Can Indycar be saved?

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Indycar fans hoped that July’s selection of a new formula for 2012 by series boss Randy Bernard’s ‘Iconic’ committee would provide American open-wheel racing with a clear and exciting new direction, and give the series a desperately needed kick-start. But the choice of a new, cosmetically-altered Dallara-Honda combination disappointed many people, and at the end of August the team owners told Bernard that because sponsorship is so hard to find they simply can’t afford to buy and race new cars and engines in 2012.

This underlying fact has been clear to many observers for some time. It’s a very sad situation, possibly beyond fixing, as 15 years of political wars and negligent management have decimated the IndyCar Series’ market and fan base. Perennially poor television ratings over many years and weak crowds at most races have drained Indycar racing of its commercial value, and this indelibly sad fact is at the heart of its many problems.

Brian Lisles is general manager of Newman/Haas Racing. He has been with the team for more than 20 years and started his racing career in his native England as an engineer with the Tyrrell Formula 1 team. Lisles is in charge of balancing Newman/Haas’s books, so he’s well informed on everything from sponsorship to engineering.

“The system has stalled because the economics are all screwed up,” says Lisles. “Motor racing is totally a capitalist sport, but in Indycar the normal rules are not applying now. The whole thing is on such a bad financial footing that the truth of the matter is that everyone is struggling to find money, and any driver who brings a bag of gold gets the seat. If the teams were financially viable, that wouldn’t be the case.

“It’s not that people want to choose some of the drivers they have. It’s that they have no option. The truth is that Indycar is on financial life support, largely paid for by the owners. If it wasn’t for them, there wouldn’t be a series anymore.”

Lisles is among many Indycar engineers and team owners who think the Iconic committee did a poor job in simply selecting another Dallara-Honda combination for 2012. “As I remember, repeating the same failure and expecting a different outcome is considered to be one of the symptoms of madness,” he argues. “As always, it’s all about the money and there is a big disconnect between what the series is worth and how much it costs. They’ve tackled the car – not very well – but they haven’t done anything, and I don’t know what they can do, to increase the revenue of the teams.

“Certainly, they did not do a very good job at all of reducing the teams’ costs. The car is still expensive and the engine is still horrendously expensive compared to what could have been done. It was a pretty half-hearted attempt. The car should be less expensive and the engine should be half or a third of what they’ve done the deal for.”

Lisles is adamant that the new car won’t begin to solve IndyCar’s problems. He points to Champ Car’s famous last stand in 2007 with the Panoz DP01-Cosworth spec car. “The new car won’t make any difference,” he declares. “You only have to go back a few years to look at the introduction of the Panoz DP01, which made zero difference to Champ Car.

“And why should it make any difference? The only people who know that the car is different are the people who are already interested in the series. Sure, they’re your audience, but they’re not enough to sustain the system. You need a much bigger audience. You need to attract the people who don’t know about Indycar racing. From a business point of view, it seems to me that the new car and engine will make absolutely no difference to the series.”

From any perspective, it’s not a pretty picture.

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