Several days ago John Oreovicz of ESPN.com posted an article which struck me as nothing short of silly. Not only was the piece yet another lamentation on the lack of an open-wheel series unification by yet another prominent auto racing writer, but the author decided he would rank the “culprits” for holding the sport “hostage”. While Oreo did put a creative spin on the “please unify now” genre, his list induced such eye-rolling that I was compelled to write my own list.
However, a funny thing happened after I posted my response. The next day an email popped into my Inbox with the subject “Greetings from Oreo”, containing several thoughtful and polite responses to my post. It seems Mr Oreovicz not only read my reply but also understood that my piece was a parody, and that despite our obvious disagreements he wanted to further clarify his views in an entirely civil way. Color me shocked, because it’s not every day a writer for ESPN.com and National Speed Sport News drops a meaningful note to your humble host.
Anyhow, since he is one of the more widely read scribes of IndyCar racing I extended to Oreo an invitation for an interview that might better allow him to personally explain his viewpoints – not just to me but to you gracious and loyal readers as well. He agreed and is eagerly awaiting your comments. Seriously, he is. And in case you were wondering, he really does sign his emails “oreo”.
Oreo very much deserves credit for answering questions that aren’t exactly softballs. For this he has my sincerest appreciation, although that certainly doesn’t mean he’s suddenly converted me to his way of thinking on road racing or Champ Car or unification. So here for your enjoyment is my
thorough grilling modest discussion with the man for whom I have a newly found respect despite the fact that his nickname is indeed a four-letter word.
Q: This discussion was initiated by your “13 years held hostage” article. With all sorts of possible subjects to write about in January (Sarah Fisher’s prospects for starting a new team, Tomas Scheckter’s search for a ride, Dan Wheldon’s stunning new teeth) why did you decide to write a finger-pointing type of story?
A: This is a story that was percolating in my head for many months. I remember bouncing the idea off of Robin Miller and some other colleagues this summer, stirring them up by saying “I think I’m going to put Michael Andretti at Number 2.” FYI, Robin and almost everyone else I know thinks Roger Penske belongs as the runner up to Tony George on the list. Anyway, I never got around to writing it this summer and when the slow season really started to drag, I ended up starting to work on it between Christmas and New Year’s. I filed it at 10:46 p.m. on New Year’s Eve - the ESPN.com editors must have had a laugh at my lack of a life, on my birthday to boot! As for Sarah or Scheckter or Buddy Rice or anybody else, they’re not close enough to having a deal to talk about anything specific. And I’ll leave Dan Wheldon’s chompers to TMZ and OK! Magazine.
Q: You’ve read my reply to your article, so you know we are not exactly of the same mind on this issue. What’s the best argument you could make to me in the interest of both the CCWS and the IRL for Tony George to say “I’ve decided I was wrong with this IRL thing so I’m writing a ridiculous check to the CCWS guys, cancelling Motegi and Watkins Glen so we can take on the Long Beach and Toronto events, and sending floral assortments to all those kind folks at the Champ Car Fanatics site.”?
A: Well, that’s just not going to happen. Champ Car is not in any position to win the war. I just don’t see it happening, no matter how much of their own money that Forsythe and Kalkhoven throw at their series. The latest news (Tony Cotman quits, Rafa Matos turns down a $2 million Champ Car bonus to make a lateral move to the IPS) are just more circumstantial evidence that Champ Car is near the end. However, I do believe that to appease the CCWS hardliners (still a vocal and significant group), Tony needs to publicly accept some responsibility for the IRL’s direct role in the decline of the sport over the last 12 years. The Champ Car fan base needs to hear that so they can start the process of forgiving and forgetting. I think the absolute best thing that open-wheel fans can hope for is that Tony would help find a way to put an end to Champ Car gracefully by incorporating the best that CCWS has to offer - say Long Beach, Toronto, Cleveland and Surfers Paradise, half a dozen key teams and Cosworth engines - into the IRL. To me, the challenge is: How can Champ Car be put to rest without ruffling Kalkhoven and Forsythe’s egos. If the two sides were collectively putting effort into something like that now, they could certainly be ready to make an announcement by mid-season that open-wheel racing will be back together under the IRL banner in 2009. If the general impression that comes from that is that Champ Car lost, so be it. Because if the status quo continues, everyone involved will be a loser sooner rather than later.
Q: OK, so for just a nanosecond let’s suppose this kind of merger comes to pass and the resulting series includes Cosworth engines. As a guy who wrote a book about Honda’s racing program, how do you think they would respond to having Cosworth owners have a stake the series? The good folks at Honda have said they want competition, but there’s no way Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe would let the Cosworth look bad in a series they also had interest in, right?
A: I’m not going to try to speak for Honda, but I’m confident that they would definitely like to have some form of competition in the IRL once their exclusive supply contract ends after the 2009 season. But I doubt they are interested in battling Cosworth unless the engine is badged by a major manufacturer - and given proper marketing support by that manufacturer, because I suspect Honda is tired of carrying the IRL’s marketing load on its own. Let’s not forget that what was laughingly called the Chevy GEN-IV IRL engine (remember the IRL’s creative rule-bending that allowed GM to introduce a brand new, outsourced engine in mid-2003?) was pretty darn competitive despite being designed and built on a fraction of the budgets that Honda and especially Toyota brought to the IRL. Cosworth is an effective and efficient company and given a fair opportunity to compete, they could be right there with Honda. Even if an agreement to blend what is left of CCWS into the IRL goes down, I can’t imagine Forsythe or Kalkhoven having any kind of ownership stake in the series.
Q: Many of my readers – and surely yours as well – are college-aged or younger, and to them there is no such thing as a split. After 13 years lots of them have grown up watching only the Indy Racing League and they couldn’t care one bit about Champ Car or unification. Young people don’t drive their father’s car or listen to his music, so why should they want some facsimile of his racing series? In other words, how do you sell your idea to The Danica Generation?
A: Well as you note in your final question, you’re talking to a guy who listens to a lot of Pink Floyd and is often generally rooted in the 1970s. So I’m not exactly cutting edge to the ‘emo’ crowd - I don’t even know what the hell ‘emo’ means and I laugh out loud when I see or hear a band like Fall Out Boy. And that’s one of the problems U.S. open-wheel racing has: I’m the young, ‘new’ guy of the specialist press, and I’m 43 years old. Curt Cavin and Jeff Olson are of a similar age, but Miller, Kirby, Phillips and the other regulars are all pushing 60. I find it really sad and depressing that nobody younger or hipper has come along with a desire to cover the open-wheel scene. I gather there are at least a couple of younger writers that cover NASCAR - Marty Smith certainly seems to try hard to be cool and youthful. I don’t have any trouble relating to the younger drivers (Danica, Marco etc.), but that more than anything is because we speak the common language of racing. BTW, if your readers think there is no such thing as a split, I encourage them to learn about the history of the sport, which goes back nearly 100 years - not just to 1996. The split has been a work in progress for nearly half that time.
(Ed. Note: Somewhere young and hip Chris Estrada is furiously updating his resume.)
Q: Now conversely, how is the unification scenario better than one where Kalkhoven announces “Our accountants have instructed us to cancel everything, refund the 2008 tickets, put the DP01s on eBay, and direct Cosworth towards manufacturing engines exclusively for Saleen. So it shall be written, so it shall be done. Thank you very much. Good night.”?
A: The split has dragged on long enough now, and has created enough damage, that the sooner it comes to an end the better. If Champ Car ceased operation today, it would not result in an immediate influx of 17 additional cars on the IRL grid. But it would create an additional six to ten quality entries that would put the field size back to where it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A 26-car field is a hell of a lot more credible (and entertaining) than an 18-car field. Sure, I’d rather watch and hear a field of Panozes with 2.6-liter turbo motors than I would a pack of normally-aspirated Dallaras. But the configuration of the car is an extremely minor point right now, are things like the name of the series (though the insert-title-sponsor-name-here IndyCar World Series seems like a nice compromise). What the fans, sponsors and manufacturers need is simply an acknowledgment that both groups are willing and able to work together rather than simply trying to kill or outlast the other series.
Q: Totally serious question because this subject comes up quite often at My Name Is IRL: do you receive Christmas (or which ever holiday is appropriate) Cards from either the George family or the Kalkhoven family or anyone else on your “culprits” list?
A: I’m on the IRL, CCWS and IMS Christmas lists, but all I ever get is a basic card with a nice note from Fred Nation. Of course, I don’t send Tony and Kevin cards either - maybe I should.
Q: I realize that you have also written many, many positive and entertaining articles – and I’ve even read several of them – but how would you respond to the assertion that the innumerable negative commentaries by you, Robin Miller and others that repeatedly list all of open-wheel racing’s problems over the last decade have not only furthered the division between fans of either series but also have had a hand in reducing the popularity of the sport?
A: There is some merit to your point, and based his response to my split list, I think Tony George feels the same way. But I think an even bigger crime would have been to simply pretend nothing was wrong all these years, sort of like the easy ride that the local media in Indianapolis has generally given the IRL. If you got your news exclusively from Indianapolis TV and radio sources, you would think that qualifying and race day crowds are as big as they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s and that Kosuke Matsuura is the next Jim Clark. In journalism school we were taught that the media has a responsibility to be a watchdog for the public, but in my opinion, the local Indy media is more like a guard dog for IMS - and by extension, the IRL. I don’t have stats handy, but I would estimate that I write four or five positive (or at least neutral!) articles for every negative one. And times and viewpoints change - I certainly hammer Champ Car a lot more than I did five or ten years ago. But that’s because they have deserved it.
Q: Speaking of Robin, your colleague is a self-described “degenerate gambler”. How have you fared placing wagers against him over the years?
A: I’ve never bet against Robin because I’m not much of a gambler. But I’ve enjoyed numerous steak dinners with him around the world and I’ve witnessed him on a serious hot streak at the craps table. I’ll say one thing about Miller - his sunny demeanor never changes whether he’s up or down at the casino. He’s one of the sport’s all-time great characters.
Q: Perhaps it’s because most of the prominent journalists covering open-wheel racing have been doing so since before The Split, but it seems in my completely subjective judgment that many of open-wheel’s reporters and commentators carry a grudge against either the IRL or George or both. Is that a legitimate characterization, and if so should readers worry that this might cloud the journalistic integrity ever so slightly?
A: I can’t speak for any of my friends or colleagues. But I can tell you that I hold no animosity towards TG as a person. We are of similar age, and I would say that we share shyness as a character trait. So I understand that it is difficult to step up in front of a bank of microphones or a large group of people. I guess I do hold a grudge that he took the radical step of using his racetrack/event to create a series meant to go into direct competition with the series that had formed the basis of his race from prior to 1996. Much of the 500’s credibility for decades prior to that was derived from the quality of the competitors, and I think that fact (and those teams, manufacturers, sponsors and drivers) were ignored in his zeal to start up the IRL. You can’t tell me that the overall quality of the ‘cars and stars’ of the Indy 500 from 1996 to 2001 was anywhere close to what it was in any decade, whether the ‘30s, 60’s or 80s. It still isn’t, though it has advanced a long way from 1997…
Q: Given the occasional negative article that you have written, I’m curious if George or Kalkhoven or any other person at whom you’ve leveled criticism has ever responded with direct feedback, or if the personalities in racing instead become less likely to speak with you once you’ve written something unflattering. What’s has been the most frequent response?
A: I heard from TG on the split list. The example that shook me up the most came when I wrote a piece this summer that extensively quoted Mario Andretti. Mario called me up a couple of days later, pretty upset. He felt some of the quotes I used had been ‘off the record’ and he let me know it. I disagreed, and I have the recorded interview on MiniDisc to prove it! But the story created some useful dialogue and when I saw Mario in Edmonton a couple weeks later, he smiled and shook my hand, so I think we’re cool - unless he’s pissed about me putting Michael at #2 on the split-list! Actually, I have a hunch he smiled at that…
Q: A few days ago you posted an article full of responses to comments you have received. Considering that Curt Cavin has a somewhat daily Q&A blog, Robin has an occasional chat session, and Jeff Olson has a MySpace page, have you ever thought about using any of those options to more easily connect with race fans?
A: I actually enjoy it, as can be evidenced by the fact that I am doing this e-interview with you. I’m hoping to do chats for ESPN.com this year. I think chats are good for the reason you mention - interaction with the readers - but also simply because it can help identify storylines. As reporters or analysts, we might be focused on some issues and not pick up on others. It is always good to know what the fans want to know. Looking back, I was on the blog bandwagon before they were called blogs - in 2001, we started www.oreopolis.com to chronicle my attempt at driving to every one of the races I covered in 2001 in the USA, Canada and Mexico. Those entries are still pretty well archived, but we’ve failed to update the site in about a year (having an 18-month old son will do that!). Perhaps one of these days we’ll get cracking.
Q: Last question not really related to racing, but since I’ve read that you have a huge collection of Pink Floyd concert recordings I was wondering if you have you ever exchanged tapes, CDs or mp3s with any prominent racing personalities? Like is Mario Andretti a total Dark Side of the Moon guy?
A: I don’t know if ‘exchanged’ is how I would describe it, but I have certainly provided a number of racing personalities with recordings that I made at concerts, or special shows I think they might enjoy. For example, I gave Dario Franchitti a copy of Pink Floyd’s famous concert at London Earls Court from May 19, 1973 - the day he was born. He’s also the proud owner of a copy of Oasis, NYC 6/9/01. Jimmy Vasser really likes a recording I made of Roger Waters at Portland in 2001, and he and Cristiano da Matta were highly complimentary of recordings I made during David Gilmour’s 2006 tour.
It’s actually kind of sick that the two main interests that dominate my life - open-wheel racing and Pink Floyd - have been ripped apart by a similar power struggle for the last 30 years; the Floyd ‘war’ is debated every bit as passionately as the IRL/CCWS split. I always believed that the American open-wheel scene would fix itself before Gilmour and Waters shared a stage again, but that’s now impossible thanks to PF’s brief ‘unified’ set at Live 8 in July 2005. For what it’s worth, I would much rather see the U.S. open-wheel scene come together than for Pink Floyd to do a cash-grabbing nostalgia tour. And if you know me at all, that’s saying something.
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