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Optimism Flows After IRL Test At Charlotte

September 25, 1996

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) _ Tony George’s aggressive bid to establish an alternative Indy-car circuit moved into the longtime heart of NASCAR country Wednesday.

``I’m mildly optimistic,″ Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. ``Humpy″ Wheeler said after an Indy Racing League team spent several hours testing at the track to see if it could be used by the fledgling series.

The IRL, which just finished its maiden season, has just five events on its 1996-97 calendar.

In his quest to beef up future schedules, IRL founder Tony George conducted a test last month at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where speeds exceeded 211 mph and the surface provided for smooth handling. The test prompted George to pronounce Atlanta a suitable facility for possible addition to the circuit.

George offered a similar assessment after Wednesday’s session on Charlotte’s 1.5-mile trioval.

``We look forward to getting some constructive dialogue going here in the near future,″ said George, who launched the IRL in an attempt to provide a low-cost alternative to the CART Indy-car circuit.

John Paul Jr., who drove a 3-year-old Team Menard machine during the test, lifted off the throttle twice on each lap _ leaving the front stretch and entering the fourth turn _ but still reached a top speed of 207 mph.

``The thing just stuck like glue,″ he said. ``It was a blast.″

It also was a sight that, until recently, wouldn’t have been considered at Charlotte, a track located within minutes of most teams on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. The track has become a showcase for the 3,400-pound stock cars, but until Wednesday, it had never been used by an Indy-car team.

Bruton Smith, whose company, Speedway Motorsports Inc., owns the Charlotte and Atlanta tracks, said changing times dictate that the company seek ways to increase use of its properties.

``I think common sense came into play,″ Smith said.

Wheeler concurred, saying the region may not be exclusively made up of stock car fans.

``We have so many people here now who have moved from other areas,″ Wheeler said. ``And I know we have a lot of race fans. I think they’re curious.″

There had been concerns that the IRL machines might bottom out as they made the transition from Charlotte’s 24-degree turns to its 5-degree front stretch. Those fears proved to be unfounded.

There was a problem, however, in the fourth turn, where the bumpy surface prompted Paul to ease off the throttle.

Wheeler said the rough portion of the track could be repaved, and additional guard rails could be installed along the track’s apron to provide more safety for the IRL machines.

Aside from that, Wheeler’s major concern was the speed of the machines and how it might hinder tight racing, a staple on the Winston Cup circuit.

``I would prefer it be around 200 or even lower,″ Wheeler said. ``Once you get above 200, it’s hard to do any good racing for any sustained period.″

The IRL is about to switch to different engines and chassis designed to slow the machines. Jack Long, the circuit’s executive director, said he expects the new IRL cars will be a more suitable fit with Charlotte than the machine used in Wednesday’s test.

That means the big question is whether stock car country will buy Indy-car racing.

``This is an historic day for Charlotte Motor Speedway,″ Smith said. ``I’m anxious to hear an announcement one day about an Indy-car race here. I think that would be an awesome event.″

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