Downward spiral

A defection of star drivers and dwindling audiences have dealt a huge blow to both premier US open-wheel series
By Gordon Kirby

Often these days I cast my mind back to an Autosport Awards dinner almost 11 years ago. I shared a table with the then NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr, Dale Earnhardt and Nigel Roebuck. France and I discussed the CART/Indy Racing League split, and France asked me to keep our CART/IRL conversation off the record, an agreement I honoured during his lifetime.

“You’re really worried about Tony [George, Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss] pulling the trigger on his new formula [IRL], aren’t you?” said France rhetorically. “You think it’s going to end up destroying Indy car racing?”

He paused for a second, then looked me straight in the eye. “Well, I agree with you, I think it will. My father and I always believed there’s got to be one man in control. You’ve got to have one series with a solid name and brand. They are putting themselves in danger of losing all that. The more damage they do to themselves, the more it’s only going to help us grow.”

Now, after 12 years of civil war between CART/Champ Car and IRL, American open-wheel racing has been reduced to a curiosity at the distant margins of the national consciousness while NASCAR has morphed into a major league American sport, with the top drivers becoming household names amid national marketing campaigns for all kinds of products. People in the US can name the top 10 NASCAR drivers, while the open-wheel drivers seem not to exist in the national media or mind.

Former F1 and CART superstar Juan Pablo Montoya is the poster boy for NASCAR’s latest expansion, with Indy 500 winners and IRL champions Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti and former F1 Champion Jacques Villeneuve following in his tracks. While NASCAR continues to boom, attracting most of the remaining big names from open-wheel racing, the future of the IRL and Champ Car series remains clouded, at best.

One thing that is clear is that the IRL has pretty well won the war of attrition for dominance of American open-wheel racing. In the past few years, Champ Car’s TV ratings and overall media coverage have dwindled to barely measurable numbers. The IRL’s ratings are hanging in there, but there’s nothing to be proud of in its poor overall media numbers either.

At least the IRL enjoyed an exciting and compelling championship battle this year with a great grandstand finish, but both series face serious problems in attracting more media coverage, and also in rebuilding and retaining their fan bases. The loss of some of their biggest stars will compound this problem.

In Champ Car, the big question is who will replace Sébastien Bourdais at Newman/Haas. Justin Wilson was the team’s first choice but he and sponsor CDW are departing the beleaguered Champ Car series for the IRL and/or the ALMS, where Wilson will drive for Andretti-Green next year. There are no other obvious star drivers available for Newman/Haas and certainly none to spark the interest of sponsors, the public or the media. If Paul Tracy and the Forsythe team continue to struggle into next year and the ageing Canadian is no longer a front-runner, who will become Champ Car’s star attraction? It’s a little too much to expect it all to fall on the shoulders of young Graham Rahal.

Another thing that’s occurred over the last two years is that Champ Car has lost the last of its oval races and now runs only on road and street circuits. Yet while Champ Car has walked away from the ovals, the IRL has taken on enough road and temporary circuits to make it much closer to the broad-based challenge of the old CART Indy Car World Series than today’s Champ Car series.

These days, an IRL driver has to be able to win on ovals, road and street circuits. This used to be CART’s great claim to fame, the specific challenge which separated Indy car racing from Formula 1 and made it even more of an adventure for drivers like Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell, each of whom won F1 and CART titles. But today, the IRL has a much more legitimate claim to that mantle than Champ Car.

Champ Car is now turning to Europe for growth and income. The dream of the series becoming a North American street-racing festival is fading fast with Denver going out of business last year, Phoenix failing to get off the ground, San Jose getting the axe in September and many people questioning the future of the Las Vegas street race.

So Champ Car is hoping for more European races next year. There are plenty of circuits in Europe, such as Zolder and Assen, looking for cheaper, promotable alternatives to F1. Even at bargain-basement rates, these tracks can afford to pay Champ Car more than the organisation can command for most of its home races. And, of course, there’s the attraction of a field more than half-full with European drivers who haven’t quite made it to F1 – or can’t quite afford it – but enjoy European or international sponsorship.

Champ Car also tried to forge a partnership with A1GP. The theory was that a combined series would provide a schedule of races which would run for most of the year. Bringing these series together would also have provided a bigger market for the Panoz chassis and Cosworth engine used exclusively in Champ Car. But the A1GP series is going with Ferrari engines, so the idea of a merger seems to have run aground.

Of course, the more overseas races, the less saleable Champ Car is in the United States. There are no major American companies sponsoring Champ cars and most of the teams live in fear of the sponsorship well running dry. The McDonald’s sponsorship on Bourdais’s car for the last three years has only been there because of Paul Newman, whose firm supplies the burger chain with salad dressings. But even Newman’s immense pulling power can’t make McDonald’s commit to any kind of marketing programme using the Newman/Haas Champ Car. Nor has Newman been able to attract other sponsorship to his team. “I’m afraid we’re f****d, my friend,” a glum Newman remarked recently.

This year there were only seven Champ Car races in the US – a record low – and by abandoning oval tracks and having fewer American races overall, Champ Car is losing any claim to being the American national driving championship, in fact the IRL is now more qualified to claim that. Of course, to the average American there’s not the slightest question that NASCAR’s Nextel Cup series is the country’s national racing championship because they don’t know that IRL or Champ Car exist.

NASCAR enjoys a powerful nationwide press corps with newspapers covering all 36 Nextel Cup races while Champ Car and IRL function without mainstream press coverage. In terms of column inches and media recognition, American open-wheel racing is among the smallest, if not the smallest sport in the country.

“Let’s face it,” IRL and NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi observed. “When you look at the commercial sponsorship side or the business model of open-wheel racing, I’m afraid to say it doesn’t exist. There is no business model, and the fact is, until American open-wheel racing is made a viable business by the powers that be, it’s simply dying a slow death.”