Is America ready for touring cars?

There is widespread agreement that FIA Super Touring sedans will be racing in the United States in 1996. The creation of the North American Touring Car Campionship, at the behest of Gerald Forsythe, Roger Elliott and Alan Gow, has seen to that.

The question is, will Championship Auto Racing Teams sanction the NATCC? More significantly, the manner in which that question is decided will speak volumes about how much CART has matured as an organisation in recent years. Will the decision be the result of a careful analysis and discussion of the issue with politics kept to a minimum? Or will power politics rear its unseemly head as has often been the case in CART’s past?

Certainly all the elements are in place for a political dust-up. Forsythe, owner of the Forsythe Racing Indycar team, very much wants the series to run under CART’s banner. So do many of his fellow CART team owners, including Carl Haas, Derrick Walker, Rick Galles and others.

“The NATCC holds a lot of attraction,” says Walker. “On the one hand you’ve got the high-tech missiles of Indycars, and on the other hand you’d have the grassroots, door-banging sedans. It would provide fans with a good cross-section.

“It would enable IndyCar and Indycar team owners to develop relationships with the manufacturers, it would provide good value to a sponsor that was associated with a team running both Indycars and touring cars and the touring cars offer good family demographics.”

“I’d like to have a situation where we know from week to week what the schedule is going to be, and having Indycars, Indy Lights and touring cars would do that,” says Rick Galles. “Plus the more manufacturers involved the better.”

On the other hand, Roger Penske, Carl Hogan and Chip Ganassi are against the NATCC to varying degrees.

In a recent letter to IndyCar president Andrew Craig, Penske characterised the NATCC as “irrelevant” and “counterproductive Indycar racing’s long term growth. “This action could easily be perceived challenge to the SCCA, IMSA and, most especially, NASCAR,” wrote Penske. “We should also consider its impact on the Firestone Indy Lights Championship… Another feeder series makes no sense whatsoever.”

“We all recognise the need to improve the show on Saturday,” says Hogan. “But I think the consensus is we need to give more support to the Indy Lights series.”

It wasn’t terribly long ago that a decision of this nature would have been a foregone conclusion once Roger Penske came out against it. In the days when Penske virtually single-handedly determined the allocation of the all-conquering Ilmor/Chevrolet engines, team owners in quest of Chevy power crossed him at their peril.

Recall also that when the forerunner of the FILC – the American Racing Series – was created by Pat Patrick, that it was done with virtually no input from the very promoters who were expected to add the ARS to their calendars in 1986.

Of course, this is not the same CART that sanctioned Penske’s ability to dole out Chevies arbitrarily or which let Patrick, Frasco and Sanchez bully the race promoters in the mid-1980s.

For openers, Andrew Craig is now president of CART, not Bill Stokkan or John Frasco. Under Craig, CART has quickly moved away from the highly charged political era when Penske, Patrick and Carl Haas called the shots and the rest fell rather dutifully in line.

For that CART can thank Craig, who is a capable enough leader and businessman that Penske, Haas, Hogan, Ganassi and the rest have the confidence to let him run the store. That was certainly not the case with Stokkan, in whom the team owners quickly lost confidence, or Frasco, who the smaller teams thought was in the hip pocket of the big teams.

CART can also thank Tony George for creating the common enemy – the Indy Racing League – against which the often fiercely independent CART team owners could form a united front. The result has been a remarkably unified Board of Directors for the past season and a half, a Board that has backed Craig every step of way in his efforts to come to grips with the IRL, and a Board which has rather harmoniously tackled such thorny issues a turbo boost to 40in for this year’s Michigan 500, dramatically reducing downforce on 1996 chassis and the heavily shuffled 1995 schedule.

In fact, the lndycar race promoters may have more to say about the proposed NATCC/CART marriage than the Board of Directors. The Board’s promoters liaison group met with the IndyCar Promoters Group to discuss the NATCC concept recently and the NATCC is slated to make a formal presentation to all the Indycar promoters at a meeting in Indianapolis later this month.

How the promoters respond to the NATCC proposal will have a lot to do with whether CART brings the series under its wings.

“The final decision will be up to the promoters, really,” says Hogan. “We’re interested in creating partnerships with them, not jamming our will down their throats.”

“I really do believe that our promoters are our first line of customers,” says Craig. “And when you don’t listen to your customers you put your business in peril.”

One healthy sign is that the owners don’t seem to be taking sides based strictly on allegiances to sponsors. Penske may be following the lead of Mercedes-Benz in fighting the NATCC (Mercedes has opted not to participate in other Super Touring car series, concentrating instead on the Class 1 German Touring Car championship), but Galles is a supporter of NATCC and his team runs Mercedes engines. In contrast, Ford has expressed interest in NATCC and while Haas and Walker follow the Ford line, Ganassi does not.

“We’re not talking about the fact that Gerry Forsythe is a CART member and he’s for the series, or that Roger Penske is a CART member and he’s against the series,” says Hogan. “We’ll take the positives and the negatives and present them to the promoters and go from there.”

“The key issue is that there may be divergent views on the North American Touring Car Championship,” says Craig, “but it won’t split the Board of Directors. We’ll meet, discuss the issue, vote and go forward. I don’t think anybody will lose sight of the big picture.”

No doubt about it, the team owners are saying all the right things. In the very short-term, however, they will have to back up their words with actions. Stay tuned.