A second-tier sport?
Improved though it might be, IndyCar racing still has hurdles to overcome if it is to be regarded as a truly major league sport
Indycar racing stands at a critical juncture in its history in this autumn of 1994. Much that is good has happened in the past year and a half, but that only makes the next 18 months all the more crucial if the sport is to take advantage of the momentum generated since 1993.
Firstly, Andrew Craig has brought the kind of sound, dynamic leadership to CART that the organisation has long needed. Secondly, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Reynard and Firestone have all entered the sport, with Toyota very much in the offing. Then too, international interest is at an all-time high while many if not most IndyCar races have become big-time sports events in terms of attendance, media interest and overall impact on the local communities.
Although Craig has revitalised CART’s front office and generated a rare sense of unity among the team owners in just nine months, the organisation still has a long way to go. There are signs of real progress, however. The race management staff received a big boost with the addition of Dennis Swan, a seasoned professional whose resume includes time as team manager for Shierson Racing and, more recently, manager of the Rahal/Hogan test team. Swan will work with overburdened vice-president of operations Kirk Russell and assistant director of operations Billy Kamphausen, while being groomed to take over as director of competition when Wally Dallenbach retires. At the same time, CART’s press relations operation is undergoing a long-needed overhaul. But a plethora of challenges remain. The success of Paul Tracy, Robby Gordon, Jacques Villeneuve, Adrian Fernandez and Bryan Herta has blunted criticisms of CART’s dependence on “foreign” drivers. Closer ties with Indy Lights and, perhaps in the near future Toyota Atlantic, should bolster the influx of “homegrown” talent. Nevertheless, CART has yet to figure out a way to re-establish productive ties with America’s grassroots racers and their faithful fans in sprint cars and midgets.
The television effort also needs help. Although 12 of 17 races will be aired live on one of the three major television networks, these network broadcasts are still the product of CART’s policy of buying the air time, then selling advertising time itself. While this gets network air time for sponsors, until CART finds itself in a position to offer its product to the highest bidder like the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Assn – nobody will consider IndyCar racing a major league sport.
At least CART doesn’t have much trouble selling its ad time, thanks in part to the recent influx of manufacturers. As late as 1991, IndyCar teams had little or no choice with regard to chassis and engines. Back then, it was either a Chevy-powered Lola or give up hope of a top 10 finish. Now Reynard has joined the fray and given Lola a run for the customers’ money. And now teams can choose between Mercedes. Ford and Honda engines with Toyota on the horizon and between Goodyear and Firestone tyres.
This diversity is a good thing in and of itself thanks to the increased fan interest, not to mention the increased exposure generated through manufacturer ads. Whether the increased competition between chassis, engine and tyre suppliers for the customer dollars can offset a seemingly inevitable escalation in costs owing to more intensive development remains to be seen. Likewise, CART has to insure that the playing field remains rather level with regards to “development” tyre, engine and chassis teams.
The international front also presents its share of challenges and opportunities. There’s no doubt Nigel Mansell was a real shot in the arm to CART’s international presence. Equally beyond dispute is the fact that Mansell is no longer driving an IndyCar. In a perfect world, the exposure to some of the fiercest racing on the planet over the past two seasons will have convinced a sizable portion of the international audience to keep watching CART races, Mansell or no. But CART can’t depend on that. It will take a renewed commitment to upgrading the quality of its international television broadcasts as well as a concerted effort to court the international press.
Meanwhile, CART’s critics relish the fact that the Michigan, Phoenix and New Hampshire IndyCar races draw significantly fewer customers than do NASCAR races at those same venues. There is doubt that NASCAR has a far greater hold on the general sports public and the average racing fan than does CART. In part this is a function of the fact that NASCAR has been painstakingly building its house, brick by brick, with few changes in direction since the 1950s. During that time, IndyCar racing has been sanctioned by three (technically, four) different organisations, none of which has been particularly adept at marketing and communications.
Despite the bad press CART gets for indifferent attendance at some tracks, the majority of its races are very successful. Long Beach. Milwaukee, Portland, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Vancouver and Laguna Seca attract big crowds, while Surfers Paradise, Detroit and Road America certainly get their fair share of customers. The gates at Cleveland and Nazareth are limited by the number of available seats, but the degree that Cleveland’s civic leaders went to keep their event back in 1991 is a measure of its importance to the community. And Nazareth boasted a big new grandstand for last year’s race. It was filled on race day.
The past season also saw significant progress in CART’s relationship with its race promoters, as symbolised by the creation of a liaison committee between the CART Board of Directors and the promoters organisation. The promoters have long been the forgotten element in the CART scheme, and perhaps now long standing bones of contention such as conflicts between event and television sponsorship can be resolved amicably.
Certainly one of the issues on the liaison committee’s agenda should be upgrading facilities to meet the brave new world of oversubscribed fields and growing media coverage. The pit area at some tracks notably Laguna Seca are simply too small to handle full fields while the media “facilities” at Portland, Milwaukee and Cleveland are wholly inadequate.
Of course, the catalyst for much of the apparent harmony between CART and its promoters was the threat posed by Tony George and the Indy Racing League. With the spectre of the IRL stealing dates and tracks from CART, Craig had no choice but to strike deals with the promoters and by mid-season he’d signed long-term contracts with all but Long Beach, Phoenix and New Hampshire. Word has it that Long Beach is now close to a long-term agreement of its own and, with Roger Penske’s planned California Speedway on board together with Michigan and Nazareth, CART’s position vis a vis the IRL looks very strong indeed.
In the end, however, CART’s relationship with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway remains the central issue on which the future of IndyCar racing ultimately depends. More and more, the IRL seems destined to define that relationship over the next years. And since Tony George appears to be utterly intractable in his stance, the next move is up to CART. Do Craig and the team owners engage in a war of attrition with George which could end quickly if the IRL proves to be an ignominious failure, or drag on indefinitely if Tony is willing to invest the kind of money most people believe it will take for the IRL to succeed?
Or do they take a stand here and now, perhaps by refusing to adopt the IRL’s 2.2-litre engine formula and formulating a gentleman’s agreement between Ford, Mercedes, Honda and Toyota not to design a purpose-built 2.2 engine for the Indy 500? Can IndyCar racing afford the Mother of all Wars between CART and the Speedway? Better yet, can it afford not to settle the issue of supremacy once and for all? For one thing is certain: IndyCar racing will never rise above a second tier sport until CART and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are on the same page. D P