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, Ind. 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 1990s with his impeccable sprint car resume 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.”
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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