New Car Fever

Posted by Tony Johns | 7/23/2009 | , , , | 9 comments »
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At one point or another, we've all seen an episode of The Price is Right. That classic of consumer lust and greed, where the great unwashed from Oxnard to Bangor can get a chance to "come on down" and grab all sorts of merchandise if they can only bid correctly.

Five days a week, breathless everymen and -women bid on all sorts of stuff, from toilet brushes to trips to tables to toothpaste. But we all know the real reason why most people watch the show.

"It's a new caaaaaaar!"

That's right. Whether it's the dingiest entry-level Ford Focus or a super-hot Corvette sitting there under the studio lights, the appearance of a new car is always the biggest moment on the show (except for those Plinko loonies... don't get me started on them).

It's because automobiles are as deep in the American vein as apple pie and baseball. Yankees love their cars so much that they are more likely to go into debt to get one than virtually anything else - including a house.

The reason I bring this seeming non-sequitur up is that the thrill people feel when Rich Fields yells, "It's a new caaaaaaar!" on The Price is Right is perhaps the one thing that can get the American public interested in IndyCar racing again.

Look - you know and I know that IndyCar racing is (at least in theory, if not in recent practice) one of the greatest forms of motorsport in the world. The Indianapolis 500 alone would make that statement true - but the cross-training aspect of IndyCar racing that include various types of oval, street, and road circuit events elevate IndyCars above other series that limit themselves to one discipline.

On paper, the IndyCar series should capture the imagination of anyone who loves automobiles going fast.

In practice, it hasn't happened that way - at least not lately. I'm not going to dig up the history of the past decade-and-a-half; it's a useless exercise because we all know it better than we know our own names. Suffice to say that the IndyCar racing we have now fails to live up to its promise - at times, it fails badly.

Why? There are so many reasons. Gene Simmons is one, not just because he and his otherworldly tongue and fourteen-volume history of STDs couldn't market their way out of a paper bag if KISS isn't involved. No, his real problem is that he tried to turn IndyCar racing into "rock stars in race cars." And that's just not going to work.

It's not the drivers' fault. To a man (and woman) they are professional, courteous, and even intriguing. But they're not rock stars - the nature of their relationships to their sponsors automatically precludes them from the kind of Lohanesque kind of misbehavior that seems to tweak the salacious public interest. Simply put, the closest they're going to get is a shoving match in the pits (and we're not going to see much of that until someone gets PT a full-time ride - hollah to Meesh!) or a temper tantrum from Danica before some PR flack gets hold of her.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that, in terms of racing personalities, this country is fixated on stock car racing and the "all-American" folks (sorry, Marcos and JPM) that compete there.

That leaves the racing. And lately, the racing has, in a word, sucked.

It sucks basically for two reasons - the inequity between the haves and have-nots, and the race car itself.

There's not a whole lot we can do about the first problem. There's only so much money in motorsports right now - actually, thanks to the recession, there's virtually no money in it - so the racing oligarchs like Penske and Ganassi are going to be able to outspend everyone else until the economy gets dug out of the giant hole it's in.

The second problem, however, is fully addressable. Now, don't get me wrong - Dallara is a very capable chassis-builder, and Honda certainly makes fine racing engines. But when you put everyone into the same engine-chassis combination, it puts the power in the hands of the rich and influential. With the resources available to them, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi can massage and tweak their "spec" IndyCars in ways that the other teams simply can't. They have the wherewithal to work within the small margins allowed by a formula where everyone gets the same basic equipment. Hence, each IndyCar race is virtually guaranteed to have a winner driving a red-decorated race car (unless Ganassi runs one of those weird pink or green cars).

An additional problem is that the current Dallara/Honda package is not attractive. I can't sugarcoat it, people. When non-fanatics tune into IndyCar races, they see a blocky, ungainly race car that only looks fast when it's going in a straight line. On the more technical street and road circuits, the cars appear to labor in and out of the turns like an elephant performing Swan Lake. On ovals, the wake turbulence from the blocky chassis makes overtaking a rarity.

Beyond all that, though, there's no general sense of innovation around IndyCar racing anymore. The engineers out there justifiably will dispute that notion, but to the layman (or -woman) an IndyCar race has none of the technical wizardry that Formula 1 has. Americans used to tune into the Indy 500 to see what the hell someone was going to bring this year to beat the other 32 teams.

Granted, these days innovation is tough to afford. But that doesn't change the fact that the public responds to innovation. There's such a thing as "wow factor" - and the IndyCar series doesn't have that right now. The closest thing to "wow" the IndyCar series can manage is whether that zipper will go down another inch on Danica's jacket in those GoDaddy.com commercials.

That's where Rich Fields and The Price is Right come in. Since it's obvious that there isn't going to be a UFC-style three-way beatdown between Paul Tracy, Helio Castroneves and Danica Patrick any time soon, the next best thing for the IndyCar series to do is get that "It's a new caaaaaaar!" feeling back into the series.

Last I heard, the IRL was planning on a new car in 2011 (although I've heard whispers that that deadline might be pushed back with the bad economy). I hope that's true. I hope that, when it's unveiled, the new IndyCar will make people "ooh" and "aah." I hope that those manufacturer summits that were held bear fruit and more folks join the show to give the engine scene some variety.

The fame tree in IndyCars goes like this: the track (IMS) made the cars, and the cars made the stars. It's that simple. The IndyCar series is about spectacle (it's even in the Big Race's name!), and as such the series needs a car (or, even better, a handful of cars) that will create one.

9 comments

  1. Scott // July 24, 2009 5:32 AM  

    I am so sick and tired of hearing the economy blamed for the lack of money.

    There are huge checks being written to racing teams out there. I personally saw a check written in the past two weeks that 1) Put TEAM money to shame and 2) only covers promotion until the end of this season.

    As far as the future of engines goes... the IRL is setting itself up for future failure by continuing to align with Honda.

    Honda is striving for a V6 that is capable of producing about 30% more horsepower than it will ever be given the chance to actually make. Their goal is to continue the scenario of limiting the power with a keyboard. That way the engines never break, they rarely need a total rebuild and maintenance costs are as low as possible. They are asking for the speeds to be dropped down to 215 so that speeds will gradually move back up to 230 as "engineering development" improves. But like the last time, their plan is to introduce an engine capable of doing 230 and limiting it electronically to the speed of the 'competition'.

    By the way, if you last heard that the new engine is going to be here in 2011 you are way behind.

    The league was hoping for something for 2012, but that was assuming they heard back from Volkswagen by April... didn't happen. Now the Honda spokesperson has said that if an engine decision isn't made in the next couple of months then you can forget 2012 as well.

  2. Travis R // July 24, 2009 5:37 AM  

    A few weeks ago, I saw an interesting article about the new Campos Meta F1 Team, who is having Dallara build their F1 car:

    Dallara and Campos Gearing Up for Formula 1

    I'm pretty much completely insane, but I think there is a unique opportunity here: Dallara could use this same chassis (or at least core elements of it) for IndyCar.

    If F1 and IndyCar were more closely related, we then could see the return of the Indy 500 on the F1 calendar.

    Yeah, I know - completely insane, but it's fun to dream a little...

  3. JP // July 24, 2009 6:38 AM  

    Rumor has it that at this point at best, only 5 or 6 teams could afford to buy and test a new car if it were available. SO if you had a choice - old cars with 22- 24 participants in the field vs new car with 12 cars in the field, which would you choose??

  4. JP // July 24, 2009 6:44 AM  

    Also on the VW side of things, I Read in the Wall Street Journal where the VW / Porshe merger was being held up by a technicality. VW was getting involved in the program in order to help support a new sportcar introduction for Porshe. Until that deal is done, they need to be noncommital.

  5. Tony Johns // July 24, 2009 8:58 AM  

    @Scott - The economy's a problem for all but the biggest teams. It may not be an issue for Penske (who still gets Marlboro money under the table, IIRC) and Ganassi but for virtually everyone else it's an issue. The smaller companies that would normally sign checks for the mid- to lower-tier teams can't sign those checks anymore.

    As for being "way behind," mea culpa. I'm about 3 years removed from being "in the loop" as a word butcher; Jeff, Bill, and Meesh have all your insider dope if you want to just ignore my stuff.

  6. Marc // July 24, 2009 12:52 PM  

    Great to be reading your stuff again, Tony!

  7. Anonymous // July 24, 2009 2:12 PM  

    Let me remind you of something.
    I know you hated CART....and for sure, they mismanaged what they had...but you have laid out a good part of the argument we all had against the formation of the IRL.
    By the mid 90's, there were multiple cars manufactured, 4 major engine mfgrs involved with the possibility of at least one more coming, plenty of cars, more competitive teams, and packed houses everywhere. The IRL formula never was, nor never will be, attractive from a competition standpoint. The more you restrict racing, the better the chances for the big teams. The IRL has never figured that out. Roger and Chip knew it all along....and ran quickly to grab the money.
    Face it. We're stuck with what we've got for now, but TG and co. blew it big time. Maybe some new management can save the deal...after many more years...if it's even possible anymore

  8. Tony Johns // July 24, 2009 2:46 PM  

    You must have me confused with someone else if you think I hated CART.

    Now, Champ Car... that's another story. But I loved CART. How could I not? I was Hoosier born and lived and breathed the Indy 500 literally since my first breath.

    There was a reason why, even in the face of complete greed, egotism, and mismanagement, that CART came within a hair's breadth of overtaking F1 in popularity. That's what needs to be brought back to the IndyCar series.

  9. Anonymous // July 25, 2009 12:12 PM  

    Folks forget that Tony Hulman was a master promoter. He was quite a pitchman for the race, from 1946 rocket cars to European and Argentine champions to funny cars, turbines, and horses driving on the track - he knew how to promote his event, keep it in the news, and keep it interesting.

    Here's a short list of my observations:

    Define a purpose for the "500." The whole thing is currently rudderless in its purpose, except as an IRL event. Define a new purpose for its annual running worthy of its iconic status. It certainly isn't the old bringing the world's best drivers and equipment together, anymore.

    Separate the "500" from the IRL. The race has been reduced to an historic IRL event. Dump any reference to IRL or IndyCar on any promotion, signage, or anywhere else. The IRL, of course, may still award points based on the outcome, much like others from CART to F1 did years ago.

    Reduce then cut the IRL financial strings and put the dough into the purse fund. A $30 million purse will draw entries, and media attention.

    Get a PROMOTER to get the "500" revved and on the front pages again. For years the bread-and-butter of the "500" was the lead-up to the Greatest Spectacle. Entry announcements, speculation about equipment, driver assignments, and what new and novel stuff would appear, the race to be first on the track, Pole Day drama and "New Track records." All gone, now nearly invisible as a television lead-in to NASCAR's event.

    Keep one engine for the short-term, and open the chassis formula immediately. The "500" did well for many years as a de facto single engine event - that being the Miller/Offenhauser. Except for the support money, and an event in Japan, the "500" could easily have an engine built by an independent like Cosworth, perhaps badged a "Foyt" or "Hulman-George," used universally on a chassis of open design. Sure, Penske will spend gobs and likely win (What's seventeen Borg-Warners among friends anyways?), while Sarah struggles with whatever she can scrape together...so what's news? It's the way the "500" once was. The "Pots 'n Pans Special" comes to mind. The Granatelli brothers, too. A good chassis will quickly proliferate, like the Kurtis, Watson or Lola of yore. And last year's stuff comes cheap!

    This is it for the "500." That icon thing is pretty much worn out. What would Tony Hulman do?