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

 

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