Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Obi-Wan wisdom


(crapwagon.com 6-19-08)
(a post regarding the state of open-wheel racing in America and how it has lost all feeling since the IRL bought out ChampCar)

I agree and I think it is the fundamental reason that Tony George’s open-wheel travesty will ultimately fail.

Although it is difficult for me to be unbiased in this regard, I’ve tried very hard to put myself in the shoes of a potential new American motor sports fan; i.e., the legendary “casual fan.” What I see is that motor sport in our country has gone the way of almost all other sports here: namely American sports fans almost exclusively favor homegrown sports. While the premier international sports (e.g. soccer, Formula 1, etc.) occasionally attract brief interest in the U.S., in the long term they usually go the way of other fads.

I think the current premier American motor sport, NASCAR, is destined to remain so for any foreseeable future. As such it may become more or less popular but I think it will always remain a niche sport; as will its American cousin, drag racing.

Whatever else it may be, NASCAR is the most popular development of a uniquely American motor sport: speedway racing. While we (as American open-wheel racing fans) may have a difficult time fathoming the attractions of stock car racing, we are relatively alone in that assessment. NASCAR is not just the most popular current American motor sport, it is the most popular American motor sport of all time.

Looking at the various elements that comprise NASCAR racing, there is not another motor sport in existence or on the horizon that can hope to compete with it, let alone equal it. NASCAR has everything that Indycar racing once had and more; much, much more.

I do not possess a crystal ball but I think the current peak oil crisis is going to permanently transform the world and, unlike the oil crisis of the 1970’s, things are never going to be the same. Viewing only its impact on motor sport, I don’t envision the United States ever returning to its previous “car culture.” The automobile has occupied a unique place in American culture and development and in many ways it has shaped our national identity. That’s changing and when the smoke clears I think we will see an automotive landscape that more closely resembles the one in the rest of the world.

On the face of it that would seem to spell good news for international motor sports like Formula One, MotoGP, endurance sports car racing, and rallying in America; but I don’t think so. Those motor sports were developed and remain popular in nations that arguably never had America’s car culture, so it would seem logical that as the United States moves toward adoption of the international view of automobiles and auto racing we would also adopt that view. However, each of those motor sports will have to compete with a uniquely American homegrown product that is specifically tailored to its market and completely dominates its media landscape.

The Formula One supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, has tried during his entire tenure to crack the American motor sport market – without success. In 2006 he commented:

"It does not matter to Formula 1 if there is no Grand Prix in the U.S. What do we get from America? Aggravation -- that's about all. If you say 'good morning' over there when it's five past twelve, you end up with a lawsuit."

"We have never got any sponsors out there...The television has never taken off … We have more viewers in Malta than over there...Why do we need to worry so much about America? It has never really taken to open-wheel racing...They talk about the big audiences for NASCAR, but we get as many viewers in Italy alone as they do for NASCAR in the States."

Bernie’s insurmountable problem – the same problem faced by any other motor sport promoter – is that NASCAR presents a familiar, distinctly American motor sport with a long history and traditions, populated mostly by well-known American celebrity drivers, to a large American audience nearly every weekend during a long racing season. Additionally, NASCAR has saturation coverage in every form of U.S. media: television, radio, newspapers and magazines.

This is an entertainment juggernaut with which Bernie cannot compete; not yesterday, today, or tomorrow. To American motor sports enthusiasts, Bernie’s F1 is always going to be a foreign motor sport populated mostly by foreigners, barely mentioned in local or national media, with a paltry schedule of 18 or so races put on in weird places at weird hours, late at night or early in the morning. There is simply no way that such a sport is going to become an engrained part of most American’s lives; for example, try planning a family Sunday picnic around 95% of F1 Grands Prix.

For his part, the Idiot Grandson launched a campaign to take over the one existing American motor sport with the capability of going toe to toe with NASCAR and then either threw away or dismantled every aspect of the sport that gave it appeal.

For instance, CART was in the process of expanding its schedule of races to try to match the frequency, continuity and consistency of NASCAR broadcasting; a key component of its appeal. Ironically, Tony George’s early efforts had the effect of adding enough additional open-wheel races to a combined schedule that the sport experienced almost immediate growth in attendance and television viewership (if the figures for both rival series were combined) for the first three or four years of the split. This basically validated CART’s expansionist strategy vis-à-vis NASCAR. However, it wasn’t long before the fragmented financial situation in the sport caused both series to begin to redact their race calendars. As long as it was financially able CART tried its best to increase and/or maintain a full schedule of races. Tony George, however, was only ever interested in the welfare of one race, the Indy 500, and he viewed the other races on the IRL schedule as a necessary evil to be eliminated as soon as possible.

With his purchase of the CCWS, George has announced his intention to only retain profitable races on the schedule of his “newly unified” series. This virtually guarantees that the number of AOW races will continue to decrease, as only popular races have the possibility of being profitable, and a reduced calendar works against growing the popularity of the sport. Hence, Tony’s short-sighted vision has doomed the sport to decline.

Even more disastrous to the chances of survival for the sport has been Tony George’s dismantling of the process by which new open-wheel celebrity drivers were created. The key component of this machinery was the ability of the Indy 500 to mint new star drivers by having them compete against established stars in an iconic event. IMS was the “shrine” of American open-wheel racing, where celebrity candidates gathered to be anointed as rising or arrived stars.

First, George violated the sanctity of the shrine by allowing the Philistines of NASCAR through its doors, thereby destroying its unique status to AOW, and then he separated the cars and stars of the existing sport and substituted a bunch of imposters in their place. This destroyed IMS’s ability to anoint stars while simultaneously transferring its status to a motor sport (NASCAR) whose star-making machinery was fully intact. Thus, NASCAR celebrity drivers anointed at iconic star-making races like the Daytona 500 got additional laurels by competing at IMS while the established open-wheel celebrity drivers were locked out of their own shrine and were unable to pass their scepters to the next generation of open-wheel star drivers. As a final fatal blow, George invalidated the outcome of the 2002 Indy 500 and thereby cast doubt on the validity of all its future assessments of star drivers. The result has been that the sport under Tony George is incapable of creating a star driver now or in the future and without star drivers the sport will die.

Some people cite the notoriety surrounding Danica Patrick as being indicative of a star driver and therefore argue that George and IMS can still create a star driver. A moment’s reflection will show that this in incorrect; Patrick is only a “star” in the IRL’s small pond. When Indy was the exclusive province of AOW, the exclusivity alone was enough to insulate its driver celebrities from comparisons to those in other motor sports. Now that IMS has opened its doors to NASCAR and Formula 1 and IROC and IPS and, soon, MotoGP, however, a “star” made at Indy must prove herself or himself against the stars of those other motor sports in order to affirm their title. In this regard, the driver celebrities of most of those other motor sports (most particularly Formula 1 and NASCAR) would make mincemeat of Danica Patrick. Since Patrick is currently being touted as the best that AOW has to offer, it is more than obvious that AOW’s “best” is not very good at all.

Everywhere one looks in Tony George’s “unified” AOW, one espies a wasteland. Championship racing once boasted racecars and technology that could match and on occasion surpass those in Formula 1 (the “Pinnacle of Motor Sport”). Now, Indycars are a laughingstock; hard on both eyes and ears and an embarrassment to the sport in terms of their performance.

One could go on and on but it is sufficient to say that the whole of American open-wheel racing is no longer greater than the sum of its parts and its parts provide inadequate building blocks to revive the sport in the face of rivals (mostly NASCAR).

The world has turned at least 4,382 times since Tony George dismantled our sport in order to attempt to remake it. He was like a kid sitting on his living-room carpet dismantling his grandfather’s watch into a thousand pieces to see what makes it tick and by the time he realized he couldn’t figure it out or make it any better, it was too late. Tony hasn’t the talent to reassemble his grandfather’s watch and if he finds a watchmaker to try, they’ll both discover that he’s misplaced some of its vital pieces and it will never again tell the right time.

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