Indy Star Begs For Series Merger

Posted by Iannucci | 9/15/2006 | 10 comments »
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They want the quick fix. They want the magic pill. They want to believe all of Tony George’s horses and all of Kevin Kalkhoven’s men can put the Humpty Dumpty of open-wheel racing together again.

Well, Humpty Dumpty is a fairy tale, folks.

I admit it, I am in the minority. I not only fail to follow the thinking of the idea of merging the IRL and ChampCar, but I also mock those slobbering over the idea by calling them Eunuchs of Reunification. While the Indianapolis Star takes the time today (when the IRL season is over and no one is really looking, I might add) to release an editorial pleading for a single series, I remain an Indy Racing League flack arguing against the presumed glory of the long overdue reunification.

I accept your disagreement, but please – once and for all – hear me out.

As I understand it the argument for merging the two series goes thusly: more cars in races, more combined fans, a single point-of-reference for sponsors, coverage in all markets, more money resulting from all this for everyone. Did I get everything in there? Good.

OK, to me there are three sets of issues with the whole concept of merger. The first is the issues from the fans’ point of view, and those are all the things covered above. Fans want more cars, more races, even more fans to celebrate the races and cars. I get that, and nothing would make me happier than seeing more cars, more fans, more popularity. And yet, I can’t help but think the underlying presumption is just silly. There are very LOUD fans from both series who slander the other series with various epithets (check out any IRL or CCWS message board), and though the vocal ones do not represent the entirety of the two groups of fans they show very plainly that there are distinct differences between them.

On the one hand are CCWS fans, who are largely Formula One racing fans as well. They are deeply in love with the International aspect of racing and the pageantry of racing through the streets of cities or on famed worldwide road courses. Not only do they want to see drivers negotiate chicanes, they like saying “chicane”. They even prefer to see their drivers jump back and forth from Champ Car to F1 so as to view the two series as some sort of parallel.

On the other hand are IRL fans, who do not exactly shun International drivers but generally prefer American drivers from towns with names like Defiance, Ohio. They want fast racing, loud racing, and racing where they can see as much of the track as possible. They want one thing above all else that road course driving lacks: passing. High-speed, wheel-to-wheel, three-wide passing.

Simply put the two sets of fans have entirely different ideas of what makes a good race, and given the popularity of oval-based racing in NASCAR it would seem the formula for broad appeal in America resides somewhere other than all those single-lane road course parades Champ Car features. Merging would presumably add more road courses, which is more racing Americans would not watch.

The second set of issues is the technical aspects, which are largely brushed over by the Eunuchs. While the vehicles from the two look similar, people forget these are in fact different cars. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a big deal made about a chassis, but the new Panoz DP01 that Champ Car will use next year is a superior design…for road courses. It hasn’t been tested for ovals, and Champ Car will not be racing on any ovals in 2007. So in order to merge, someone would have to convince (read: pay) all the CCWS owners to get a Dallara chassis as well in order to compete on all the ovals.

Ask yourself this: how full will the fields be if teams have to purchase TWO DIFFERENT sets of chassis to compete? Do you think Panther, D&R or Foyt can operate with those costs? Does AGR want to pay for parts and people to maintain EIGHT different cars?

The third set of issues is financial, which are COMPLETELY ignored by the Eunuchs. I’m not talking about car affordability, but rather return on investment. The main financial issue is that one series is owned by a track owner and the other series is owned largely by engine manufacturers. The fiscal commitment is totally different for these types of owners, because one needs only one race on their track while the other needs to be involved in every race.

Currently Honda is the sole supplier of power plants to the Indy Racing League. Suppose tomorrow they want to tear up the contract and walk away. There would be lawsuits and a public backlash against Honda, so there a reasonable deterrent against them proceeding down that path.

Now, suppose the Champ Car guys who own Cosworth agree to merge. Surely one of those presumptions would be that they would supply the new league with Cosworth engines. Now suppose those are inferior engines to Honda or any other manufacturer. Do the Cosworth guys quit the series knowing they can’t compete if the specifications aren’t changed? And what of other manufacturers if the Cosworths are not inferior? What is their motivation for Honda to compete in a series where the playing field will always be leveled for Cosworth since that manufacturer effectively co-owns the series?

You can not have an engine manufacturer (or chassis manufacturer) co-own a series with the expectation other manufacturers will participate. Any other manufacturer knows the rules of the game will always favor the house.

And yet, none of these issues is covered in the Star’s editorial. They want to rub the bottle of whatever Robin Miller is drinking and hope a genie comes out and grants everyone the wish that open-wheel racing will return to the days of old and NASCAR will go back to being series of Good ‘Ol Boys.

Well the genie came out in 1996 but he granted the wish to NASCAR, and you can’t put him back in the bottle. I am not happy the leagues split and I’ve watched as open-wheel racing has slid in popularity, but what’s done is done. An honest look at the facts shows there is no going back to the glory days of CART by simply unifying two series. It won’t happen, and the best path for the Indy Racing League is to focus attention on marketing and not all this unification nonsense. They should go the hard road and continue to build a fan base through marketing their best assets. Market the speed, market the wheel-to-wheel racing, and for goodness sakes market the personalities of the drivers.

Merging does none of that. It may give the illusion of more cars, but smaller teams from both series would surely go away. It may give the presumption of more fans, but the oval fans won’t watch all the road races, and vice versa. It may even give a few teams a major sponsor, but that won’t last if the television ratings don’t rise.

Here’s my editorial: If Tony George is looking at ten cars in a field and survival is the main issue than sure, merge the series. But if not, if it means tilting the series to Cosworth, if we’re talking about adding more road/street courses, and if it means creating a set of expectations that won’t be met, then please do not go into business with Champ Car. The Indy Racing League is the most exciting racing on the planet, and it makes no sense to ruin that racing in favor of an uncertain promise of a bump in viewership.

Pardon the cliche, but Just Say No.

10 comments

  1. MoneyCJ // September 15, 2006 10:38 AM  

    Dude--seriously. This is one of the best posts ever. Excellent points.

    You should also send it as a letter to Tony...and cut it down and submit as a Letter to the Editor of the Star...

  2. Erika // September 15, 2006 10:38 AM  

    Very, very persuasive arguments. As a fairly new IndyCar fan (since 2004), I don't have strong opinions on the merger perhaps because I wasn't a fan and so I wasn't paying attention before the split. I think you are dead-on with your description of the typical IndyCar fan. What true IndyCar fan isn't a bit (or very) disappointed when the race of the week is a road course? I live in California and so I was sure to attend the only California event this season, Infineon, but my love of ovals prompted me to fly to Nashville in the ridiculously hot month of July just so that I could see one race on an oval this year. The louder and faster the better - and heck yeah, I want to see a lot of passing, and need to see the whole track! I agree with you that Tony George's time would be much better spent figuring out how to effectively market the IRL product and drivers. Every time I watch a race I am just dumbfounded that the awesomeness of IndyCar racing seems to be such a well-kept secret.

  3. pressdog // September 15, 2006 11:21 AM  

    I think the two will eventually have to merge or become much smaller in stature than they are now. Sorry, but there it is. The Star is right that nither series can survive as they are now with just us hard-cores watching. If the two series stay apart, they have to become much more affordable for teams. The ROI for sponsors is just not there. Our mutual love for the IRL and open-wheel does not suspend the laws of economics. The DP01 car is a fabulous step toward affordability. You cannot deny Champ Car and Panoz props for developing a car that is as fast, as safe and 40% cheaper to run. The IRL doesn't seem to be doing any meaningful cost-cutting moves. I would at least like to see a common engine and chassis spec for both series so that the teams have the option of competing in each other's events, especially the 500. I also agree that street/road races will never, ever, ever fly as a mainstream racing series in the U.S. We're an oval people. Millions of people attend tracks around the country every Saturday night, many off them covered with dirt, and none of them are street courses. As things stand today, merging seems goofy. But things change. I think they have to change for open-wheel to survive and compete with NASCAR.

  4. Joe // September 15, 2006 12:53 PM  

    I've been waiting on the IndyCar Series to start marketing since 1996. It occurs to me that, after ten years, the real issue is that the product isn't something the American public wants to see. It pains me to say that, but it seems more likely the case than to say "it's just bad marketing".

    pressdog is right - the costs are completely out of whack. The best saying I saw was that open wheel racing wanted steak on a hamburger budget. ChampCar's new car makes better economic sense, but on the flip side, they dropped ovals and I suspect their prices are somewhat subsidized. Combined, that cuts damage costs to some degree (unless Alex Tagliani is driving your car).

    Now, maybe if the IndyCar Series can keep Sam and Danica and Marco for their entire careers, that's a start. It's the next generation of drivers, who will beat Sam/Danica/Marco, who your hopes are on. The IndyCar Series can't afford to let drivers head anywhere.

    As far as ovals/road courses, the problem is that the drivers that millions of people see on their local ovals... never end up at the Indy 500. The sole short-track driver in the IndyCar Series right now is Ed Carpenter.

  5. Jeff Iannucci // September 15, 2006 1:40 PM  

    Good points, and thanks for taking the time to thoughtfully articulate them. I agree the marketing has always been less than desired, that the costs of supporting a team have become prohibitive, and that current TV Ratings may reflect this may indeed be the most viewership available to open-wheel racing in this Golden Age of NASCAR.

    Where I will not agree is believeing that merging with a series featuring boring parade-style races with almost no American drivers that has to pay to have their races televised will change any of that mentioned above. Adding the baggage of Champ Car would seem to devalue what product remains rather than building upon what is worthwhile in the IRL.

    If Champ Car had a huge TV contract, a bunch of major sponsors, exciting race tracks or even a few marketable drivers then it makes sense to merge. As it is, all they have Paul "Nacho Libre" Tracy fighting with faceless, helmeted drivers.

  6. Jahuti Rhys // September 15, 2006 5:47 PM  

    Great points, doode.
    Road courses vary a lot in fan-friendliness. Tracks like Road America and to a lesser extent, Laguna Seca, don't have a lot of the track visible from any one point; they are strictly driver's courses. Others, like Portland, Cleveland and Sonoma were laid out so that nearly all of the course is visible from one point.
    I agree: single-lane road courses are boring, but so are single-lane ovals.
    As to engines: why is everyone so set on a standard engine? Cosworth may not be as capable of making a competitive engine as Honda, but that is just another form of competition. Everybody driving the same car is boring too, ya know.
    Back in the old days of Indy, there were the Offenhausers, the stock-block V8s and other oddities, like the turbines.
    And you are right about needing to promte the drivers. That has been completely ignored by George, Inc.
    Of course, you need raw material to work with, and some drivers have it, like Danica et al, and some don't, like poor Sarah who, bless her heart, is about as plain-jane as you can get.
    Need more PR and something to cheer about. Just merging is not going to make that happen.

  7. Erika // September 15, 2006 8:10 PM  

    Maybe I'm just in denial, but I have a hard time believing that we've reached maximum possible viewership for IndyCar. The NASCAR explosion shows that there are a ton of people out there who enjoy watching oval racing, and thus I just can't believe that the IndyCar product couldn't be far more successful. I've been to one NASCAR race and went with a truly open mind, but the experience was nothing compared to being at an IndyCar race. I realize that all fans don't have to like the same type of racing, but I have a hard time understanding why people who are already disposed to enjoy oval racing would be drawn to NASCAR by the hundreds of thousands, but only minimally drawn to IndyCar. I have to think that the NASCAR marketing machine is a huge factor in their success. Unfortunately, the IRL just doesn't seem to have that same expertise.

  8. Evlk // September 16, 2006 9:30 AM  

    Here here, someone FINALLY refuses to drink the magic CCWS elixir, err, Kool-Aid...and ask the people in Jonestown what happens to those who drink THAT. Hint - it isn't some giant gayly-fluorescent pitcher breaking through the wall and going "oh yeahhhhhhhh"

    But I digress. Other than the soon-to-be projected advantage of operating costs (which is somewhat diminished over the first few years by the initial buy-in) - what exactly does CCWS offer to the IRL?

    Their "marquee" events are largely public-subsidized affairs and we all know even the best-attended and longest-running of street races are subject to the whims of local politicians (see Detroit- Belle Isle) Their TV coverage and penetration are negligible without a major network package (and be assured that ESPN is in 3X as many American homes as Speed) and the drivers of the series are largely faceless European F-1 ladder rejects (with the exception of the Frog Fighter and maybe-Nascar-Red Bull-bound 'Dinger)

    Remember Boulder Sam, Buddy Rice, Jeff Simmons, Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon were all left high and dry by the CART "ladder" system.

    So with the exception of the projected lower operating costs forward, what exactly does CCWS bring to the table? Will a merger set off anything more than a collective shrug of the collective shrug of the shoulders of the American public? And no matter how it is dissected, there will be some excellent racing locales left dormant by a merged schedule.

    Finally, I am left wondering why the merger needs to happen now - as in 10 years later? Will a combined series ever even shadow the NASCAR behemoth? Not likely...

    Additionally, everyone can say what the want, but honestly I believe that this year after substantial decline in interest that I can see an upswing in both series as they have fine-tuned distinct identities.

  9. Joe // September 18, 2006 4:22 PM  

    Speed Channel did a poll that showed 85% of folks want to see a merger. That's such an insanely large margin you can't ignore it.

    There will never be a distinct identity. It's American open wheel racing, the cars practically look the same, and neither series can explain why Marco & Danica appear one weekend and Tracy and Bourdais appear the next weekend.

    A merger is a good PR move if the folks behind it actually made a push towards not only new fans, but all the old fans who got sick of fighting billionaires and checked out.

    For instance, do something like free admission on Friday and 2-for-1's on Saturday's at all the three day events. Seems to me that would be a much better use of money than subsidizing teams.

    As far as what to do regarding driver interest, a rule that all two-car teams (in both big & feeder series) must field one American driver would help. I'd go even further and require two Americans on three and four car teams.

    Yes, it's xenophobic, but American fans want to see American drivers. Plus, requiring American drivers will boost their negotiating position, raising what they're paid, which can only help when you've got the lure of NASCAR.

  10. CPN // January 14, 2008 3:05 AM  

    Couple of things.

    1) Regarding IRL, has anyone mentioned how bad ABC/ESPN's coverage sucks? Please, please, PLEASE, someone make Scott Goodyear just go away. Get some real racing coverage and it will do wonders for the excitement factor.

    I used to like NASCAR, but FOX's lowest-common-denominator approach, while appealing to the Wal-Mart crowd is grating.

    It's gotten so bad that I get my racing fix by watching MotoGP via Bit Torrent downloads of ITV in Europe. Now THAT's some good coverage.

    2) CCWS is nothing but poor-man's F1. Looking at the cancelled races from last season and the lack of confirmed entries for this season, it truly has become the world's most expensive club racing series, previously occupied by sports cars. (Which is a shame. I really do like good road racing on natural terrain circuits.)