory in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

I'm just wondering who else might be recruited if the field is still short come bump day. Could four-time winner Al Unser show up, helmet in hand? How about Rick Mears, who will be at the track anyway coaching the Penske drivers? Mario Andretti probably won't be too keen after his scary practice crash while taking laps last year. And you couldn't squeeze A.J. Foyt into the cockpit of an Indy car with 10 gallons of WD-40 and the Jaws of Life.

The IRL season should be interesting and much more competitive this year. With GM and Toyota out as engine suppliers everybody will be running a Honda. This is not good news for Andretti Green Racing, which had been the Honda "factory" team and has pretty much dominated the series for the past couple of seasons, winning 19 of 33 races.

Now there's going to be more parity among AGR, Penske, Target-Ganassi, and Rahal-Letterman, the four strongest teams in the league (and all ex-CART organizations). As for AGR leader Michael Andretti, he sees the changes as a motivating factor.

"It's given everybody a new motivation to prove that it wasn't just the Honda engine," Michael Andretti said. "Now that everybody is on equal footing, I know everybody on this team wants to go out there and prove that we can do what we did the last two years."

NASCAR's new Loop Data System that resulted from the elimination of racing to the yellow had the interesting side effect of generating lots of statistical data, as I noted recently in this space. However, it has not yet installed sensors in victory lane to measure tire wear during victory burnouts or the height and rotation speed of Carl Edwards' back flips. But I'll bet NASCAR's working on it!


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