Ground(ed) Effects

Indycar and general autosport opinion

I blame the NFL for ruining IndyCar.

The NFL has produced a model of professional major-sport competition so successful at being even-handed, it dares all other sports to match it. Baseball can’t touch it, Basketball’s popularity has fallen immensely, Hockey all but disappeared after their lockout season.  LOCKOUT SEASON?  Anyone remember a cancelled World Series?  Even one of the mightiest world sports – Football (yes, I mean Soccer, or shall I use ‘Futbol’ for clarity?), has major issues with where competition, revenue, and payroll all come together.

As much as I support equity through rules to enhance the product of competition, this model simply does not work in its current form for racing. The NFL is about direct person-to-person combat, and the management thereof. So similar is the mighty Futbol. They have inherent drama on a daily basis (I contend it is because EVERY game or match means something, but that is for another discussion). Racing is about one-up-‘person’-ship and the advancement of technologies. There’s nothing inherently fair about it.

I appreciate the IndyCar series for attempting what no other racing series had prior – make it as fair as possible for all who choose to participate. Never been done before. Scoffed at by the establishment. Ridiculed by those who represented the status quo. Ultimately adopted by other leagues who rely on weekly TV ratings for support. For this attempt at equity, I think Mr. Tony George can be commended.

Now in the matter of months since the last Indy 500, he’s nearly gone from the landscape (save for a beautiful facility called Indianapolis Motor Speedway), and the series seems energized with new drivers and ascending teams, but the time has come to look hard at the future of IndyCar and its essence.

As I think about all of the racing I’ve watched and what seems to touch racing fans the most is the ever-changing shape ‘of things to come’ (meaning ingenuity and forward-thinking) and the human-dramas that emerge from competition. Racing from its inception has been about being a working and competitive laboratory for various companies of the automotive industry. As we’ve seen in the past 25 years or so, it also can be used to promote unrelated consumer products and services through the mass media who use the human-dramas to capture the attention of the viewer.

Herein lies the question of seemingly divergent forces – is racing for development of the companies (of the automotive and related industry), is it for the entertainment of people (events/media coverage/ratings/sponsors/consumers), or can there be a suitable place where both of those forces can exist?

At its best, racing provides the thrills and excitement and inspiration of witnessing never before seen things, history in the making, and humans performing incredible feats of daring and skill right before our eyes. At its worst, racing is a platform for socio-economic elitism, dynastic control, and even the spectre of horrific death.

F1 provides some incredible feats of automotive technology at great costs, but often the on track product leaves observers at a loss for enjoyment. It also attempts to cater to a worldwide audience.  NASCAR has become truly little more than rolling billboards combined with all the dramatic performances of professional wrestling. The LeMans (and American LeMans) Series seems to blend the best of the two worlds – the racing of production-based cars and high-tech rolling automotive laboratory subjects. IndyCar would do well to fit between the automotive ingenuity and entertainment of ALMS, the pseudo-hype and over-saturation of NASCAR, and the cha-ching of F1 budget spending. 

“So then if ALMS is already doing it, why should IndyCar do it?”  A good, hard, and fair question. Part of me loves that IndyCar is steeped in the tradition and history that goes back 100 years, but does that mean it has the inherent right to survive? My answer would be ‘no’. My answer would be that, for IndyCar to survive it must evolve and by this I mean possibly partner with ALMS for the survival of all concerned. They already race on similar tracks, using similar parameters for performace, and have some of the best drivers of the world. Audi is already seeing the value of a LeMans victory and the technology used to promote its cars with great success. IndyCar could be on the forefront of the American automotive manufacturing revolution about to land on this country if it so chooses by adopting a similar set of rules, but by maintaining its open-wheeled chassis structure (and heritage). 

“What about the American oval course tradition?” As much as I hate to say it, but sorry folks, NASCAR won the battle of the ovals.  ‘Left-only’ racing in the U.S. of A. pretty much belongs to NASCAR for now. All but the glorious Indianapolis 500 and a few tiny dirt and asphalt tracks that dot the map of America.  Those famed tracks used to be the training grounds for a shot at glory in the Indy 500. That used to be the case, but that seems to have begun disintegrating in earnest somewhere in the mid-1980s. Much like LeMans or Monaco, the Indy 500 is truly an event, a grand event, perhaps the grandest of them all, but a series it does not make. Perhaps a very limited selection of great old ovals is all that should be saved on the schedule. Indy, Milwaukee, Pocono, Phoenix, Michigan (Pocono unlikely to host a race and the latter two currently owned by the NASCAR empire). Time and money have already eliminated too many historic greats such as Ontario and Nazareth. 

“So what’s next?”  I wish I knew. Parts of me are happy with the way things are actually: a basic entertainment-based series that has excellent drivers and competition and the Indy 500 to which I hope I never am forced to miss. Part of me wants things to evolve as well. Do I think the Delta Wing will be the savior? No. New chassis and engine package? maybe will help a little. Once upon a time way back in 2003 or so I think, I floated an idea on several racing boards with no real feedback. Perhaps now is the time…

My idea was (and I still think it to be a good and fairly simple one as it stands today) to have a Triple Crown of IndyCar racing: one Crown for points accumulated on ovals, one Crown for streets/roads, and one overall Crown for ‘The IndyCar Champion’. This would allow smaller budget teams to race aggressively on just ovals (and re-tap into the legions of small trackers all over the country), or twisties with their own following, as they so choose or budget will allow.  

The big debate about the best overall would be settled (or not) via the overall champion.  Each crown would carry an individual sponsorship (i.e. Miller Beer for Ovals, Heineken for Roads) which pays each winning team a tidy sum and the Overall Champion would get a big, fat cardboard check from IZOD as it would stand currently.

I certainly don’t envy what Mr. Bernard has gotten himself into, because there is a significant chance that with the new chassis rules forthcoming, the good-new days of equity and price-fixing may be coming to an end for the sake of variety and ingenuity.  At any rate, here’s to hoping he finds all of us a way out of the dark and into a nice, healthy IndyCar for years to come.

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