THE ROAD MORE TRAVELLED

I have been a fan of Jeff Gordon since I first saw him race a winged sprint car when he was still a teenager. While I tend to be curmudgeonly and cynical about the current state of racing this article is meant to sincere. Jeff won his fifth Brickyard 400 this past weekend and seems bound for another Cup Championship. One might say that this win was another of the many “coincidences” in the history of NASCAR I’ll leave that angle to others in this particular case.

I know this next statement will raise many hackles but I will say it anyway. Jeff Gordon is the greatest driver in the history of NASCAR. He was the harbinger of the greatest era in NASCAR (though the glow is fading fast). Jeff opened the eyes of many open wheel fans to stock car racing and TV contracts grew, attendance peaked, driver salaries maxed, and NASCAR became a household word. For American drivers the road to NASCAR became “the road more travelled.” Open wheel racing became an also-ran.

But what might have been if Jeff had stayed with his roots. This is all purely conjecture on my part but it is fun to speculate. I certainly don’t think that if Jeff had climbed the open wheel ladder to IndyCar or F1 he would have completely changed the course of racing history, no one driver could do that, but I think he would have succeeded and many more fans and drivers would have followed. Even further, what would have been Jeff’s results? Once again this is pure conjecture. Would he have won multiple Indy 500s? Could he have been a multiple World Champion? I think yes. The question is, would this have been a greater legacy? I also think yes to that.

I’m sure that Jeff has no regrets. He took what some would say a safer, more secure path, but we need to remember that he was a pioneer venturing into somewhat unknown territory. Clearly Jeff’s career is not over and the talent is still there. Good luck to him in the future. His NASCAR legacy is unsurpassed and nothing can change that. It’s just intriguing to consider what his career, IndyCar, and F1 might look like today if he had chosen the other path.

© throughthecatchfence 2014

NEW SCORING TOWER – SAME OLD SPEC CARS

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has unveiled it’s new scoring pylon. A new high tower to score the same old spec cars year after year. Apparently this new tower is capable of projecting advertising and thus bring more dollars into the Speedway coffers and help offset the catastrophic losses of the IRL era. High tech scoring towers don’t bring fans to the track the racing does. The money could be better spent investing in the series by increasing purses or reducing sanctioning fees. Another clear cut example of IMS’s misplaced priorities and myopic vision.

SIGN OF THE TIMES?

Monday July 21, 2014, USA Today Mobile edition, Sports Section, only reference to Indy Car racing is article about death of James Garner. There are articles about the Tour de France and the Boston Marathon but absolutely no reference to the 2 IndyCar races in Toronto. I will not comment on the races because I do not watch street races. Having watched the highlights it appears that there was a good deal of crashing. If you can’t be good be spectacular. I wonder if the TV rating were even in the measurable range?

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON THE “RAIN OUT” IN TORONTO

1- Tell me again why they make rain tires?
2- Tell me again why they make up things as they go along?
3- Tell me again why the paying fans always get screwed? Shorter races, 1 less Q session, race starting at 10:30 so anyone who wants to go to church has to decide between church and race?
4- Tell me again why they don’t start the race at 1:00 and give themselves some leeway? That’s easy – it’s the time slot NBCSN doesn’t have MMA scheduled.
5- Tell me again why they schedule street races when there are all the great road courses and ovals?
6- Tell me again that IndyCar will still be around in 5 years and I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can let you have for a very reasonable price.

DÉJÀ VU

 

 

“Generally there is agreement that something is wrong with our sport – it is not reaching its full potential by any means, and there is great need for a change!” ……”Our sport has the potential to be financially rewarding and healthy from a business standpoint for all participants. Many of the car owners and team directors are excellent and very successful businessman in their own lives outside of racing.”

These words were not written about IndyCar last week or last year, but could have been.  These words, written by Dan Gurney in 1978 in his “White Paper” on the state of Indy Car racing, continue to resonate.

At that time Indy Car racing was sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC). Gurney did not advocate for a change in sanctioning organization.  He advocated for the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) to represent the teams in negotiating with tracks, sponsors and other stakeholders to ensure the overall health and financial fairness of the sport. CART failed because the team owners refused to appoint a strong leader and place their collective power in him to act on their behalf with their full consent and approval assumed. Instead they continued to follow the path of self-interest to the point where self-interest became self-destruction.

Ultimately it was all about power,  control, and greed.  As the years passed there was a period of relative calm with CART gaining more power and demanding more of the the rewards.  The egos at 16th and Georgetown would not be satisfied with anything less than total control.  They refused to budge.  CART took its marbles and went elsewhere to play.  The nuclear option was invoked and the split occurred.  It was as if Solomon said “cut the baby in half” and both mothers agreed. The war of attrition effectively bankrupted everybody involved  One can say the IRL won the war but it remains a pyrrhic victory.

There was a feeling of elation in the Indy racing ranks when the so called “reunification” occurred in 2008. Call it what you like it was merely a matter of the IRL having less empty pockets and buying the assets of Champ Car.  The elation only lasted until everyone realized we were back in 1978 with IMS running everything as a benevolent dictator.  Eventually Tony George’s excessive spending to prop up Indy racing brought dissension within the Hulman family.  Since then IndyCar has gone though multiple management changes and several title sponsors.  The only thing consistent is inconsistency.

There have been many changes in Indy Car racing in the last 35 years, most of them for the worse, with the notable exception of safety improvements. The self-destructive greed of everyone involved for an ever larger piece of an ever shrinking pie has landed us right back where we started.  Until the management of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway comes to the realization that, even though the Indy 500 is the most valuable asset of the sport, the best way to protect that asset is to develop a viable series with sponsorship, profit making teams, satisfied track owners and enthusiastic fans.  IMS has to understand that it needs a healthy series every bit as much as the series needs the Indy 500.

The essential component for the health of the series is a core fan base.  IndyCar has seen its core fan base dispersed to NASCAR, sports car racing and back to the short tracks. Unfortunately, IndyCar seems to think it can establish fan interest with rock concerts and fan fests.  These may sell a few  tickets but do not create core fans and core fans are different than casual spectators.  In the end you need both but it is the core fan base that keeps you going year after year.

I hear some fans saying that we should be happy with what we have; that the current state of the sport is the best we can expect.  I disagree.  The series can recover its former fan base and grow by taking a few easy, but drastic, steps.  Phase out the spec cars as quickly as possible and introduce a new rule book allowing both factory and self designed chassis powered by production based engines. The only spec component would be a safety/survival cell provided by the series, at cost. In the interim allow the prior generation Dallara, powered by production based engines, to compete. The new rules would prohibit carbon fiber and other exotic materials outside of the safety/survival cell.  Computers would be limited to engine CPUs with no electronics in the steering, suspension, braking, or gear change components.  Cost controls must be strictly enforced to keep the playing field level.  Put the cars back in the hands of the engineers and the racing back in the hands of the drivers.

In the short term we would see larger fields of cars which will open up opportunities for more drivers and for a new generation of designers and tuners to develop chassis and engines for the next generation of Indy cars. In the long term we would see innovation and variety in the fields with decreased costs.

 

©2014 William L. Rottner

 

POCONO WOES

I agree with Paul Tracy’s assessment that the series needs marketing and promotion. I do not agree with him on the quality of the “product”. I believe the reason the core fan base left and hasn’t returned falls squarely on the poor quality of the “product”. The cars are spec, ugly and slow; and we’re stuck with them for years to come. The new lights car is a much better design. Car counts are miserable. Why would anyone pay good money to see 21 cars get lost on a 2.5 mile speedway? They never should have shown that snippet from the 84 race during the broadcast, it just emphasized the smallness of the field. The drivers, for the most part are corporate robot, rock star wannabes. All you have to do is follow them on Twitter and see their obsession with $200k supercars, $10k watches $1k headphones. This is a complete disconnect with the fans who are trying to figure out how their going to pay for gas to get to a track. The ownership/management is directly aligned with IMS. Their position is that the series exists solely for the purpose of supporting the Speedway and the other races are unimportant. Officiating is inconsistent and arbitrary.

Unless there is a complete paradigm shift the IndyCar series will continue its death spiral.