Doing Double Duty – by Kay Bell

| April 28, 2009

A plea for IRL and NASCAR to settle their differences over the biggest weekend in racing


Brian and Tony, stop it! Stop it right now! It’s time to quit acting like spoiled children, clutching tightly to your toys and yelling, “Mine!” Your mothers were right. Sharing is better for everybody.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the sad fact that Indy Racing League chief Tony George and NASCAR boss Brian France refuse to work things out so that a handful of ambitious drivers once again can pull double duty and participate in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

The Indy 500 is, without doubt, one of the world’s great motorsports events. The Coca-Cola 600, as NASCAR’s longest race, is a challenge unique unto itself. Together, they make Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend one of the best days anywhere on the sporting calendar.

And what used to make these races just a little more fun was watching the rare driver with an extra dose of chutzpah and stamina try to complete all 1,100 miles in America’s top two series in two totally different types of cars on two of America’s most prominent racetracks on the same day.

The double-duty concept was created in the 1990s and, not surprisingly, was the brainchild of legendary Charlotte race promoter Humpy Wheeler. He realized that the timing of the two races meant drivers could start at Indy at noon, finish the race, zip down to North Carolina and strap into their stock cars in time to take the green flag at 5:30 p.m.

Wheeler encouraged John Andretti, who had experience in both types of vehicles, to give it a shot in 1994. His results weren’t spectacular – a pretty-good 10th at Indianapolis and a not-so-good 36th at Charlotte (where his car had mechanical issues) – but the mere fact that he attempted such an audacious feat caused something of a sensation.

Andretti never tried it again, but over the next few years, a handful of other NASCAR drivers with open-wheel backgrounds like Robby Gordon (1997, 2002, 2003, 2004) and Tony Stewart (1999 and 2001) did. Obviously, none of them ever won both races, but Stewart chalked up a pair of strong showings – finishing ninth at Indy and fourth in Charlotte in 1999 and then sixth at Indy and third in Charlotte in 2001.

The double was doomed in 2006, though, when ABC Sports “encouraged” George to push his start time at Indy back an hour to 1 p.m. The move was designed to attract more West Coast viewers, but it also squeezed the time between the end of the Indy 500 and the start of the 600 so as to make double duty impossible.

Now, however, is the time to right this wrong. Here’s why:
In these tough economic times, NASCAR is struggling to retain sponsors, fans and TV viewers like never before. Reinstating the possibility of the double – and then actively encouraging a few elite drivers to go for it – would add another compelling storyline to a weekend when fans’ attention is already stretched thin by all the other holiday activities.

Second, however much NASCAR is struggling, the IRL is struggling even more. When the IRL swallowed up Champ Car last year, I figured open-wheel racing’s true coming-out party would be this 2009 Indy 500, after the league and its teams had a year to get settled and back up to speed. Instead, this year’s Indy field might actually be inferior to last year’s.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the recent influx of open-wheel drivers into NASCAR provides a much larger pool of potential double-duty drivers. Along with Stewart and Gordon are such legitimate possibilities as Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr. – both of whom already have won the Indy 500 – as well as others like Casey Mears, Scott Speed and A.J. Allmendinger. And who doesn’t think Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch or Kasey Kahne would dominate the headlines if they decided to give the double a try?

For now, anyway, double duty remains a dream. In the meantime, I’ll happily be doing my own version of triple duty. On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I’ll wake up to an early appetizer of the Monaco Grand Prix, then settle in for both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the best racing day of the year.

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