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The Way It Is/ Looking at the challenges faced by American open-wheel racing

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
Welcome to 'The Way It Is'. I'll endeavor to write this column on a regular basis, roughly once a week, sometimes more frequently, sometimes less, depending on the time of year or whether I feel there's something worth writing about. I intend to cover a wide range of racing with a focus for sure on American open-wheel racing, but I'll also write and comment about NASCAR, Formula 1, sports car racing or whatever else strikes my fancy. I'm pleased to have you on board and hope you will enjoy the ride.

As we announce the KirbyWebbsite at this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach my subject obviously is Champ Car in particular and American open-wheel racing as a whole. Thanks to Messrs Kalkhoven, Forsythe and Gentilozzi, Champ Car has come a long way in the past two years, from death's door to a going organization with a plan for the future. But there still are many mountains to climb, particularly in the face of NASCAR's booming mainstream success story.

As we all know, NASCAR has pushed both Champ Car and IRL off the map so that open-wheel racing struggles with embarassingly tiny TV ratings and the smallest national media footprint of any sport in America today. While NASCAR means auto racing to the average American man and woman, Champ Car and IRL are irrelevant, unknown brand names.

Long Beach 1985: Mario leads Rahal, Al Jr., Geoff Brabham, Emerson
Fittipaldi, and an impressively full field down Shoreline Drive on the pace lap
Champ Car looks likely to rebound in 2007 with full fields of twenty-four of the new Panoz chassis, but the field continues to be less than stellar this year. I'm delighted that Cristiano da Matta is back and if anyone can haul Dale Coyne's team onto the podium on a regular basis it's the little man from Belo Horizonte, but a champion like da Matta deserves more. Things can only get better.

The key to success of course is generating enough TV and national media coverage to sell serious sponsorship so that teams can hire the best drivers available. The goal is to have major brands start building national advertising campaigns around the drivers like we see in NASCAR, but to get there from where open-wheel racing is today, and to do it in a world where NASCAR means racing is going to be a long, tough haul.

The only way it can happen is through building on successful races like Long Beach and making them bigger and better not only in their own markets but nationally as well. The more successful the individual races and the more the focus can be on the racing and the drivers--the stars--the more the media will cover the series. It's a very simple equation but to achieve the right result will take time and a concerted effort from Champ Car.

To get there Champ Car will have to find a way to get much more television coverage and also to convince the nation's newspapers to cover the Champ Car World Series, not just those in the local race markets. Even in CART's heydays few newspapers bothered to cover the series and even fewer sent staff writers to more than a handful of races. This was a key area where NASCAR blew CART into the weeds over a long period of time. In fact, CART and IRL have driven away the media, not only because of a constant drumbeat of political rather than sporting stories but also because they tried time and again to censor or intimidate the press.

Today NASCAR enjoys a powerful nationwide press corps while Champ Car and IRL function without mainstream press corps, relying primarily on websites and a handful of small circulation enthusiast publications to get the news out. If either form of American open-wheel racing is to become a nationally-recognized and respected sport once again a revolution will have to take place in this department, but I'm not sure that the comprehension, will and commitment is there to reach this goal.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Champ Car this year will be the new Atlantic series with Swift chassis and Cosworth/Mazda engines. The revamped series will make its debut this weekend with a full field of almost thirty cars and plenty of talented young drivers chasing the $2 million champion's prize. Plenty of excited anticipation surrounds the debut of the new Atlantic series and it will be great to see the packed field make its first start of the season on Sunday morning. My congratulations, once again, to Champ Car for getting squarely behind the new Atlantic series and appreciating the importance of developing the ladder system.

Of course, everyone knows that the only true way forward for American open-wheel racing is to have one series. Reunification remains the great mythical hope. Can it happen? Your guess is as good as mine. There's been plenty of talk about it in recent months, but knowing the parties involved as well as I do I'm deeply skeptical that it will happen. I've always said I'll believe a Champ Car-IRL union is possible on the day Israel and Palestine announce they've agreed to co-exist peacefully and Paul Tracy is one of many who agrees with me.

"We'll see what happens with all these rumors, whether it's real or not," Tracy said. "Who knows? I'll believe it when it happens. I've been hearing the same thing for ten years, people saying, 'Oh yeah, we're getting close now.' And nothing ever happens."

And of course, we all read Roger Penske's extremly unhelpful comments from the IRL opener at Homestead last month. One can only conclude that Roger has no interest in racing in a series in which he wields neither power nor influence.

For the rest of us it makes entirely rational sense for the two groups to come together and work as one, but let's remember there was never any need for two series in the first place. For sure, CART had its shortcomings and troubles, but a truly enlightened leader of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would have used his position to consolidate and utilize his power in a positive way.

I've often said that Tony George could have become the most powerful and respected man in open-wheel racing if he had gone into partnership with the France family to promote two more 500-mile races. By re-creating the triple crown he would have become the champion of oval racing, as he once professed to be, and de facto the most influential man in the business. But rather than trying a positive gambit he went the negative, fractious route, and with the help of CART's duplicitous team owners, we are where we are today.

Start of the 1995 Indy 500, the last time everyone was there and
Penske famously failed to qualify
From its earliest days of course, the Indy 500 was all about engineering, innovation and new technology. The spectacular supercharged Millers and Duesenbergs from the twenties were rivals for the best European Grand Prix cars although the Great Depression put paid to all that, introducing a low-cost 'junk formula' to American racing. The Offenhauser era emerged after World War II as cars with an Offy engine in front won every AAA or USAC race from 1947-'63. There were interesting curiosities like the Cummins Diesel and supercharged Novis but the classic Offy-powered roadster ruled.

Then of course, in 1961 defending World Champion Jack Brabham brought a rear-engined F1 Cooper to the Speedway and finished ninth. Quick in the corners but slow down the straights, Brabham's experiment was dismissed by the Speedway's establishment until Colin Chapman, Jim Clark and Dan Gurney arrived two years later with a much more serious Lotus-Ford effort.

Clark broke the front-engined Offy domination when he won at Milwaukee in August of 1963, then scored the first rear-engined win at Indianapolis in '65. By then almost everyone was running rear-engined cars and a new Golden Age arrived at Indianapolis as technology ruled, sending the Speedway's track record through the roof from 151 mph in 1963 to 195 mph in 1972 as drivers from F1, NASCAR and sports car racing took on USAC's best. Through this time the Indy 500 was a true melting pot of cultures and technology and stood clearly as the world's most important single motor race.

But rising speeds also challenged the limits of safety and a disastrous 1973 Indy 500 saw the beginning of a continuing thirty-year effort to slow-down the cars. In '73 Art Pollard was killed in practice, Salt Walther was badly burned in a startline accident and Swede Savage died a month later following a fiery accident in a miserable, rain-delayed race which took three days to run. In reaction, USAC cut the onboard fuel tank size by half, limited turbo boost for the first time and slashed wing sizes.

Since then the fight against rising lap speeds on ovals in particular has continued unabated with regular reductions in turbo boost limits and engine size and a myriad of restrictions placed over the years on wings and ground-effects. Today's cars are the mongrel products of a dizzying number of restrictions through every aspect of the rulebook so that technology and innovation are blocked at every turn.

The CART/IRL split introduced even more restrictive rules so that today we have a seriously dumbed-down Indy 500, much like those sleepy days from the fifties and early sixties when everyone ran pretty well the same thing. But today's IRL cars are very like NASCAR's Daytona and Talladega-spec restrictor-plate specials. The cars are so underpowered and over-downforced that it's pedal to the metal all the way 'round the track with the cars running in packs, struggling to pass.

The sad fact is that despite the return of Penske, Ganassi, Rahal and other former CART teams, the Indy 500 has become a local, one-day Hoosier affair. Few people come in from out of town, let alone outside the country, and the old days of huge crowds on Pole Day, Bump Day and through the first week of practice are gone forever. Only a few thousand people show up for Pole Day these days and as we all know the race's TV ratings have plumetted, pulling barely one-quarter of the record high rating from 1986 despite last year's Danica blip.

Ten years of political squabbling and a dumbed-down formula have seriously impacted the month of May as well as the entire fabric of American open-wheel racing. I believe that if the Indy 500 is to become a shadow of its former self, let alone recover the great days of the sixties, a way must be found to reintroduce some sense of technology and innovation to the race. A whole new formula is required to make the cars capable of racing more openly, less like NASCAR stock cars, but the constraints required by the need to limit speeds and costs make it difficult to imagine anyone being capable of creating a technically interesting modern formula.

And too, as we move more deeply into the 21st century new technologies--electric and hybrid powerplants, fuel cells, composite materials--are overtaking the road car. If motor racing as a whole and the Indy 500 in particular are to retain much relationship to helping develop the automobile of the future it's going to take a serious rethink, but that's unlikely to happen because both the IRL and Champ Car are committed to seriously restrictive, technology-lite formulas. The thinking is all about cost control and spec-car chassis and engines.

In the garage area today there are many engineers and crewmen who are very worried and concerned that the sport has become too restrictive, too limited. The drive to innovate and compete which makes these people race car engineers and mechanics rather than garden variety examples of the same professions is being blocked at every turn and their motivation is being drained. All-time racing great Dan Gurney has some cogent comments about this state of affairs.

"The rules have become such that the factories are the only ones that are allowed any creative input." Dan said. "Since Toyota and Honda started racing in CART in the nineties and the IRL in 2003 you have to sign a release from them that you cannot look inside the engine. You can't do anything. They passed a rule that said you're not allowed to compete with them.

"When they started doing that I said, 'Why would you do that? Why stop innovation? Why stop creativity? What effect does that have on young people coming along and wanting to learn about those things?' The answer is it bleaches them out, so the social consequences of the way the manufacturers have control of the rules really bothers me. If these mega outfits aren't pushed to do something, nothing new will happen. Maybe the hundred mpg carburetor that everybody jokes about is out there, but we won't find it the way the rules are written today.

"You're not allowed to do what you want anymore," Dan added. "You're darn near classed as a criminal because you might want to continue to be creative against the bureaucratic rules. The freedom to be creative is what I liked so much about the sport and it's just been wrung out of it by the bureaucrats."

Like Gurney, I believe the sport has been consumed by provincialism and uninspired thinking. I think a serious shake-up is required if open-wheel racing is ever again to become a big-time sport, yet I see no evidence of such a thing happening. Instead, it's business-as-usual, but given the challenges the sport faces a much more radical approach is required in all ways.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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