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The Way It Is/ Debating the Great Spec car Plague

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
In my first 'The Way It Is' column at the beginning of April, I touched on the increasing plague of spec cars in racing. Every category of racing is moving ever more in the direction of limiting everyone to essentially identical cars and this plague will embrace Champ car racing next year with the adoption of the new Panoz DP01 spec Champ car. Even previously sacred areas open for development like shock absorbers and differentials will be mandated by Champ Car as spec components.

This trend is being driven, of course, by the need for serious cost control in today's almost sponsor-free environment. Everyone understands the importance of trying to limit costs, but more and more people in the sport are worried that the flame of competition is fluttering in the wind and may soon be extinguished. Dan Gurney made some very pertinent and clear points in 'The Way It Is' #1 in early April and veteran team owner Carl Haas and his general manager Brian Lisles are equally concerned about where the sport is headed.

"It'll just force us to go and spend our money and time on other things," Haas commented. "You always do. That's the way it is. The guys who work for me are innovative guys. They want to do their own thing. That's the way they are. They're always going to find their own solution to a problem. But you know, in the end, I think it'll just push more people into NASCAR because there's more room for engineering in NASCAR. Everybody builds their own cars and you can sell plenty of sponsorship to pay for whatever you want to do in NASCAR.

"The other thing is we do have a fan base here in Champ Car," Haas added. "There is a fan base, but they want to see new things on the cars. That's one of the things they like about this type of racing. I hear it from the fans all the time. They don't like this move to spec cars, trying to make it look like NASCAR. They want to see new and different things."

Newman/Haas's general manager Brian Lisles has been with the team for sixteen years. He was race engineer for both Mario and Michael Andretti and has run the team for the past six years. Before joining Newman/Haas, Lisles spent ten years as an engineer with the Tyrrell F1 team. Lisles says he understands the need to restrict costs but strongly believes there is a limit to these kinds of restrictions and is a fervent opponent to having spec cars at the Champ Car level of the sport.

"I think the feeling was that, given the split and the fact that sponsorship is so difficult to come by," Lisles commented, "that the entry price of the cars had to come down so that people would be able to get their foot in the door. I certainly don't have any problem with that.

"I do applaud the idea of cutting costs and there is no doubt that given the unfortunate set of self-made circumstances prevailing in open-wheel racing that we need to make it possible for people to purchase the cars and go race them so that the entry level is in line with what can be done in terms of raising funds. But having said that, we know that some people always have more funding than others. Why should those who do a better job be penalized for it and not be allowed to use their talents to be more competitive?

"The argument for a spec series is that it's less expensive, which of course, is a purely futile argument because any team can only spend the money it has. If we had a huge budget and the cars cost almost nothing we'd probably end up paying ninety percent of our budget to the driver because he would be the only thing that made a difference."

Lisles worries that even if reunification occurs between Champ Car and IRL and the renewed series became attractive once again to sponsors, the commitment to cheaper, spec cars will remain in place. "I think what you've got to be careful of is you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water," Lisles remarked. "Okay, open-wheel racing is not at its best today and it will not recover to any great extent unless there is a merger. Hopefully, that is going to happen. If it happens the combined series will be immediately much more attractive to potential sponsors and the cash crunch that both series find themselves in will go away. I think it could go away quite quickly.

"If it does, then the whole reason for this ridiculous spec series idea where you're not allowed to change anything on the car will no longer apply. But knowing the way people are, I have a horrible feeling that once it becomes a spec series it will be extremely difficult for it be anything other than a spec series."

Lisles agrees with Haas that the passion for new and different cars and engines is a key driving force for Champ Car and other forms of racing beyond NASCAR. "If spec cars are what got people excited I guess we'd all be buying model T Fords," Lisles joked. "But the fact of the matter is motor cars, for whatever reason, play to some human emotions. That's why there are so many different cars on sale and why one person buys one car and another person buys something completely different. That perception of motor cars should surely be carried forward into the racing world because it's the same passion."

Lisles expanded on Haas's point that the people who work on race teams are highly motivated and skilled individuals with very competitive natures. "The vast majority of people who work in professional motor sport are technicians, engineers, fabricators, mechanics and pit crew, and all the people you need to do the job are competitive people," Lisles said. "They are in the sport because they like to feel they're part of winning. They like to feel that what they do contributes to the winning process and clearly a spec series will remove a significant amount of that satisfaction for them.

"Newman/Haas was formed in 1983 and a lot of love, care and attention from Carl and Berni Haas and Paul Newman has turned it into a very solid, professional team. They've invested in people and the majority of those people are competitive people whose reason for coming to work is to make a better car and put it together better than the next guy and make improvements, be they big or small, to beat the other guy. When you win a race they all get a lot of satisfaction from that. They all feel they made a contribution which, of course, they have.

"I think everybody who works at Newman/Haas Racing is a racer," Lisles continued. "Everybody will go the extra mile to put it over the other teams to win the race, to do the best we can or to dig ourselves out of a mess, whatever it is. They do it because they want to beat the other guy and if you take a spec series to its logical conclusion they will have no influence over any of the results. It will be purely about the driver. It becomes a very selfish contest for just the driver. All the other people who have to work as hard or harder to put on the event and make the cars run are essentially eliminated from the sporting contest.

"That's going against the whole nature of what it's supposed to be, which is a competition. A spec series runs against the concept of a natural sporting contest. You eliminate most of the people who are participating from genuinely being part of the competition.

"I'm sure if that's the way things go, given time, you will not have that element or the type of people who are currently in the sport preparing the cars. You would just have a bunch of people who were nine-to-fivers whose job is just to make sure the bolts are tight.

"I feel it's swimming against the tide of history and nature. It's like trying to make a ship fly or turn an aeroplane into a ship. You're not doing the right thing or using the right principles."

Lisles believes that if the spec car trend continues it could result in Newman/Haas and some other top Champ Car teams moving to other forms of racing. "If it goes the direction it seems to be going," Lisles noted, "all the equity which Carl has carefully assembled in people who have been here a long time and invested in and nurtured into a system that works reasonably well will all be for nothing. So the question becomes, what's the best thing to do? To dismantle the system, or to go use it somewhere else?

"Taken to its extremes, you're going to have one of two options. The established teams who have good, solid professional people who know how to make cars go better if they're allowed to change things are going to do one of two things. They're either going to dismantle their whole organization or certainly reduce its size very significantly or say, 'We've invested twenty years in all this talent, let's go somewhere where we can use it.'."

Traditionally, spec car formula also result in a big increase in cheating as everyone searches for some way to find more speed. "The other problem is inherently, the more spec the series, the worse the cheating," Lisles remarked. "We all know that every fourth race in NASCAR there's a huge furor in the garage area because somebody's been accused of cheating or has figured out a way to not meet the rules without anybody finding out. Now, of course, that's expensive, and the other thing is that a good thing to set yourself up for? Is it a good thing to make it inevitable that people are going to cheat?

"I think there are all sorts of practical reasons that at a professional level in a series with reasonable budgets and clever people working fulltime at it, the more spec it is, the more likely you're going to have a big cheating problem. So there are a number of practical reasons why you don't want a spec series. Every way I turn on this issue I bang my head on an unpleasant realization that spec racing at the kind of level all of us aspire to is not a very satisfactory solution."

Another key, but often overlooked point, is that the prize money in Champ Car these days is laughable. Many years ago big prize money used to define American racing. The original CanAm series thrived on handsome purses as did the Indy 500.

"Historically, in the sixties and seventies, that's why a lot of European drivers used to come to the United States to race," Lisles commented, "because there was much bigger prize money in the CanAm series and at Indianapolis. Colin Chapman didn't come and do Indy out of the goodness of his heart. He came because he could win in one race probably ten times what he could win during an entire Formula 1 season."

But today, the prize money and sponsorship in F1 and NASCAR is way ahead of IRL and Champ Car, in particular, which pays pathetic prize money. This is just another area where NASCAR has blown off open-wheel racing and there's no doubt that NASCAR's big purses provide a healthy attraction in their own right to drivers, teams, fans and media.

"Of course, the other way to attract people into a series is by making the expectation or the carrot to do well so big that you're willing to make the investment to go after the carrot," Lisles observed. "The classic example today is the Atlantic series. I think there are a very significant number of entries in that series, not because the car is cheap, but because of the $2 million prize for the champion. I think that brought these guys over from Europe to race in this year's Atlantic series, not the fact that there was a new, revitalized Atlantic formula. It's because if they could win the championship they were going to be given a tool to move up. So that's another way to attract people into a series. Give them a big carrot to win races or the championship.

"The $2 million Atlantic championship prize is probably an extremely good investment because just that one item has got the series on its feet. It's not the fact that it's a spec series. It's the big chance of a lifetime that people will jump for.

"My point is," Lisles concluded, "if we have a club racing-type spec car with a club racing-type award for winning the championship, you just poor-mouth yourself. You just lower expectations all-round. The financial gain for winning a race or a championship is not very high so there's not an attraction. If there was $1 million for winning every Champ Car race and a $10 million prize for the champion I guarantee you that you would have a bunch of teams come and take a shot at it. Like always, there's more than one way of making the fat lady sing."

I believe Lisles is correct in all his points. If American open-wheel racing ever is to thrive again the sport must be escalated, not retracted. The concept runs against the grain of many people in today's world and it will take some radical thinking and acting to achieve such a lofty goal. But it's imperative if American open-wheel racing is to be restored as a major league sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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