The Frontstretch: Open Wheel Reunification: A Lesson For NASCAR, Too! by Tommy Thompson -- Wednesday March 26, 2008

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Open Wheel Reunification: A Lesson For NASCAR, Too!

Thompson in Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Wednesday March 26, 2008


One of the biggest U.S. motorsports stories of the last two decades occurred late last month, with the announcement that the Indy Racing League (IRL) and the Champ Car Word Series (CCWS) had agreed to merge. The news, however, garnered little more than a cursory nod from the stock car community which seems reluctant to even acknowledge that there is another form of racing in this country, let alone one that outshined NASCAR for many years back in the day. But if the newly invigorated IRL plays its cards right, auto racing enthusiasts will begin, en masse, to pay attention once again towards an open wheel series based in the United States. Of course, the key for the IRL in rebuilding the series to prominence in large part will be to pattern themselves after their brethren in American auto racing … NASCAR.

There are also lessons that can be learned as a result of the nasty split in 1995 between the IRL and CART; ones that not only the IRL should never forget, but also that NASCAR should make note of moving forward. Let’s take a look at some of the big themes to take away from the open wheel experience:

A house divided cannot stand! – Certainly, when Abraham Lincoln delivered that statement, he was speaking on an issue of much greater importance than that of auto racing; yet, the sentiments are equally true for both sanctioning bodies. NASCAR need only to observe the disaster that the open wheel split caused to know that should they find themselves in a similar situation, it is imperative to the health of stock car racing that the problem(s) be rectified by the sanctioning body before team owners decide to take their show on the road.

Nothing truly positive resulted from the ensuing years of the two open wheel organizations attempting to carve out their own market share at the expense of the other. Both CART and the IRL suffered from a water-downed pool of driver talent and equipment; in the end, CART (eventually renamed Champ Car) went bankrupt. And the eventual successor to CART, the CCWS, likewise was believed to be in its last days of financial solvency. The IRL was not in much better shape, though continuing to operate under a cloud of impending financial ruin.

When a series purports to be the best of its kind, it darn sure better be. NASCAR is the best by far at staging stock car-like races; no one can argue that. There are no rivals in the quality of venues, driver talent, engineering, or showmanship and public relations. These are all very necessary ingredients to maintaining a position of No. 1 in its respective part of the sport.

But a NASCAR divided would not fare much better than did their open wheel counterparts. Fields would be made up of feuding factions, becoming increasingly agitated by promises that their sanctioning body of choice would be unable to fulfill due to dwindling fan support. The lost fans, of course, would be a result of the divided fields not being able to put on the show that they had been accustomed to in years gone by; but in the end, the reasoning won’t matter. They will simply find other professional forms of sports entertainment to support … many to never return. Just ask CART or the IRL about that.

Buy American - OK, this is a touchy one, and one that doesn't sit well with the pseudo-cosmopolitan crowd. But what the American open wheelers should be starting to understand now is that trying to be international in drivers and race venues doesn't sit particularly well with the average race enthusiast from Terre Haute, Indiana. Heck, when it comes to Americans and sports we won't watch Wimbledon unless there's an American in the finals, nor will we watch the World Cup at all – because Americans are never in contention. And to schedule a race in some fancy sounding country halfway across the world does not particularly impress us, either. Bottom line, there is a reason we Americans have been rated amongst the lowest nations in the industrialized world in geography test scores…we don't care!

But that is a lesson that the American open wheel scene has taught us, and NASCAR needs to pay attention to. Even before the final parting of ways of Tony George (IRL and Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and CART, an influx of foreign drivers, flush with sponsorship money or from wealthy South American families had wrestled many rides away from American drivers that had developed their skills in the lower American open wheel ranks.

John Bickford, stepfather to four-time NASCAR Cup Champion Jeff Gordon said, "Regardless of what you think, the system was broken."

Bickford, who also is Gordon's business manager, continued, "Jeff and I went door to door to all of the CART teams in the early 1990's with his impeccable sprint car résumé and everyone's response was, ‘how much money can you bring?' Well, we didn't have the money, so we had the doors slammed in our faces. Drivers with far less talent than Jeff were getting rides because they came with financial backing we simply couldn't compete with. So, we went to NASCAR, where talent was still the most important factor in getting a ride."

While drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya have made their fortunes and names in open wheel series, NASCAR has made good ol' boys their bread and butter.

The fans were not deceived, either. While CART tried to market names like Arie, Mauricio, Roberto and Adrian to the American audiences, NASCAR took larger and larger bites out of their market share with names the likes of Dale, Rusty, Darrell, and Bill. This was no coincidence; listen up, NASCAR!

Another American thing that the IRL will need to stay bought-in with is oval track racing. That's what puts the crowds in the stands for NASCAR on 34 of 36 race weeks, plus exhibitions. Circle track racing is just plain American; people like it. That’s not to say there isn't room for a few road course events to prove that their drivers can turn right, but it's important that neither series gets carried away. If they do, they run the risk of becoming as popular as the SCCA.

Somehow, the IRL will need to get the attention of American automobile manufacturers while finagling long-term commitments for sponsorships and engineering support to their teams. Crazy at it seems, Americans also like to root for Chevys, Fords, and Dodges … not necessarily Hondas and Toyota. It is doable; NASCAR has for all intents and purposes moved to a generic chassis and body, but still manages to get manufacturer support. That will take time, but the sooner the Honda "crate motor" is phased out in favor of American branding, the faster "gear heads" will warm up to the series.

You know, there already exists an auto racing series that schedules events in far off, exotic lands and thrives in its international look and appeal: it's called Formula 1. And they are tremendously successful; just not so much in the U.S. In fact, they no longer have a race within its borders … and few are losing any sleep over it.

As for me? I will be watching and rooting for the IRL to rebuild American open wheel racing to at least some semblance of its former glory. I don't know if they can ever get back to the days when it was the Indianapolis 500 and not the Daytona 500 that was the most prestigious race in America; but they don't need to. Equaling it in standing would work fine, too.

And as for NASCAR, I will continue to hope that they do not stray too far from the things in the sport that allowed them to obtain so much success in the last two decades. When in doubt, they only need examine the mistakes made by their open wheel counterparts to stay on the right path.

And…that's my view from Turn 5.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
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03/26/2008 07:42 AM

Nice column this morning. I like your reference “If they do, they run the risk of becoming as popular as the SCCA”.

Been an SCCA member for over 46 years, still trying to figure out what they, the SCCA are trying to accomplish!

Travis Rassat
03/26/2008 08:31 AM

I agree about the Honda “crate” motors – the IRL needs to introduce other brands and market themselves as a series full of innovation and technology, rather than be a spec series.

I like technology, especially if it’s road relevant and could show up on a street car someday. While F1 and ALMS cars don’t resemble anything on the street, at least they provide a technological testbed for potential street-related technologies, particularly in safety and efficiency. I think the IRL could benefit greatly (particularly with sponsorship/partnership dollars) from being a “technology” series.

03/26/2008 09:07 AM

What a dilemma! “TECHNOLOGY” vs. “RACING”!

F-1 is way too “technical”, remember the days where a gallon of F-1 fuel was over $2,000, and it was top secret what was in it? Traction control (of course that is now gone), and all the sophisticated electronics?

Of course the IRL needs more diversion! But to become a “technical series” would be a major mistake! The cost would go up exponentially!

03/26/2008 03:54 PM

You are stupid just like the rest of you rednecks that score low on the geography tests. Ignorant and stupid. Not only do you not know anything about the world outside of the US, but most of you don’t even know where Indiana, Pennsylvania or even Alaska is…

03/26/2008 04:27 PM

Where did this jer*, err, “guy” come from?

What in the world is he ranting about?

Ahmm, what is an “Indiana”???

03/26/2008 05:50 PM

I’m not sure what rock that guy came out from under, but he sure hasn’t been paying attention to the demographics shift as to who makes up the fans of NASCAR.

With the current leadership doing it’s best to drive away the core fans since 2003, it has become a house divided. And with the cars moving closer and closer to being spec cars, the time for a new series which actually runs something that resembles “stock cars” isn’t too far away. I think somebody in Concord NC is just waiting for the other shoe to fall before he starts the new series.

Edward Washington
03/26/2008 06:20 PM

I’m going to try to respectfully disagree with your comments, which while true on some level, are also quite slanted.

CART was THE series back in the 80’s and early 90’s. Why? Great racing and personalities. The split clearly caused damage that needs to be repaired but I disagree with you on how it should be done.

Open wheel-and sportscar racing for that matter-have always been international sports. That is why there are international drivers in series like the ALMS, IRL and Grand Am series.
In my opinion, a TRUE racing fan doesn’t root for the nationality, they root for the team or the series. If you ever went to, you would see that the fact that, for example, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves are Brazilian and Dan Wheldon is British and Scott Dixon is Kiwi are almost never brought up. We have a much broader worldview than you do. I personally don’t care if the driver comes from Abilene, Texas or Zimbabwe, I care about talent and personality. That also separtates open wheel fans from NASCAR centric people such as yourself. This may come as a great shock to you, but NASCAR doesn’t rule the universe.

I agree with you-up to a point-about having American drivers. However, most of us-I would venture a large amount-who are open wheel/sportscar fans care as I said earlier about talent, not nationality. That will need to be helped by American companies actually helping American drivers the way industries in other countries help their drivers get rides. You have to adjust to what is-not what you want it to be.

In regards to American engine manufacturers, had you done your homework you would have knownt that GM WAS in the IRL in the beginning with their engines first badged as Oldsmobile and then Chevrolet. GM left the IRL after getting their butts kicked by Infiniti, Toyota and Honda. It should also be pointed out that Chevrolet was founded by a Frenchman, Louis Chevrolet, again something a little research would have turned over. Maybe they will come back, Honda has always stated that they would love to have competition.

I also VEHEMENTLY disagree with you about basically turning the IRL into NASCAR without fenders.
If the IRL is to be successful, it needs to be significantly DIFFERENT from NASCAR, otherwise there is no reason to watch it. That means an equal mix of road/street courses and ovals, which it was like when CART ruled the day.

Let me ask you an honest question. Have you EVER actually watched any other type of racing besides NASCAR? I doubt it. That would certainly explain your one-sided, uninformed views. I would encourage you to do so. It might free your mind if you allow it.

The truth is, before NASCAR became prominent-which had a lot to do with the split, Dale Earnhardt’s death and 9/11, CART and open wheel ruled this country. I’m not saying it will again, but it can certainly be better than it has been, but that will never happen if the path you advocate is followed. Luckily, the open wheel/sportscar community is made up of smart, broad thinkers. I’d be extremely worried if they thought like you do, but thankfully that is not the case.

Margo L
03/26/2008 09:49 PM

I find Bickfords version of things to be interesting . Yes he and Jeff did shop around for a ride in the indy cars . But the lack of sponsors had nothing to do with Jeff not getting a job . Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon got Indy car rides with absolutely no sponsor money . They did it by driving talent and the resume Bickford mentions . Jeff Gordons’ accomplishments in racing have been blown way out of reality by the media , and by Bickford himself . The truth is , Jeff Gordon was not the racing talent of either Tony or Robby . They both got rides , along with many other drivers, without bringing money to the team .

03/27/2008 02:15 AM

Margo, Jeff Gordon was looking at CART before the IRL was even created. Tony Stewart got in the sport via the IRL, because it WAS cheaper. Jeff did not get in CART because the TOP teams had really good drivers already, and the back of the pack teams needed sponsors and money. Jeff wasn’t going to bump out the top drivers, nor did he have the money that the low end teams needed. THAT is why he ended up in Nascar where you have 43 cars in Busch and 43 cars in Cup. Lots of possibilities. In CART, you had about 24 cars, period.

To the author.
The IRL has already TRIED being Nascar without fenders. They even run at the same two road courses. They got tickets attached to the Nascar season ticket packages. They’ve been there and DONE that, and look where it got them ? The problem is that 18 small open wheel cars on a big oval is NOT the same as 43 thundering sedans. It just doesn’t pack the same punch. In Nascar, “Rubin’ is Racin’”. In an open wheel race, “Rubin’ is CRASHIN’”. To get back to what CART was, the new series needs to find out what worked, back then and try to copy it, not Nascar.

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