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Ingram: Record Drive Out of Focus

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 9 2010

Will Power is looking to win his third straight race this weekend. How big would that be? (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

At the Barber Motorsports Park this weekend, Will Power has a chance to become the first driver in IZOD IndyCar history to start the season with three straight victories since, well, since such records have been kept (by the Indy Racing League). After a remarkable comeback from two broken vertebrae last year, Power’s story is a great one for a deserving driver who has paid his dues. But is Power’s story in context or slightly out of focus?

If he wins on Sunday, Power will not be the first driver of an Indy-type car to win three straight races to start a season. He’ll be the fifth when the records of Champ Car, CART, USAC and the AAA are considered.

Every sport thrives on records, statistics and numbers – because they tell the tale about athletes, their careers or leagues and series as well as any other methodology. But when it comes to racing that involves Indy-type cars, it’s difficult to figure where some events and accomplishments stand when it comes to crunching the numbers.

Here are the others who have won three straight to start a season in an Indy-type car and the series they were competing in at the time: A.J. Foyt (USAC – 1964), Al Unser Sr. (USAC –1971), Paul Tracy (CART – 2003) and Sebastien Bourdais (Champ Car – 2006). Bourdais eventually won four straight.

The driver who holds the record for the most consecutive victories at the start of a season is Foyt, who won the first seven during the 1964 season. Driving an A.J. Watson Roadster powered by an Offy engine, Foyt’s third victory that year came at the Indy 500 following wins at Phoenix and Trenton. Before the streak was over, he had won at Milwaukee, Langhorne, Trenton again and then on the dirt mile at Springfield.

This is hardly a criticism of the Aussie from Toowoomba who is gunning for three straight on Alabama’s most famed road course. Nor is it a knock on the IndyCar series.

As the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. (For the googled record, this saying was first attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli before it was popularized in America by Mark Twain.) With this in mind, let’s muddy up the picture a little further. Was Foyt’s feat more remarkable because he was racing on both paved ovals and dirt? Did Bourdais really have enough competition in the waning years of Champ Car?

Maybe it’s for the best that several sets of records are kept according to the sanctioning body in charge at the time events took place. If nothing else, it allows fans to make comparisons and puts more history in front of everybody.

Still, I can just hear the TV announcers blaring now: “WILL POWER WINS A RECORD THIRD STRAIGHT RACE TO OPEN THE SEASON!”

The official records go all the way back to 1909 and the first National Championship season established by the AAA. (Jimmy Murphy won two straight to open the 1923 season on the board tracks in Beverly Hills and Fresno in a rapier-thin Miller, a little more than year before he was killed at Syracuse. Hot-tempered and prison-bound Kelly “The Shiv” Petillo won two straight to start the 1935 season in a Wetteroth-Offy, including the Indy 500. But that was as close as anybody came during the AAA era.)

It would be easy enough to reconcile all the different sanctioning bodies into one record book, except for one glaring problem: there were two series running Indy-type cars during the same season from 1996 until 2008. And only one of those series raced at the Indianapolis 500, which is the defining point for Indy-type cars.

I’d suggest opening this question of record keeping up to audience participation, e.g. reader comments. But that’s likely to generate more ill feelings about the CART vs. Indy Racing League split that led to the thorniest part of the isssue.

It’s along in here that the writer is also supposed to come up with a suggestion.

First, let’s be adults about this and not worry about which sanctioning body “owns” the rights to which records. The era or sanctioning body in charge can be duly noted in any record system. Jimmy Bryan’s first 12 wins came under AAA, for instance, and the remaining seven under USAC.

For the sake of comparison, a list of Indy-type car winners and total races won ( and a breakdown of sanctioning bodies included in parenthesis) would be a good start. By this count, Power, whose victory at Long Beach was sanctioned by the IRL, has won six Indy-type races (2 Champ Car, 4 IRL) and is poised to continue a remarkable string for a driver with relatively few victories. On this list, Foyt would still be first and Mario Andretti second in all-time victories. But one would get a good opportunity to see where, say, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti stand over-all in their careers versus recent contemporaries or drivers like Murphy.

Why not compile a universal list? The victories by drivers who raced in the AAA are considered comparable to those who raced in USAC and then CART – during the years from 1979 until 1995 – because they were the only series operating and the sanctioning body was secondary to the fact a single, bona fide national champion was crowned as a result of the annual race schedule. But the champions from either CART, Champ Car or the IRL were bona fide as well.

I would also suggest making a list of national champions that includes two for the years when CART or Champ Car were operating simultaneously to the Indy Racing League. (It would produce an anomaly of three champions in 1996 due to the IRL’s short first season that resulted in a tie between Scott Sharp and Buzz Calkins.) In other words, when it comes to comparing the number of championships, either a CART title or an IRL title would be considered comparable for record keeping (again with the sanctioning body breakdown listed in parenthesis for those who might take exception to the quality of one series being comparable to another).

Next, I would suggest streaks and other totals such as poles be handled likewise, especially now that we’re back to one unified series for Indy cars. In other words, Power would not break a record until he scored eight straight victories to start the season, since the all-time mark has been at seven since 1964.  It is, in a word, fatuous to suggest otherwise. Power would be the first to win three straight since Bourdais and the fifth driver in Indy-type racing history to start the season with three straight wins.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 9 2010
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