On the path to major success

TERRY JONES

, Last Updated: 7:40 AM ET

But there's also a transition team in Edmonton as Northlands took over with a ridiculously late start until all the contract details were worked out five races into the series.

Ric Forest, Bruce Saville and friends invested more than $6 million to get the Edmonton race off the ground - $4 million in start-up costs and the rest in losses because of a lack of sponsorship. This event, still with a severe shortage of sponsorship dollars, required $1.4 million of City of Edmonton backing to cover Northlands while the fair board transitioned to the series promoter this year.

"Our objective is to really build on the race this year for next year," said CEO Ken Knowles, who admits they're on a learning curve.

"We're in it long term. We're excited and fully committed to this event for the city and for Northlands.

"Our staff has embraced it," said Northlands VP of business and community development Trish Macdonald. "We're bringing potential sponsors to the race to show them that this is Indy now and up to a new level. We think we'll be able to establish the same things here sponsorship-wise which are going on with the series. Certainly there's a lot more stability now. We expect a lot more sponsorship to come to fruition next year."

With title sponsors getting in late and cheap ($400,000), Northlands has some fancy dancing to do with Rexall in addition to adding support sponsorship throughout.

"We are very excited about this year's Indy race and what it means for Edmonton and the Rexall brand. We currently have an option on sponsoring next year's race, but we have yet to sit down with Northlands to discuss our role beyond the current season," said Michael Bobroff, VP of marketing for Rexall, when asked how the company views any future tie-in.

CHALLENGING SCHEDULE

Northlands has a challenge with a Thursday practice day and Friday qualifying with a Saturday race instead of the weekend-with-the-race-on-Sunday schedule, but all the suites and corporate hospitality tickets have been sold. And Macdonald says, "We believe we'll have a sold-out and robust crowd on race day."

It should be a people-watching festival.

It's been hard not to notice, at most series stops, that there are more recognizable faces around and that will be especially true at this stop.

Unification will bring Roger Penske, the dean of all Indy car owners, back to Edmonton after a long absence. Penske has won the Indy 500 a record 14 times as an owner and has 300 wins overall, three of those - two Can-Am and a Trans-Am - at Edmonton International Speedway in the late '60s and early '70s. It was 1968 when Penske first came to Edmonton International Speedway for the Can-Am with Mark Donohue driving a McLaren M6B.

He finished third.

"That was the very start of Penske Racing," he said of the original owner-driver combination after Penske's own days as a Sports Car Club of America amateur driver.

The next time he was back at the north Edmonton major league racing facility (which has long since disappeared in favour of a housing development) was 1971. Donohue dominated, starting on the pole and winning the race in Penske's AMC Javelin.

A year later, Donohue was back with George Follmer driving a second car with Donohue winning the race and Follmer finishing third. The last time he was here was 1973 and Donohue won it in a Porsche 917/30.

"That sure does take me back. To go back there 40 years later is going to be great. For sure, I'm going to that race," Penske said when we had a chance to sit down and talk at the Indy 500 in May.

Most involved think it will be next year and the year after that the biggest effect will kick in. In covering this year's Indy 500, I discovered that to be true in terms of both the series and the centrepiece event.

"I don't think it's going to be like a rocket going off overnight," said Penske.

"A lot of people have been bruised because of the split, but now I'm seeing some momentum. We've gained some teams and a mix of road races and ovals. That's a positive. I think that's important. That will draw more people.

"We'll be in the best markets from both series and that's a positive for future sponsorships."

Movie star Paul Newman has 106 wins and 107 poles in his partnership with Carl Haas and now Mike Lanigan, including the final four Champ Car Series titles with Bourdais behind the wheel.

His initial reaction was emotional.

"When I heard about the reunification I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. It was absolutely necessary for both groups. It's tragic that it didn't happen sooner. It has been a great boost for both groups and it's wonderful to be running against Roger Penske, Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti again," said Newman, who once had Andretti as one of his drivers.

Rahal came here two years ago to watch son Graham in a Formula Atlantic race and telegraphed the unification sooner rather than later. Now he's running his Rahal-Letterman team with Hunter-Reay racing against his son, Graham, who joined Newman-Haas-Lanigan last year in Champ Car.

"I think it's unfortunate it got to the point that it did. Now I think it's wonderful that it's all together because now, frankly, there's potential. Now IndyCar racing can regain its rightful place in my mind. I certainly believe the ingredients are there to do that for sure."

GREAT NAMES RETURN

All of a sudden the great family names of the sport were represented again with Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti and A.J. Foyt IV.

"I think it's great for us," said Rahal of himself and young Andretti.

"I just feel so fortunate that this is starting at a time when I'm beginning my career instead of ending it. A guy like Helio or Tony Kanaan, they're getting more toward their end of their careers, but for me, Marco and some of these other guys, we're just starting, so this all kind of works into our hands.

"It would be great to become what our fathers were to the American people and everything else. I think this gives us a better opportunity, that's for sure."

That's all for down the road. It should be fun to be along for the ride into the new future.


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