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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ More debate from you and me

by Gordon Kirby
I was surprised and pleased that last week's column generated a fair amount of comment from you readers. Most of your responses were thoughtful and expansive. A few found me disagreeable or tedious. Here's a sample, starting with my old friend and Road & Track colleague Joe Rusz.

*Hi Gordon,
Nice column, touching on some very critical issues.

We could discuss, but here's my two cents worth--

Regarding the poor crowd at Kentucky, one thing these marketing geniuses at IndyCar and in CART have never considered is their audience. In the old days, it was said that open-wheel racing didn't sell in the South, which is NASCAR country. So we didn't have races at Atlanta and the like. I think that's still the case today, and as NASCAR becomes more popular, more tracks in other parts of the U.S. become NASCAR tracks.

The only track areas where open-wheel racing stands a chance are those that have a long-standing reputation as sports car tracks. As a rule, they are located in parts of the country that support and understand the concept of road- versus oval-track racing. That would be Long Beach, Laguna Seca, Sears, Portland, Road America, Watkins Glen, Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio, Toronto, Montreal and Australia. You'll note that none of these U.S. tracks are in the South, and while one could argue that Barber might be a suitable venue, the fact that it's in Alabama tells me that it won't work. Ditto a place like Road Atlanta. As for Brazil, well, since most of the drivers come from there, it might work.

The other factor that's stifling the growth of IndyCar is the lack of American driving icons. Except for Danica and Marco, what other American names pop into the average U.S. fan's mind when you mention the IRL? Not that we don't eventually fall in love with the Helios, Darios and Gils. But as for instant recognition? I have been trying to compile a short list of popular American drivers whose names trip readily of the average tongue, and all I get is NASCAR drivers.

So there. I feel better now.
Have a nice day,

*Dear Gordon,
First of all, I love your articles. They are the first thing I look for on Monday mornings. And now that we've gotten the blatant sucking-up aside, we can get down to the point of this letter.

A lot has been written about the upcoming engine formula for the IRL. It seems different manufacturers want different engine formats; V-8, V-6 or 4 cylinder. I can understand that. What I don't understand is why there has to be a regulation stating how many cylinders or what type of design; V versus inline.

For the sake of argument let's say a 2 liter, single turbo is chosen. If Honda wants to build a V-8, why not let them? If VW wants to build an inline 4 cylinder, why not let them? I know that cost is a consideration, especially in this economy, but I think that too many rules limit the number of potential players. Regulate the size, induction and have a common electronics package and turn them loose. I seem to remember that back in the early 80's, those Brabhams with 4 cylinder, turbocharged BMW engines did pretty well against the V-6 Renaults and they were both 1500 cc's.

And while I'm on my soapbox, this single chassis manufacturer system is not the way to go either. I didn't like it in Champ Car and I don't like it any more in the IRL. I realize that having more than one chassis can raise the cost. That's called competition. But the other side of that coin is renewed fan and manufacturer interest and huge marketing possibilities. Having one manufacturer being able to charge whatever it wants for cars and parts is not competition. It is a stagnating monopoly and flies in the face of what racing is all about!

But if the powers that be insist on one chassis maker, there's this guy who has a shop in Santa Ana, California. His name is Gurney and it's rumored that he has a bit of experience building world-class racing cars. I can't speak for him, but I'm pretty sure he'd take their call.

Best wishes from an old CART fan.
Tony Traugott

Another excellent column. I am concerned that when braking for every corner (even ovals) is eliminated, the engineer becomes more important than the driver. Keep working on your view of faster cars and higher skill levels. That is what Indy Car was and can be. Thanks for sharing your great insights. Racing is fortunate to have you.
Bob Pirtle

*Dear Gordon, There is a big difference between appreciating the past and living in it. Your articles continue to decline in value when all you do is complain and moan about today and blabber on and on about how great the good ol' days were. Newsflash: there is no time machine. No matter what you think of the past, it isn't coming back. You just hurt open wheel by constantly dragging it down with your comparisons. Do everyone a favor and fade away like the past, unless of course you want to wake up and join 2010 like the rest of us.

I'm a recent Indy transplant. I moved here to work on race cars, I run around with a couple of different sprint cars that run locally around here. I love reading your articles. I understand racing in America has come to a decisive fork in the road. I have no clue where/what form racing will take in the next century. I'm a twenty-something who dropped everything, moved to Indy because I finally faced the fact that being around racing is what makes me happiest in life. Your latest Indycar article is a dream killer. I want to continue reading your articles, but sometimes when I do, I wonder if I'm chasing something that may not be there one day.

I've spent countless amounts of time thinking about this situation. A complete overhaul is needed. How? Who knows. I work with plenty of mechanics and sprint car drivers that would give anything to run the Speedway. Individuals that don't want huge money contracts, but enough to make a living. With the right people and drive, anything can happen within the American racing culture.

Another element in all this, whether some people want to hear it or not, is the decline of motor racing coverage in American magazines. Thirty and forty years ago magazines like Road & Track and Car & Driver devoted many pages and covers to racing but there's been a serious decline over the decades in the number of pages covering to racing in these magazines. Today racing is given token coverage at best in R&T and C&D. Similarly, racing was the meat of AutoWeek back in its Competition Press & AutoWeek days but the sport has suffered a dwindling role in the modern AutoWeek, recently evolved of course, into a biweekly.

Over the years I've been involved in the creation or a development of a number of US-based racing magazines. I worked with pleasure for a handful of years in the mid to late eighties with editor George Damon Levy on the transformation of AutoWeek from a tabloid newspaper to a magazine. Before that I worked for a magazine called Formula which became Race Car. I then worked for a few years as the founding editor-at-large of On Track before going to work in 1982 for a guy named Rob Griggs to start Indy Car Racing magazine.

Griggs was quite a character from North Carolina who was publishing a weekly NASCAR newspaper called Grand National Scene which became Winston Cup Scene. Griggs built his weekly into a roaring success and made millions when he sold his newspaper to Street & Smith's. Known today as NASCAR Scene, it sells more than 120,000 each week and is the world's largest selling weekly motor sports publication.

While Griggs was able to ride NASCAR's rising tide to early retirement his fascination with Indy car racing soon faded as he realized he could work with NASCAR, but not with CART or Indy car racing. Over the years this has become a familiar story for many others. Griggs sold ICR which staggered on for a number of years like On Track through different owners and iterations, lacking the proper resources before finally biting the dust.

In 1992 I again enjoyed the august title of editor-at-large in founding Racer with Paul Pfanner. I'd known Pfanner for many years and worked with him on occasion. I knew he had the passion if not the resources to do the job. My old friend John Zimmermann. who I'd worked with at On Track and AutoWeek, was the inhouse editor and we gave it the old college try, creating a magazine that still exists but doesn't match the circulation or vitality of its formative years. Pfanner eventually sold Racer to Haymarket Publishing and for about a year at the turn of the century we tried again with a magazine called Champ Car. It turned out to be exactly the wrong time for a magazine with that moniker.

Meanwhile, NASCAR Scene and its monthly offshoot NASCAR Illustrated, continue to thrive. The irrepressible Dick Berggren has built his Speedway monthly into a solid NASCAR publication while Sports Illustrated continues to publish its annual NASCAR special edition. And of course, Chris Economaki's National Speed Sport News continues as the uncontested weekly record of American racing. But there are no broad-based, brand name racing magazines readily available anymore on newsstands across the United States.

Some people argue that the Web has taken up the space. It's well-known that all types of newspapers and magazines are fighting the conundrum of dwindling circulation and ad bases versus increasing website traffic, but most other sports enjoy competing national magazines and many countries across Europe and around the world enjoy multiple motor racing magazines. Maybe it's because racing in America is so fragmented, embracing NASCAR and stock car racing, NHRA and IHRA drag racing, IRL, Indy Lights, Atlantic, Star Mazda, ALMS & Grand-Am sports car racing, USAC midgets, sprints and Silver Crown, SCCA road racing, Off-road racing, etc. Many of these segments of the sport are mutually exclusive which makes it very difficult to present a cohesive, bundled, commercially viable magazine.

At Elkhart Lake four or five years ago a group of fans beseeched me to start a new American racing magazine. I demurred, telling them I'd almost bankrupted myself a couple of times trying to achieve that goal. Today, I'm fully engaged and fulfilled working for Motor Sport, writing my weekly columns here in this space, and writing books, too. I'm engrossed this year and next in writing the complete history of Carl Haas and Paul Newman's lives in racing while at Motor Sport our editorial, design and ad sales team is charged with producing the world's finest racing magazine. I couldn't be more pleased to be part of it.

But sadly, I find myself discouraging young people from pursuing a career writing about American motor racing beyond NASCAR. I'm very aware that there's little or no work out there these days covering the sport in the United States. My longtime colleague Robin Miller thrives on Speedtv and writes on Speed's website and occasionally in Motor Sport or Racer, but many other writers who've tried to make a go of the business are struggling. David Phillips covered Indy car racing for many years for On Track, AutoWeek and Racer, but David left the business earlier this year to join the thriving racing simulation business iracing.com where he oversees and edits iracing's website. Phillips made the move reluctantly, but I was among those who urged him to do it.

I also have to add that in recent weeks both George Bruggenthies, president of Road America, and Skip Barber, boss of Lime Rock, told me they are very concerned about the state of professional car racing in America. Both are worried about the future of the ALMS which is the remaining, big-time car race at their respective tracks. Elkhart hosted a much-lamented CART/Champ Car race for twenty-five years from 1982-2006, but Bruggenthies inexplicably has no expectations of hosting an IRL race. With few prospects to replace the fading ALMS, both tracks are focusing on their historic weekends, Road America's in July and Lime Rock's in September. Bruggenthies was delighted with the strong competitor and fan turn-out for last month's Brian Redman/Kohler International historic weekend. George says the event was more successful than ever.

"It was just a great weekend," Bruggenthies said. "We had as many cars and competitors as ever and the crowd was fantastic both here at the track and downtown. It's not Goodwood, but as far as I'm concerned it's the best event we have here and may be the best historic weekend in America."

Of course, next weekend's Monterey Historics/Pebble Beach Concours on California's Monterey Peninsula would like to make the same claim. It's a roaringly successful event and has helped take up the slack of the failure of the once-huge CART Indy car weekend at Laguna Seca.

My point in all this is the state of the racing magazine business in the United States and the struggles the country's top road racing circuits are facing to find strong contemporary race weekends are indicative of the weakened state of professional road racing as a whole in America. The indubitable fact is it ain't very healthy and needs some serious reworking. Anyone out there up for the job?

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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