The 1994 IndyCar season may look healthy on the surface, but beneath the 30-car grids lies a political minefield that requires urgent sweeping
No matter how you cut it, it’s a long way from the United States to Surfers Paradise. In my case, exactly 28 hours elapsed from the time my first flight pulled back from the loading gate until my last flight touched down at Coolangatta Airport. Thanks to more favourable connections, the return flight took a mere 25 hours.
Assuming the 16 franchise holders who make up CART’s Board of Directors spent a similar amount of air time travelling to and from Oz, they had ample time to contemplate the warning shot (or was it broadside?) fired across their collective bow on March 11 when Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George announced the Speedway and the United States Auto Club will establish “a schedule and rules for a new series of automobile races which will include the world-famous Indianapolis 500” in 1996.
The statement was rather coy. “We make this announcement today in an effort to be candid about our intentions . . . ” George said. “We fully realise that this announcement will cause much commentary within the racing community, but we urge that a focus be maintained on the beginning of this season’s PPG Cup Competition, which includes our event.”
To say the least, George raised many more questions than he answered. Chief among these is the one that was on nearly everyone’s mind in Surfers Paradise, to wit, “What does Tony really want?” And, the follow up, “Is there room for negotiation?” The answer to the first question is simple,
and most CART Board members already have it in their hands. They need only look back to November 1991, when Tony proposed the creation of a new organisation — IndyCar Inc — to govern the sport. While giving credit to CART for its successes, George criticised CART for its failure to (1) control escalating costs; (2) fairly and objectively determine the rules; (3) develop and cultivate corporate sponsors; (4) develop and maintain a feeder system for drivers and mechanics; and (5) unify the IndyCar series with the Indianapolis 500.
After the CART franchise holders rejected the IndyCar Inc proposal in 1991, Tony proposed a smaller seven man, five vote Board in July of 1992 (on which he and CART chairman Bill Stokkan served as non-voting members), then washed his hands of the CART Board last November when the franchise holders voted to disband the small board and return to the 16 member set-up.
In the two years and a half that elapsed between George’s IndyCar Inc proposal and last month’s announcement of a new series, it’s safe to say that Tony’s views on CART have not changed, indeed a year and a half’s service on the Board of Directors has only made him more strident in his views. “I have personally made every effort the past two years to work with the car owners organisation currently governing the series in order to hear and be heard with regard to the direction the series is heading,” said George on March 1 1 . “I have come to the conclusion that the Speedway and the current car owners organisation are simply
going in different directions.”
Looking at George’s criticisms of CART circa 1991 should give some insight into his motivations in 1994. As for costs, three years ago a Lola T9 1/00 cost about $250,000; today’s T94/00 goes for nearly twice that figure, a Reynard 941 for about $435,000. Engine leasing prices vary, but a two year deal for Ilmor Ds runs about $125,000 per engine, per year; Ford Cosworth XBs a little higher. And last year’s week-by-week evolution of the rules regarding new engine suppliers hardly exemplified CART “fairly and objectively determining the rules.”
A case can be made, however, that CART has experienced success on the sponsorship front, if for no other reason than the fact that the entries at Surfers Paradise and Phoenix topped 30 cars, the vast majority being first rate in terms of equipment and driver talent. Indeed, the Surfers and Phoenix grids featured a couple of impressive new teams in PacWest and Forsythe Green, and a host of sponsors that were not around in 1991 including Players, Tecate Beer, Duracell, Service Merchandise, Eurosport and Hollywood cigarettes. A driver feeder system? That depends on your perspective. Are more of the top drivers from USAC’s midget and sprint car divisions moving into IndyCars in 1994 than in 1991? Hardly. But has a new generation of talented drivers finally begun establishing itself in IndyCar racing? Ask Paul Tracy, Robby Gordon, Jacques Villeneuve, Mike Groff, Jimmy Vasser, Scott Sharp, Mark
Smith, Davy Jones and Adrian Fernandez. Are there still problems? Ask last year’s runaway Firestone Indy Lights champion Bryan Herta? Aside from a few tests with Newman/Haas, he has nothing — despite having the free use of a ’94 Lola. Meanwhile, recognised quality drivers like John Andretti and, most galling of all to those who think the sun rises and sets in Indiana, Jeff Gordon, have headed south to NASCAR where talent alone is often (but not always) enough to earn a ride.
Finally, the Indianapolis 500 and the PPG IndyCar World Series remain separate entities. In many ways, this is the single most important issue facing IndyCar racing, for it is ludicrous that the feature race of the year, indeed the single biggest sporting event in the world, is not an integral part of the overall series. For without that unity, IndyCar racing can only nibble around the edges of its vast commercial potential, be it through a comprehensive network television package or the immense and largely untapped merchandising arena. As to the part about Tony’s willingness to negotiate, my guess is the answer is yes and no. Yes, there’s probably room for manoeuvring in insuring that the team owners have a say in the creation of a new series and maintain a legitimate voice therein. But if by negotiation, the CART team owners are
thinking of compromise that’s long on appearances, short on substance just to mollify George, they are sadly mistaken.
George was humiliated once when his IndyCar Inc proposal was shot down; he was angered by the power politics of the small board and he has engineered himself into a position of such power that he is not terribly vulnerable to any CART reprisals. It’s long been said that while CART needs the Indy 500, the Indy 500 needs CART just as badly. NASCAR’S Brickyard 400 has changed that equation in Tony’s favour. What’s more, a legacy of antagonistic relations with CART ensures most of the race promoters will side with Tony in a heartbeat. As always Roger Penske is positioned as the lynchpin of the whole ball of wax. The prestige of having his team and sponsor (Marlboro) join the IMS/USAC series would be significant. And as owner of Michigan International Speedway and Nazareth Raceway — two ovals Tony would surely like to have on his schedule — Penske would carry more leverage in an IMS/USAC series than in the current 16 man/24 vote CART Board. Carl Haas — promoter at Milwaukee and on the BoD at Road America — will also be in a position to bargain with Tony. Unlike Penske, of course, Haas derives virtually all of his income from racing and must do what is best for both Newman/Haas Racing and
Carl Haas Imports .
So what will this new series look like?
As much a traditionalist as Tony may be, he knows the days when an Indianapolis Motor Speedway/USAC-run Indycar series could thrive on all oval series are long gone. To be sure, Tony’s series may emphasise ovals more than the current six oval/l0 road circuit PPG series, but hardly to the exclusion of road circuits. George has raced on road circuits in his day — in Formula Ford, Indy Lights and as recently as March 18 in the Firehawk series at Sebring; he is a regular visitor to IndyCar races at venues like Mid-Ohio and Road America, and he recognises what permanent road courses bring to the series. Even certain temporary circuits add to racing, as in the case of Long Beach and Toronto; it’s the shams like Meadowlands, Denver, Cleveland and even Surfers Paradise (IMS marketing vice-president Bill Donaldson, commenting on the huge amounts of money sunk into the Gold Coast GP by the Queensland government, noted “How many permanent facilities could you build for the $50 million they’ve spent putting on three races?”)
So far so good, except for one crucial point. Those who argue that George is the benevolent dictator IndyCar racing needs (a la Bernie Ecclestone or Bill France) fail to take into account the fact that Tony George is not Bernie or Bill. Not an energetic, selfmade street fighter in the Ecclestone mould, nor a master politician-manipulator like France, George is shy, reclusive even, and, of course, came to his position of power more by accident of birth than through any business skills or personal accomplishments. Coupled with his misspent adolescence and young adulthood, it’s no surprise that the CART Board has long had difficulty figuring out quite what to do with, to or for him.
Nobody seriously questions Tony’s commitment to racing, however. Moreover George has surrounded himself with a savvy, professional staff made up of the likes of Donaldson and treasurer Jeff Belskus (although some have likened the situation to a mediaeval court where the various advisers manipulate the boy-king to their own ends), at least holding out hope that the merger of interests between IMS/ George/USAC can do for IndyCar racing what the Daytona/France/NASCAR arrangement has done for stock car racing.
Finally, to the thorny question of developing the viable feeder series. If the past two decades have proven one thing, it’s that sprint cars, dirt cars and midgets do not adequately prepare up and coming drivers for IndyCars. Do they teach car control? Yes. Do they give young drivers experience in cut’n thrust driving? Yes. Do they give young drivers adequate training in chassis set-up in a rear-engined, ground effects car where a difference of hundredths of an inch in ride height is the difference between lapping Phoenix at 21.1s and 20.7s? Most assuredly not.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of a potential IMS/USAC IndyCar series is that a sport which, in the past two decades, has gone from a pathologically inward looking nature to a more catholic perspective will again fall under the spell of the parochialism that gives to the notion that Paul Tracy, Scott Goodyear, Jacques Villeneuve, Adrian Fernandez and Claude Bourbonnais are part of the “foreign” driver problem. Indeed, it’s every bit as disconcerting as the prospects of having the 16 CART franchises running things ad infinitum. Doubtless many a Canadian dollar and Mexican peso have been converted into greenbacks to pay for race tickets from Indianapolis to Long Beach or, perhaps more to the point, from Daytona to Michigan International Speedway. In a nation of immigrants, there are not many ‘native’ American racing drivers in any series.
One answer, to be blunt, would be for IMS to put its money where its mouth is. Why not, for example, investigate buying the Firestone Indy Light series from Pat Patrick (whose Patrick Petroleum company has suffered heavy losses in recent months) and then run an IMS-subsidised FIL? Rest assured, IMS can afford it.
Or, why not use the unparalleled marketing potential of the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to create incentive programmes for sponsors. Sponsors who agree to underwrite — even partially — a driver’s move from FIL to IndyCars, or from midgets or USAC FF2000 to the FIL might get a certain amount of signage at IMS, a free ad or two in the Indy 500 programme or any number of other incentives that capitalise on the world’s largest single day sports event. Would it work? There’s probably a thousand reasons why not, but the point is that only by finally, irrevocably and completely marrying the Indianapolis 500 with the remainder of the IndyCar series can the full potential of IndyCar racing be realised. D P