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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/ Death by a thousand cuts

by Gordon Kirby
In an attempt to right its foundering ship Champ Car last week promoted Tony Cotman to vice president of operations. Cotman is a very good man and I wish him the best of luck, but if Champ Car is to regain a serious position in the domestic and worldwide motorsports markets Cotman needs plenty of help in people, a stronger organization and good fortune.

It's also clear the organization made a mistake by focusing its efforts on adopting this year's Panoz spec car. Champ Car should have simply updated its old Lola chassis and put its main effort into establishing a far more solid schedule of races within the United States. This year's schedule is a disaster in that regard removing all hope of the organization regaining any position in the American media or public mind.

The sad fact is that Champ Car has lost its identity and fallen into the alphabet soup of mid-level, open-wheel formula with the likes of A1GP, the GP2 series and a bunch of other nondescript formulas around the world. From wondering where Champ Car was headed in recent years many fans have sadly transitioned over the past year or so to losing most if not all their interest in the Champ Car World Series. Fans everywhere tell me they've given up on Champ Car and just don't care anymore. The series has lost its cachet and the fans don't know or care about the drivers.

Today's Champ Car no longer is the great old CART Indy Car World Series so many fans fell in love with featuring a tremendous mix of ovals, road courses and street circuits. That blend of widely-differing tracks made CART unique in the world of motorsport and also made it, for a brief period of time, a worldwide TV rival for Formula 1. Another key factor was the panoply of star drivers from the Andrettis, Unsers and Foyt to Mears, Fittipaldi, Mansell, Rahal, Sullivan, Villeneuve and Zanardi. CART prospered because of superstar drivers racing on a tremendously wide range of tracks aboard a technically interesting selection of different cars and engines. But all of those elements have vanished.

The situation has become so dispiriting that a surprisingly large number of former Champ Car supporters have said to me in recent months that it might be best for the sport of Champ Car ceased to exist. These are people who have no faith in Tony George's misbegotten vision and are not fans of the IRL, yet many of them now think the only way forward is for Champ Car to die and everyone to assemble together in a de facto unified IRL.

Certainly, George believes that is ultimately what will happen. With the addition of a few road races and street races and Honda still committed, the IRL believes it is holding all the cards. But it's hard to ignore the fact that Watkins Glen last week was largely devoid of fans for the IRL race and that both open-wheel series suffer from a dire shortage of media coverage and fan interest. Will there be any interest left at all when one or the other series finally fails?

Today, Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy--now the most experienced of American open-wheel racers--are the only IRL or Champ Car drivers with any identifiability. Former Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon is unknown in his native country and with the coming of the Lewis Hamilton era Wheldon has been completely passed over in the UK. Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon also have impressive resumes from their years in CART and the IRL but they too remain unknown to the general public.

The same can be said for Sam Hornish whose move to NASCAR is expected to be announced any day now. Will Hornish be doomed to mediocrity in NASCAR? Let's hope not, but on the face of his Busch experiences so far, there's little reason to expect much else. Meanwhile, the IRL depends on Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick for its marquee value.

In Champ Car the names are even less well-known. Tracy remains the big name ahead of three-time champion Sebastien Bourdais who draws more boos than cheers these days. Champ Car's slim field has been bolstered by a bunch of well-seasoned young guys from the tough European school of F3, F3000, GP2 and F1 testing. This group includes Aussie Will Power and Frenchman Simon Pagenaud with Derrick Walker's team as well as Dutchman Robert Doornbos, Swiss Neel Jani and Frenchman Tristan Gommendy. Nice fellows and good racing drivers all, but entirely faceless in the United States.

But the problems run even deeper. During this year's Indy 500 Chip Ganassi told me his team's great run to four consecutive CART titles from 1996-1999 with Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya, mean nothing. "It's like everything from 1996 has been just erased," Chip said. "It's incredible. Nobody knows or cares about those days. I have tremendous affection for those days but as far as them having any sales power or commercial value, there isn't any!"

Ganassi then proceeded to tell me a story about two potential investors in his IRL team who visited his shop in Indianapolis this year. He gave them a tour, including showing them his team's CART and IRL championship and Indy 500 trophies with photos of Vasser, Zanardi and Montoya. They then drove to the Speedway to watch some practice and on the way Chip was befuddled to hear the potential investors ask him if he knew that European fellow who lost his legs in an accident a few years ago.

"You mean Zanardi?" Ganassi shot back. "That's Zanardi you're talking about! You just saw his trophies and his picture on the wall at the shop. Zanardi! You better believe he drove for me!"

Indeed, I recently read a story in a NASCAR magazine about Ganassi and his racing teams and it didn't even mention Zanardi or Vasser's names...

Former CART & Indy Lights team owner Steve Horne has been talked about as a potential candidate to try to get Champ Car and IRL to work together to steer a new course for American open-wheel racing.

"I'd love to get involved if they were really serious about rebuilding American open-wheel racing," Horne commented. "If they asked Mario (Andretti) to be involved and recruited two or three other really experienced people from the sport to make a serious commitment to it, I'd love to be involved. But I'm afraid I can't see that happening."

Horne and his wife Christine live in his native New Zealand during the northern winters and spend their summers at their American home in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Horne was at Indianapolis on race weekend this year and also took in this year's Cleveland Champ Car race.

"It was the first time in four years I'd been to a Champ Car race and I was shocked," he remarked. "It felt like I hadn't seen my mother in ten years and she'd changed so much I hardly recognized her. There are some nicely-presented teams but the whole scene is so reduced from what it was."

Horne's racing roots go back to the SCCA's Formula 5000 and 'new era' CanAm series in the late seventies and early eighties. He led VDS Racing and Geoff Brabham to the 1980 CanAm championship in the dying days of that series.

"I hate to say it, but it reminded me of the SCCA all over again," Horne observed about his trip to Cleveland. "It reminded me of GP2, or something like that. It's moved on to become something else we don't recognize. Really, it's like death by a thousand cuts."

Horne met Kevin Kalkhoven in Cleveland and the pair enjoyed a convivial chat. "I sat down with Kevin for probably an hour and a half, and I found him to be an interesting guy. But I didn't get a clear vision of where it's all going.

"Again," Horne added, "if they got serious about bringing the two groups together and really trying to rebuild the sport, there are a lot of experienced, good people who would love to jump in and help. But unfortunately, I just don't see it happening."

I've written a lot this year about green fuels and what the right formula for the future may be and it seems to me that the ultimate 'winner' in the war of attrition between IRL and Champ Car will be the organization which designs the right formula for the future, one that will attract manufacturers, teams and sponsors. Right now, Champ Car is not even part of that debate but in May of this year the IRL announced plans to develop its new formula for 2011 in company with Honda. If Champ Car wants to survive, much less thrive, it too must design a technologically-compelling formula for the future to replace its current, uninspiring spec car formula.

Of course, it would be very silly for both organizatons to attempt to launch different new formulas at roughly the same time. That would guarantee that one, or both, would fail. So again, the only way forward for the IRL and Champ Car is to come together to create a new formula for 2011. I know it's crazy to make this all too rational suggestion. But it's the only solution to the terrible damage twelve years of civil war have wreaked on American open-wheel racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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