Nigel Mansel’s thrilling IndyCar victory in New Hampshire was witnessed by only a sprinkling of spectators. NASCAR, so it seems, has a better understanding of the entertainment-conscious US public
Anyone who doubts the incredible depth and popularity of NASCAR’s Winston Cup series might ask themselves the following question: how would Formula One be affected if two of its leading young drivers were to be killed in airplane crashes? Similarly, what would be the impact of a similar loss on IndyCar racing?
Pretty devastating, not only in the Here and Now but in the future. Such bright stars would be missed for years to come, not only by their fans but by a sport which had invested untold amounts of time and energy in promoting them.
Of course, NASCAR is presently reeling from the untimely deaths of Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, but quite apart from the tragedies visited upon their families, is there much doubt the Winston Cup Series will continue largely unaffected by the events of April 1 and July 12? Unlike Formula One, which has only had eight winning drivers since 1990, and unlike IndyCar racing which until the emergence of Paul Tracy and Robby Gordon considered Al Unser Jnr and Michael Andretti to be its young lions, NASCAR has more current and future stars than you can count on both hands.
Established stars? Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant, Geoff Bodine, Kyle Petty. . . Emerging stars? Mark Martin, Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon . . . Winners since 1990? Earnhardt, Elliott, Wallace, Waltrip, Gant, Geoff and Brett Bodine, Petty, Martin, Irvan, Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Morgan Shepherd, Ken Schrader and Derrike Cope in addition to Allison and Kulwicki. Walk into any store in America and mention one of the preceding stock car pilots and you’ll draw a response, positive or otherwise. Walk into the same store and mention Fittipaldi, Prost, Senna or Mansell and, I dare say, you risk being mistaken for an inanimate object.
While people avoid Formula One races in record numbers these days, driven away either by the costs, the lack of competition or the shrinking amount of time the cars and drivers are actually in sight; while the IndyCar set glanced uncomfortably at the yawning gaps in the grandstands at New Hampshire International Raceway, NASCAR packs in fans from Sears Point and Watkins Glen to Daytona and Talladega. When tickets went on sale for next year’s Brickyard 400. the Indianapolis Motor Speedway switchboard was sent into immediate gridlock with the local ‘phone company reporting an estimated 40,000 calls in a single day.
Indeed, it is a sign of the times that most observers simply assumed that the disappointing crowd at CART’s recent New England 200 came about because (a) it was scheduled in conflict with the NASCAR race at Watkins Glen 200 miles to the west or (b) racing fans on a limited budget had already spent their money on the Slick 50 Winston Cup race at NHIS in early July. It’s a shame they couldn’t have been at NHIS for the (unsponsored) New England 200, as it was unquestionably among the most electrifying IndyCar races in years with Mansell. Tracy and Fittipaldi swooping in and out of traffic rather like the duel between Emerson and Nigel at Cleveland, except that this one lasted for nearly 100 laps, and had another dimension in the form of a third player, namely Mr Tracy.
“I’ve been in some races in the past,” Mansell enthused at New Hampshire, “wheel-to-wheel at 200 mph with Ayrton Senna, and I’ll tell you it doesn’t even come close to what we’ve done today. What you have out there is traffic and racing through traffic. And you have to have discipline. whether you’re running in the top six or the last six. This is pure racing right here. You can race in a different way on ovals which you can’t do on road courses. You can take different lines, go side-by-side . . . It’s the most thoroughbred racing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Unfortunately, a lot of people gave up on IndyCar racing in the 1980s, thanks to CART’s misguided focus on the upscale market and the fair weather crowds at street races, its lack of a grassroots supporting network to develop and funnel new talent and fans into the sport, small starting fields and the widely publicised manipulation of competition through the distribution of the all-conquering Chevrolet engines. What’s more IndyCar racing’s inept marketing and public relations effort was up against a NASCAR machine so superior in every way that, by comparison, Operation Desert Storm was a toss-up.
For all its detractors, there’s nothing like IndyCar racing at its best. It combines the sophistication of Formula One with the entertainment of NASCAR. But that has been its problem of late, as well. Neither as sophisticated as F1 nor as routinely entertaining as Winston Cup. IndyCar racing has been unable to establish a devoted fan base.
It’s also damned hard work following an IndyCar race at a place like New Hampshire or Phoenix. Even with a lap chart and a stop watch, once 40 or 50 laps are in the books I’m off to the nearest scoring monitor at the first sign of a yellow flag to double-check on the running order below sixth or seventh place. I can’t imagine how confusing it must be to a well lubricated fan in the stands who only has a scoreboard showing the top three and a hopelessly confused track announcer to help monitor the progress of the race.
But again, NASCAR has CART beat on that score, what with portable head sets tuned to the efficient Winston Cup radio network on sale at every track, rather more frequent caution periods that keep more cars on the lead lap and restart procedures that essentially line everyone up by running order. Behind the grandstands every driver and team worth mentioning has a burgeoning tee-shirt and paraphernalia business going from its travelling merchandise trailers. Not just a fine source of revenue for the teams and drivers, the merchandise underscores fan loyalty and promotes overall awareness of NASCAR racing every time a fan walks down Main Street in his Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt or “Million Dollar Bill (Elliott) from Dawsonville” tee-shirt.
CART has made some headway in addressing its problems in the last few years thanks, in part. to chairman Bill Stokkan’s awareness of the need for a better marketing effort, the presence of Ford, rule stability and the first steps towards a reconciliation with the United States Auto Club (USAC) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But although the Firestone Indy Lights (ne ARS) is much improved in 1993 and is now getting some of the organisation support it deserves from CART. It is but a grain of sand on a vast beach compared to the well established network of junior NASCAR series and short tracks throughout the United States. And until CART, USAC and. to a lesser extent, the Sports Car Club of America, reach some sort of agreement on how to promote the almost equally vast pool of talent to fans following the various open wheel classes from USAC’s promising FF2000 series to midgets, sprint and champ dirt cars to SCCA’s Toyota Atlantic series there is no reason to believe that the premie open wheel racing series in the United Stat will begin to approach its stock car counterpart in popularity.