Presented by Racemaker Press

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

The Way It Is/ An open letter to the President-elect

by Gordon Kirby
Dear Mr. President-elect,

I am writing to ask for your help in turning around the sad state of big-time automobile racing in America. In recent years major league American auto racing has suffered a precipitous decline in crowds and TV ratings. A once great American sport has become minor league with little or no impact on the country's popular culture.

NASCAR is by far the most popular and successful form of professional racing in America. NASCAR boomed through the nineties and into the 21st century. Many new tracks were built around the country but in recent years NASCAR has been struggling with declining crowds and TV numbers.

Over the last half-dozen years NASCAR's TV numbers have been in steady decline and the trend continued in 2016. Many races were down substantially from 2015 and the year's last dozen races, including all the 'Chase for the Cup' races, plunged to record low ratings.

© Nigel Kinrade
NASCAR continues to enjoy star power from its top drivers but it's going through a big transition right now with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart retiring and Dale Earnhardt Jr. possibly facing the end of his career after missing almost half of the 2016 season because of a concussion. Without doubt, Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt are NASCAR's biggest modern stars and it appears that their departure from the track is already having an effect on crowds and TV ratings.

NASCAR enjoys American racing's biggest and best TV package. NASCAR is in the opening years of a pair of ten year contracts with NBC and Fox through 2024 worth more than $8 billion. So NASCAR enjoys room to find a way to rebound before the time comes to renew its TV contracts.

Monster energy drink comes on board in 2017 as NASCAR's new series sponsor replacing Sprint. There are hopes that Monster will add some marketing power and help grow NASCAR's dwindling youth audience which all forms of motor racing are struggling to attract.

NASCAR's greatest current star is Jimmie Johnson who won his seventh championship in 2016, equaling the tallies of NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson has won 80 races since he started racing in NASCAR's top series sixteen years ago. He's a superb driver, a gentleman and family man, born and bred on Southern California's dirt tracks. Johnson is a first-class ambassador for NASCAR and American auto racing as a whole.

Johnson drives for Charlotte-based Hendrick Motorsport, owned by auto dealer and entrepreneur Rick Hendrick. Hendrick started his team thirty years ago and has established his operation as NASCAR's gold standard by winning a dozen championships and a total of 240 races. You should meet with Johnson, Hendrick and Jeff Gordon to discuss the challenges NASCAR faces and appreciate their knowledge and value as representatives of the American racing industry.

You should also meet with Brian France and his sister Lesa France Kennedy who run NASCAR. Brian and Lesa's grandfather Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR in 1949 and his son Bill Jr. took over the reins in 1972. Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. ran NASCAR with an iron fist as they expanded NASCAR from a Southern sport into a national phenomenon. Bill Jr. retired in 2003 and passed away in 2007. With the right moves NASCAR surely can regain its glory days under Bill Sr. and Bill Jr's dynamic, hands-on leadership.

Meanwhile, the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar has been battling an even steeper decline in popularity than NASCAR as a result of a civil war between two competing leagues, CART and IRL, that went on from 1996-2007. This battle all but destroyed Indy car racing. More than forty individual races failed during this time. Amid an embattled environment, the series lost brand identity, credibility and media coverage.

Thirty years ago the Indy 500 enjoyed healthy double digit TV ratings but those numbers have dwindled to just above or below a 4.0 rating in recent years. The Indy 500 still draws a big crowd on race day, but many regular IndyCar races don't do well at the gate and struggle to pull half a point in TV ratings. Overall media coverage is equally thin.

© Steve Swope
Another result of the CART/IRL civil war was the decimation of America's Indy car industry. Today's Indy cars are all built to a low-cost formula by Dallara in Italy. In fact, it's very sad to report that the last time an American-built car won the Indy 500 was in 1982, a third of a century ago!

The most successful IndyCar team owner is Roger Penske whose team has won 16 Indy 500s and 14 IndyCar championships. Team Penske celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016 and won the IndyCar championship with Simon Pagenaud, one of Penske's four IndyCar drivers. Penske also runs a top NASCAR team, winning the 2012 NASCAR championship with Brad Keselowski. Penske is also a tremendously successful businessman. Penske Corporation employs more than 50,000 people around the world in the automobile sales and truck leasing and logistics businesses.

Team Penske is based in Mooresville, North Carolina, while Penske Corporation's headquarters are in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. You should meet Roger Penske to discuss the auto racing and transportation industries. I'm sure you would find it a very interesting and invigorating meeting.

You should also meet with Chip Ganassi and Bobby Rahal, two more top IndyCar team owners. Ganassi's team has won 11 IndyCar championships and four Indy 500s. Ganassi also runs a top NASCAR team and a very successful long-distance sports car racing team competing in the IMSA Weathertech series. Ganassi's IMSA team scored an impressive debut win in the GT class at this year's Le Mans 24 hour race in France with a team of factory-backed Ford GT cars. Ganassi is based in Pittsburgh.

Rahal won the 1986 Indy 500 as a driver and also won three IndyCar championships. Today he runs a top IndyCar team with his son Graham doing the driving. Rahal also runs a factory-backed BMW team in America's IMSA sports car series and operates a chain of automobile dealerships across Ohio and Pennsylvania. Rahal lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Another man you should meet is Jay Frye, IndyCar's president of competition and operations. Frye took on his new job last year and he's gained everyone's respect as a serious, sober-minded man who is working hard to develop a plan to rebuild the American Indy car industry and bring competition and innovation back to the sport. I'm sure Mike Pence can open the doors to anyone else you wish to meet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or IndyCar.

I also have to draw your attention to America's stunning contemporary failure in international motor racing. Ganassi's class win with Ford at Le Mans this year was a great boost for the USA in international racing. Sadly however, the last time an all-American combination of cars, team and drivers won the Le Mans 24 Hours was back in 1967--fifty years ago next June--when Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt scored an historic win for Ford.

© Gary Gold
Equally sad, the last time an American driver won the Formula 1 World Championship was Mario Andretti in 1978--almost forty years ago--and the last time an American stood on the podium at a Formula 1 race was when Mario's son Michael finished third in the 1993 Italian Grand Prix. So America cries out to be recreated as a serious, respected competitor in international motor racing.

To better understand everything I've discussed in this open letter you should meet with Mario Andretti who enjoyed one of auto racing's most spectacular and diverse careers before retiring in 1994. Andretti won the 1978 World Championship, three Indy car championships in 1965, '66 and '69, the 1969 Indy 500, the 1967 Daytona 500 and three Sebring 12 Hour races. Mario is a bright, charming man who lives in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Nobody can inform you more about the sport.

And of course, you should also meet with Bernie Ecclestone, the London-based boss of Formula 1 who has always dreamed of having a Grand Prix race in New York City. Ecclestone also wants to expand Formula 1's poor presence in the United States. Bernie is a renowned deal-maker and I'm sure you would enjoy a meeting and discussion with the man.

In closing, I must point out that across America and around the world there's more participation than ever in a wider range of motorsports as a whole. Something new is always coming down the road.

It's important to understand that there are more than 200 sanctioning bodies running auto racing series across the United States for every imaginable type of race car, including drag racing, off-road racing, midget and sprint cars, stock cars, modifieds, sports cars, vintage and historic racing, etc. Auto racing enjoys tremendous diversity but this is also the sport's biggest weakness. It's a fractious world where everyone fights for their own turf or market without any overall leadership. The industry needs some nudging from the outside to push it in the right direction.

I'm well aware that you have plenty on your plate, but you might find some meetings with the racing personalities I've suggested to be salubrious, thought-provoking experiences. And it might prove to be a good thing for America's automobile racing industry.

Sincerely, Gordon Kirby

*I'm taking my traditional holiday break over the next few weeks and want to thank my regular readers for your continued interest and enthusiastic support. It's always a pleasure to talk to you at the races and book signings. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and happy and prosperous New Year. I'll be back on January 9th.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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