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John Gilbert: TV coverage allows us to see racing's strength, cover-ups

If you remember, March gave us some May-like temperatures, creating the promise that the Up North auto racing season might start a little early. However, April became positively February-like, forfeiting that promise.

If you remember, March gave us some May-like temperatures, creating the promise that the Up North auto racing season might start a little early. However, April became positively February-like, forfeiting that promise.
Thankfully, we've still got television and the three-ring circuses of NASCAR, CART and the IRL.
If you've watched NASCAR, you've noticed nine winners in nine races so far, with Jeff Gordon finally winning his first last Sunday at Talladega. NASCAR is at the top rung of popularity right now, but it could become its own worst enemy as it tries to manipulate its course into the new century.
The problem with NASCAR rules is that nobody gets to have an advantage, because instant rule alterations to make the whole field competitive actually can make the races boring. Gordon's victory was anything but boring, with a daring late-race pass, but when 20 or more cars are mandated to run at the same speed, it matters less who is driving, how skilled the driver is, or who leads for 90 percent of the laps.
Remember the opener at Daytona? Fords dominated, taking something like the top half-dozen spots, and Chevy drivers, with an all-newly designed Monte Carlo that proved to be uncompetitive on the super speedways, whined all week. Their brand new car couldn't do it. So NASCAR allowed them to change, even though the Chevies dominated the shorter tracks in the interim.
Allowed to stretch their "stock" Monte Carlos out in the nose and improve their aerodynamics, the NASCAR boys returned to the super speedway Sunday, where Chevies dominated, sweeping the top four spots. So let's all watch and see what NASCAR does to make the Fords more competitive now, if turnabout is only fair.
CART racers shifting gears
Turning to CART, the first two races on the FedEx schedule have been exciting, never mind that the scheduled second race, at Nazareth, Pa., two weeks ago, was postponed because of snow. (Might as well have scheduled it for Minnesota.) Racing through the streets of Long Beach on Sunday, the CART racers put on quite a show, with Paul Tracy winning, but with strong performances by Honda, Ford and Toyota.
The big news this season is Chip Ganassi, who dominated the last four years by gambling on the combination of an untried Reynard chassis, an unproven Honda engine and underrated Firestone tires. As Jimmy Vasser, then two years of Alex Zanardi and last year's fantastic run by Juan Montoya dominated the scene, other teams copied and caught up. This year was the final straw. When Roger Penske gave up his multi-million-dollar Ilmor Engineering plan with Mercedes engines to lease Hondas, and gave up the costly race cars with his own name on them and replaced them with Reynards, Ganassi gambled again to get away from the crowd and went with Toyota engines in Lola cars.
Vasser ran strong, after both he and Montoya qualified strongly, and one or both will win Toyota's first race very soon. Meanwhile, Penske's cars, with Gil deFerran and Helio Castro-Neves driving, also acquitted themselves well and are certain to win soon. Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi had some bad luck, both ending up with their engines in flames, but they, too, will win some this season. Tracy and Dario Franchitti, of course, already have made Team Kool Green a winner. So CART is in strongly competitive hands, with Mark Blundell and Mauricio Gugelman waiting in the wings until their Mercedes-powered cars catch up.
IRL snafu
Then there's the IRL. To read some of the features on the new IRL, with the addition of Al Unser Jr., who jumped from CART to IRL, sounds impressive. Never mind that Al didn't jump of his own choosing. IRL boosters insist that his Penske cars were uncompetitive, but Unser got blamed for it, when the facts are that Unser didn't drive hard any more, that the Penske cars were good, and the Ilmor-Mercedes engines were top shelf. Al just couldn't keep up, couldn't stay competitive in the most-competitive CART series.
Still, with Ganassi having two cars entered in the IRL-Indy 500 for Montoya and Vasser, and Unser on board, the 500 looked more intriguing than in any year since Tony George outlawed CART's stars from participating.
Then they showed the Phoenix IRL race on ABC-TV. Yup, network stuff. It was a swift race, and some of it was very good, but I was surprised to notice that when the cars came around one turn, there were large banners stretched out to cover the numerous empty seats at the front of a couple of sections. Then, when the cars came off the main straightaway and turned down a fast chute, the background picture showed a huge section covered by a banner that said "Northern Lites" with the series-sponsoring masted ship logo. Very interesting.
About three laps later, while watching the cars come around that same turn, I realized that there was some slight movement of the Northern Lites banner, unrelated to the foreground or background. I watched closely, and realized that ABC had apparently agreed to put a digital slide over an entire grandstand section to obscure the fact of how few people were sitting in such a prime location.
Closer scrutiny proved there were about a handful of people in that section, and their heads could be vaguely discerned under that shroud of sponsor's logo. If ABC explained the whole ploy as a means to get the sponsor's logo panel out there for all to see every lap, I could have accepted it. Without any explanation, however, the whole thing was disgusting.
John Gilbert is a sports writer for the Up North Newspaper Network. He can be reached by e-mail at john.gilbert@mx3.com .

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