As the IndyCar turns: Why oval and road racing both belong

WATKINS GLEN NY - JULY 04: Ryan Briscoe driver of the #6 Team Penske Dallara Honda during the IZOD IndyCar Series Camping World Grand Prix at the Glen at Watkins Glen International on July 4 2010 in Watkins Glen New York. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

In Tony Stewart's shadow-written biography "True Speed," Bones Bourcier describes the young "Smoke" as a child sitting on his living room floor with an oval-shaped rug and his Matchbox cars. Stewart was recreating the Indianapolis 500 on his floor, driving the little cars around and around on the rug as if Al Unser and A.J. Foyt themselves were at the wheel.

Not far away from where the young Stewart grew up in Columbus, Indiana, a young boy ten days younger than the future IndyCar and NASCAR champion was sitting on the floor of his living room in an apartment a few blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Scattered around him were Matchbox cars - including a highly-prized John Player Special Lotus 77 - and in front of him was an oval-shaped rug almost identical to Stewart's. He too was enacting his own Greatest Spectacle in Racing with endless laps around the rug's periphery.

I have always wondered what would have become of me if my father had put me in a go-kart at that age - like Stewart's father did for him - instead of picking up and moving away from the Racing Capital of the World. Certainly, I loved cars and racing and the Indy 500. Eventually, we got rid of the rug, and in one of our many moves the little Lotus 77 disappeared. But I never got rid of my love for the 500-Mile Race or oval-track racing.

But although I was weaned on the Indy 500 and USAC sprint and midget racing in Indianapolis, I don't consider myself an "oval fan." At least, not in the way that many IndyCar fans describe it when they try to convince each other that IndyCars belong on one type of track or the other.

You see, there is a bitter fight going on - still - between fans of oval racing and fans of road and street racing for the soul of the IndyCar series. And for many of them, the reason IndyCar racing struggles to gain back the ground it lost during the split is that there isn't enough of the kind of racing they like and too much of the racing they don't.

It's a ridiculous argument, really. IndyCars were named for the greatest oval-track race in American history, but the IndyCar Series gained fame for being a "cross-training" racing category. An IndyCar driver has always had to be capable of mastering two very different disciplines, which has presented a major challenge for drivers experienced in only one or the other.

But with the open-wheel split in 1996, the old philosophic rivalries between the USAC-born ovalistas and the European-influenced road racers erupted into a full-scale turf war. Once a simple matter of liking one more than the other, the divide became one of manifest destiny - was IndyCar racing by nature an oval-centric discipline as the Indy Racing League professed, or should it remain the multi-format league that the CART series had established?

As the split wore on, the factions became more entrenched in their philosophies. CART shed oval tracks with each year, while the IRL struggled to avoid the necessity of adding road racing. For half a decade, the two sides waged an ideological battle royale whose ferocity few outside the sport could understand.

When Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi defected from the CART series, the event marked the beginning of the end of the CART/Champ Car series. But it also brought the oval versus road/street battle to a head. Penske and Ganassi lobbied inexorably - and successfully - for road racing to be reintroduced to the IndyCar series. Even as Champ Car withered away into nothing, the IndyCar schedule scales slowly began to move again as new road and street races were added back into the balance.

Today's IndyCar series schedule is split equally between oval races and road/street races. With the "unification" of IndyCar and Champ Car (more like the absorption of the latter by the former), the fans of one discipline have been forced together with the fans of the other. It's as if racing's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys were shoved together under one roof, "Big Brother" style.

Since then, it's been as ugly as you might imagine. The extreme elements spend days on the message boards alternately wishing the IndyCar series would go back to tube-framed sprint/midget cars or Supermodifieds and claiming that the series should just cede the ovals (sans Indy) to NASCAR and focus on an F1-style road racing future.

What I can't figure out is why these two elements can't figure out a way to grow to love both types of racing. After all, I did. I went from being a kid who knew only about left turns to an adult who loves all forms of the leadfoot life.

It was a transitory process, believe me. Growing up, I eventually did get a chance to drive go-karts - not competitively, but as a hobby. When I did, instead of finding a kart track I would drive my kart down the street to a basketball court, draw an oval in chalk on the concrete, and set out to live out my Rick Mears dreams.

It wasn't until I got to college that I finally discovered road racing. Looking for racing collectibles in a hobby store one day, I found a couple of die-cast cars that looked like IndyCars but had strange shapes and sponsor colors. One of them even had a raised nose on it separated from the front wing. I didn't recognize the driver names from the Indy 500 - Unser and Andretti and Foyt I knew, but who were these guys named "Senna" and "Schumacher"? Such was my introduction to Formula 1.

After college, I got a crash course - literally - in road racing when I interviewed for a job at Papyrus Design Group, a company that made computer racing simulators. Part of the interview process for the job I was hoping to get was to sit the candidate down in founder Dave Kaemmer's cubicle in front of a racing wheel and take a few laps on an alpha version of the new simulator he was developing: Grand Prix Legends.

GPL was a revolution in consumer-level computer racing simulations. For the first time, the physics model was active across all three axes of motion, and elements of car weight, suspension travel, and tire modeling all played into car performance. Only a handful of people - all at Papyrus - had even attempted to drive it. For the job I was interviewing for, Kaemmer wanted to see how quickly candidates could adapt to the new physics by dropping them cold and unprepared onto an early release model of Laguna Seca Raceway behind the wheel of an electronic version of the Lotus 49.

So there I was, sweating bullets as I gingerly pressed the throttle. Half the company was squeezed into the cubicle to watch the latest sucker try his hand. I knew nothing about road racing and even less about Lotus 49s. On the first lap, I spun a half dozen times. But with each succeeding lap I grew more and more comfortable - and more excited. This was fun. I discovered that there was a rhythm to this road racing stuff that I really liked - something entirely different than driving on an oval, which I had done extensively in other Papyrus simulators.

Long story short, I got the job. Kaemmer told me that he was impressed with how quickly I got up to speed on the GPL physics. I told him I couldn't wait to drive it some more. I was hooked!

Still, my first experience driving an honest-to-goodness race car was on an oval, not on a road course. Papyrus sent me to the Buck Baker Racing School in Rockingham, North Carolina. I spent three days wrestling a de-tuned and understeering stock car through the corners at The Rock, feeling for the first time the crushing weight of G-forces as I threw the car into the high-banked turns and the chattering of the racing slicks over the asphalt. I also went on to turn laps at oval tracks in Phoenix, Pike's Peak and Flemington, New Jersey.

But I had the road racing bug for keeps, and I started watching everything I could - Formula 1, touring car racing, IMSA, SCCA, you name it. A new racing world was unwrapping before my eyes like a Christmas present. I found karting tracks and spent untold amounts of money on laps, learning how to wrestle a kart around a twisting, turning race course. One of my proudest moments was graduating to a "pro" license at the local Malibu Grand Prix - the Borg-Warner Trophy it wasn't, but for a guy like me whose Tony Stewart dreams ended before my age hit double digits, it was the next best thing.

I guess my point is that I started out as the stereotypical "heartland America" USAC oval fan, but I've turned out to be an omnivore. I enjoy the clumps of mud hitting me in the forehead at an A-Main at the local dirt oval equally as much as I like seeing the wheels of a GT-class Porsche leaping the kerb at the apex of a corner. I love the speed of an IndyCar screaming through the turns at Indianapolis, and I love the slowness of an IndyCar negotiating the hairpin at Long Beach. I can appreciate a stock car race on the "short course" at Watkins Glen and the added glory of the Boot when the Daytona Prototypes and IndyCars arrive.

So when I see stupid territorialism among IndyCar fans about whether oval racing or road racing is better, all I can do is shake my head. The only thing that picking one over the other does is rob you of some incredible experiences. There's nothing wrong with having a preference, but to take that preference to an extreme that excludes other possibilities - or forces that exclusion on others - is closed-minded.

The IZOD IndyCar Series recently decided to honor drivers who excel in oval and road racing with separate trophies. Some fans have taken this as a sign that the disciplines should be equally separate. I do not agree, any more than I believe that the Cy Young Award means that baseball should become purely a pitching exercise. You can honor and appreciate one element in a sport without throwing out the greater context.

The one thing I have learned in my life in motorsports is that there is beauty and greatness in all forms of racing. These days, if it races I watch it and enjoy it (with the exception of drifting, which I consider to be figure skating on wheels). The only regret I have is that so much of my racing appreciation has come in retrospect - and that I lived through so much racing history in total ignorance. It is a lesson I learned late in life - I only wish other people would not wait so long.

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