The Frontstretch: NASCAR: Indy Car Racing's Savior? by Tommy Thompson -- Tuesday April 10, 2007

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NASCAR: Indy Car Racing's Savior?

Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday April 10, 2007


Longtime Indy Racing League (IRL) team part-owner and general manager of Panther Racing, John Barnes, is promoting the idea of the IRL and Nextel Cup race events co-existing during same-weekend dates. Barnes, who heads the IRL's championship winning race team of 2001 and 2002, offered the following quote last week, “We would make it where we would race on Saturday to replace a Busch or ARCA race, and they would race on Sunday,” he said. “I have no problem being second fiddle to them, I just want to get in front of their fans and show them what real racing is all about.” Barnes’ seemingly obnoxious insinuation that NASCAR fans aren't aware of what “real racing” is aside, I support his concept of joint dates for the two series. But I believe the idea needs to be taken a bit further to grow open-wheel racing in this country to a level similar to what it enjoyed prior to the mid-1970's, back to a day when names like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Johnny Rutherford were as widely known by racing and non-racing enthusiasts as the names Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin or Tony Stewart are today.

As a lifelong supporter of both stock car racing and open-wheel competition, I have never understood the mentality of those that seem to believe you have to maintain an either/or attitude between the two disciplines. Heck, it's all automobile racing to me! Granted, because of the lack of fenders on the IRL cars the whole "rubbing is racing" concept that NASCAR fans are infatuated with really is not possible. However, because of this fact drivers of the ultra-fast racecars are tasked with making their even higher speed passes cleanly, a required talent that I can appreciate equally with the rough-and-tumble style of stock car racing.

Give John Barnes credit though, he is a realist. Having headed an IRL team since 1998, he has gotten a good whiff of the coffee and looked at enough empty seats at IRL race dates to know that the series needs help. And it’s the kind of help that only NASCAR's NEXTEL Cup series can provide…spectators. But what Mr. Barnes my not want to accept is that the best thing for open-wheel racing, for all concerned, is for NASCAR to take complete control of the Indy Racing League.

Being always mindful that the France clan, who operate under the pseudonym NASCAR is motivated by money, there would be no real benefit to NASCAR agreeing to a partnership with anyone unless they were assured a piece of the pie. And rightfully so, what does the IRL have to offer NASCAR that they haven't already have? They own and control in its entirety both the Busch and Craftsman Truck Series' (CTS). And they plan to continue to grow both divisions by using them as the accompanied race events at most of their race weekends. Cuss NASCAR all you want, but they're successful…the IRL is not.

The IRL started operating more than ten years ago after a much publicized split with the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). Since that time, the sanctioning body has failed in its original mission, that of bringing American drivers, oval tracks and affordable Indy style racing back to prominence. They and the Champ Car World Series (formerly CART) during the last decade have managed to all but destroy interest in their particular form of auto racing. They have both proven their ineptness and failure to understand what sells, while at the same time showcasing a remarkable inability to compromise. Yet, the IRL continues to be delusional concerning their status within the motorsports community in the United States. In response to Barnes’ suggestion that the organization could better itself by associating it with NASCAR's top series, the IRL President of their Commercial Development said, “We would love to make our series better, and we will open the thought waves of doing that. But at the same time, I think we are a tier one series, and certainly it would be hard to argue that the Indianapolis 500 is not a cornerstone event, if not the premier motorsports event in the world.”

If there is the persistent problem with the IRL, it’s just that; they continue to hang their hat on the same hat rack that they have used since the inception of the organization…the Indianapolis 500. Sadly, it is still the only race they have to be optimistic about in their anemic seventeen scheduled race events for 2007. A tier one series? Are you kidding? Heck, though no concrete attendance numbers are available (coincidence?), NASCAR's training divisions, Busch and probably the Craftsman Truck Series, outdraw the IRL. It is hard to discern if the racing organization suffers from incredible arrogance or plain ignorance; regardless, they need NASCAR a lot more than NASCAR needs the IRL.

For motorsports fans, U.S. tracks, and American drivers, a takeover of the IRL by NASCAR would be incredibly beneficial. If open-wheel cars raced on Saturdays, it would be just a matter of time until NASCAR drivers such as Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and a number of other drivers with open-wheel experience found themselves a seat in them. Indywhackers? Oh, boy…how much more of a shot-in-the-arm could open-wheel racing ask for? And the crowds would be there. Boy…would they ever!

NASCAR could continue to promote and grow their other two divisions offering both series for the weekend at one of the many tracks that are begging for more race dates. A Busch and CTS combination would be a good draw as they become more and more standalone entities. It is my belief that if properly promoted and managed, there is plenty of racing interest in this country to go around for all three NASCAR divisions and Indianapolis type open-wheel racing to prosper and grow. No racing organization other than NASCAR has demonstrated the ability to make it happen.

It is sad that open-wheel racing in this country has abandoned its grassroots drivers in the various regional open-wheel series around this country. As a result of that, few drivers are afforded an opportunity to showcase their talents at the open wheel’s top echelon, forcing them to abandon their dreams of racing in the Indianapolis 500 in favor of maybe one day winning the Daytona 500 instead. It doesn't have to be that way. As strange as the idea seems… NASCAR could save Indy Car racing in America.

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