20 February 2008

Best News Ever!

Well, maybe the news isn't as good as the end of World War II. But it looks as though the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car Series will finally merge.

This has been a long time coming for open-wheel racing fans--the precious few of us who are now left. ESPN's John Oreovics wrote a thorough review of the issue just last month. The primary culprit was Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George, but his motives weren't bad--he was looking for a way to control the costs of running racing teams, which could only be done by controlling the cost of the cars. A bunch of car owners didn't like the idea of running identical engine/chassis combinations, and so the two split. The Champ Car series remained the premier series for a while, but Tony George had the Indianapolis 500, which was all that made his new Indy Racing League at all credible in its first years, given it absolute paucity of quality drivers.

But the split happened at a very inopportune time. Clearly George was only looking at the extant open wheel racing market, and failed to look around at the U.S. racing market. Because around the same time NASCAR was developing a phenomenally successful marketing program that moved them from a southern redneck racing league that was routinely dominated by the big boys (A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti) from open-wheel whenever they ventured south, to a dominant behemoth that regularly takes in the best drivers in the country. With that happening, there just wasn't enough market for two open-wheel circuits, and the Indy Racing League has become little better than a developmental league for the giant matchbox cars.

I respect NASCAR. They've been brilliant. But I hate their product. The cars run at a crawl compared to Indy cars; they don't look like real racecars (if it looks like I could drive it to work, it's not a real racecar); and drivers get to bump each other to win, rather than having to drive. That's the reason no NASCAR driver has ever successfully jumped to open-wheel. But there's no doubt they have the better drivers these days.

But if the reconciliation in open-wheel is successful; if the IRL can increase it's schedule from a measly high-school level 16 races (NASCAR runs about 38); if they can figure out how to market themselves as well as the matchbox series (here's a tip--show an ad with an Indy Car racing a stock car); if, if if, then they might recover the magic before the Indy 500 becomes even more of a joke than it currently is. I remember as a kid in Indiana reading the sports section in April and seeing that they already had over 100 entries for Indy qualifying. Now they barely can scrape up 33, so basically anyone who shows up gets in. I remember when bump day mattered--guys who had put all their money into their machines trying to get it up to enough speed to qualify 33rd, a backyard mechanics ultimate dream. Now there's nobody to bump. Tony George, owner of the world's most famous race, has made it an afterthought on Memorial Day weekend, when the real race is NASCAR's Coca Cola 600.

A decade of damage. I wonder how long it will take to recover, or if the even can.

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