In the struggle for dominance of open-wheel racing, it looks like everyone lost.
(by Bob Zeller in Car and Driver's March 2004 magazine)
One of the notable lowlights of the long, bloody war in Indy-car racing occurred earlier this year when more spectators attended the 29th running of the Long Beach Grand Prix than watched it on television.
Open-wheel-racing enthusiasts already knew the bottom had fallen out of Indy-car TV ratings, whether you chose not to watch the Indy Racing League, or avoided the Champ Car World Series staged by Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). But this news was stunning. Estimated Long Beach race-day attendance: 95,000. Estimated nationwide television audience on Speed: 69,000 households.
It was just the latest indignity in a never-ending debacle. Or then again, maybe it is ending. As this story went to press, CART was still hanging on, but just barely. A takeover bid by Open Wheel Racing Series LLC—headed by car owners Paul Gentilozzi, Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven, and others who offered to buy up CART's stock at 56 cents a share—was still pending. CART stock had been as high as $35.63 in 1999.
Not that Tony George's Indy Racing League had much to gloat about. Its 2003 ratings on national television were consistently less than a point (usually 0.7 or 0.8 on ABC, or about 700,000 to 800,000 viewers). With the defection of CART teams to the IRL, and with most of the original IRL teams gone, the league was looking more like CART than CART. And it faced serious safety issues, both on the track and in the grandstands, in the wake of horrific late-season crashes that killed Tony Renna at Indianapolis and severely injured Kenny Brack at Texas.
This racing war has always been about power and control. Forty years ago, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George was just a little tyke, his grandfather, Tony Hulman, controlled the speedway, the Indy 500, and the sport. Hulman died in 1977, and by 1979, Indy-car owners had wrested control of the sport from the speedway. On March 11, 1994, when he announced the creation of the Indy Racing League, George embarked on his campaign to take it back. It's been almost 10 years now, so we asked some notable participants: Who won the war?
Tony George, 43
President and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Founder of the Indy Racing League.
When we started to form the Indy Racing League, we really weren't thinking in terms of firing the first shot to begin a war in open-wheel racing. We tried to influence some change—positive change in my opinion—in CART and the way it was managing the sport. This was not well received, and really, I felt we were left with no other choice but to go out and start the league.
The distractions that we both faced in responding to questions about the divisiveness of a split—who has the best drivers, who has the best sponsors, who has the best teams—all of that really prevented us from focusing on growing our respective businesses to the extent that we would like. I'm sure all this talk for the past eight years about there being a civil war and a split in open-wheel racing and all that stuff has contributed to some degree to the drop in television ratings, but I also attribute that to more competition and more choice. And I attribute it to not being able to get any traction in broadening our fan base and to not being good marketers. As much as I'd like to see open-wheel racing all together under one series with common goals and business objectives, I believe in fair competition and the opportunity to build a better mousetrap.
Chris Pook, 62
Founder of the Long Beach Grand Prix. President and CEO of CART—the third CEO since the split (he will become a consultant under the proposed new ownership).
I don't think there is a war. We are doing what we've always done here at CART, and that's run on ovals, road courses, and street courses, and we're running on more street courses. We're back on the rails where we were originally when we were the top open-wheel series in North America. And I respectfully suggest that we continue to be the top open-wheel series in North America, drawing 400,000 plus to our race in Mexico and more than 430,000 in Australia.
On top of all that, when you look at the growth right now of the Hispanic/Latino communities across the country, we control that area of the marketplace. Now, the area where I suppose there's some criticism is that we don't have enough Americans. But how are those guys doing for American drivers? If you really want to get into it, you've got to dig back to why [the IRL] was formed and what it was going to do, and then you have to ask the question: "Has it done what it set out to do, or did it just reach across and steal some stuff from us?"
Everyone is saying we're going out of business, which we find extremely offensive. We've turned it around. Our teams are already lining up for next year, and we clearly see our 18 cars again and we see them [being committed] much earlier this year than we saw them last year. And we see them without the need to subsidize them, with the sponsorship increases and everything else that is going on.
Andrew Craig, 54
President and CEO of CART from 1994 to 2000. Owns the Craig Company, an international sports consulting firm that assisted Vancouver, B.C., in its successful bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics and is working with London on its bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
I don't see any winners. I don't think either side can regard itself as a winner. What I see is that the division of the sport has led to its decline. It has disenchanted fans, it has confused fans, and perhaps most important of all, it has caused energy that could and should have been devoted to building the sport to be wasted just trying to survive. For example, the suit filed by the speedway in 1997—which started out as a trademark issue and became an anti-trust action—was just very debilitating. We seemed to spend our entire life in court. We won, but what did we get out of it? Virtually nothing. And the fact is, it diverted attention away from our core mission for at least two-thirds of a year.
When the split occurred, the popular wisdom was that CART couldn't possibly survive without the speedway. And the fact is, the teams did stay onboard while I was there. But in doing that, to keep everyone inside the tent, I had to make substantial compromises on many issues. I think the view on the speedway's side was that by effectively removing the Indy 500 from CART, it would result in there being no teams, no sponsors, and no racetracks for CART. And in fact, the opposite occurred. During that period [1994-2000], CART had more teams, more sponsors, and more racetracks than at any other time in its history. And also a lot more money.
Roger Penske, 66
Owner of Penske Racing and several other businesses. CART loyalist until 2001. Switched from CART to IRL in 2002.
I'm not an advocate of a war, number one. I'm an advocate of one series. And I've said that. And that's not to put down CART. I think there can be a combination, potentially, where everybody survives. A lot of people are talking that you could have [in the IRL] some combination in some of the major markets of ovals and road races. To us, obviously having come from a road racing heritage, we would certainly like that. But I think that's up to Tony George.
In any business, people go in different directions. I think we've experienced that over the past four or five years. The unfortunate thing is we've probably lost some of the media, we've lost some of the fans, and we've lost some of the sponsors. Obviously, there's been some damage, but we're a resilient group of people in this sport.
Mario Andretti, 64
One of CART's most outspoken defenders. Formula 1 world champion in 1967; winner of the Indy 500 in 1969. Only began returning to IMS when his son, Michael, returned in 2001.
Nobody's winning. Nobody is winning anything. Right now, in my opinion, we should all be together. We should all be pulling in the same direction. I keep saying this, and I maintain it: Going in two different directions like this, neither organization is winning. Fans are losing, competitors are losing, and so it would be time to sort of create a win-win situation for everyone. That's wishful thinking on my part, but I'll never stop wishing [for a reconciliation], because right now, any way you look at it, in a perfect world, each side is only going to have 50 percent of everything. Just think for a minute if Formula 1 would split up and try to go with two parallel series, or even NASCAR. Who would benefit? No one.
A.J. Foyt, 69
Four-time winner of the Indy 500. IRL team owner from the start. Has seen his cars struggle in recent years, posting only two victories since 1999.
Well, you know who won it before it ever started—the IRL. The IRL is an oval-racing circuit. CART does some ovals, but it's mainly a road-course circuit. So why would you not want to run Indianapolis?. That made A.J. Foyt. That made Roger Penske. And that made Mario Andretti. It's like the Kentucky Derby. If you don't want to run that race, you're kinda sick in the head.
It's probably as strong as it has ever been in the IRL. The future of CART? It's really hard to say. But most of the top teams that were very successful and very good and that had any names are over here in the IRL. So I think it's a matter of time.
CART is just a road-racing circuit. You've never seen road racing really go over big in the United States. CART has a bunch of good road races, but still it's never been as successful as the open wheel.
Bobby Rahal, 51
Winner of the 1986 Indy 500. Now has teams in both CART and the IRL.
I think open wheel lost the war for the hearts and minds of the people, and NASCAR has won that. I think open wheel can regain a lot of that because NASCAR will—it's like anything. There are cycles, there are ups and down, you're in a trough or you're at the apogee. It's schizophrenic, but it's been that way the past 10 years. Right now, one of the strongest elements CART has in its favor is diversity. That's really the American story.
The only weakness CART has is its TV. And I even say that about the IRL to an extent. Just about every CART race you go to, particularly the city tracks, it's packed. But advertisers or companies, they all want to look at the rating. The ratings are sacred. I think open-wheel racing as a group, the IRL or CART, has suffered from not having particularly—I'll get in a lot of trouble for this—but ABC and ESPN, I don't think they care. NASCAR has had networks that care. They market and merchandise and promote. And I think all of open-wheel racing has suffered from a lack of that.
John Menard, 64
An IRL team owner from the inception. Owns the 184-store chain of Menards home improvement stores, with $5.5 billion in annual sales.
I mean it's like the Civil War. Who won it? The North won it, but it didn't do the country a lot of good, did it? There were a lot of people dead and a lot wounded. So I think we hurt ourselves. I think we're continuing to hurt ourselves. It's just that the IRL is stronger than CART, whereas last year, and in years past, maybe CART was stronger than the IRL.
We're still a bunch of people trying to hurt another bunch of people, and until we figure out how to get some sort of unification or revive interest in open-wheel racing, we're going to continue to lose ground to NASCAR. When all is said and done, NASCAR is the 900-pound gorilla that everybody is fighting right now.
Not that there's anything wrong with NASCAR. God bless 'em, they're very successful. But for open-wheel racing to make a comeback, we're going to have to take some market share from somebody. The thing is, CART has zero market share and the IRL has a bit more, but when you combine the two, we still don't have any market share. So the problem is, it kind of doesn't matter. That's the tragedy. Combine the two and what have you got? A pigmy compared with NASCAR.
Robin Miller, 54
Motorsports journalist now working for ESPN. Covered open-wheel racing for the Indianapolis Star for more than 30 years.
There's no winner. Open-wheel racing lost. It's a joke. Both series are in the toilet. When the IRL and CART go head-to-head on national television, they both get a 0.8. As much as Tony George should be reviled for screwing up the Indy 500 and open-wheel racing, the CART owners should be lined up and executed right along with him. They did just as many stupid things. Roger Penske helped make CART and then jumped ship. Chip Ganassi wins four championships in a row, and he couldn't bail quick enough.
Tony George used to call me three or four times a week. And I still have my notebook from 1990, when he told me, "The last thing I need to do is run a racing series. We've got enough to do." Well, what changed his mind between 1990 and 1994? Bill France. France is one of the few guys George thought told him the truth, and France told him, "You've got to take the bull by the horns. You've got to be the man and take over open-wheel racing." And the bottom line is, who was helped most by the open-wheel war? NASCAR. Of course, Bill France got real mad when I suggested that to him. I said, "You gotta be loving these two sides going at it." He was not happy with that suggestion. But it's the truth. The people who used to watch Indy-car racing either got pissed off and quit watching and quit going, or they became NASCAR fans. It's like the baseball strike. They pissed some people off so bad they never came back.
Bobby Unser, 70
Three-time winner of the Indy 500.
Who won the war? I don't think either one necessarily won. I think open-wheel racing lost. That's the bottom line of the whole thing. The best thing to happen now is for CART to go out of business. If open-wheel racing is to survive, it must survive as one organization, so CART must go out of business. CART lost, and it should go home. And that was the car owners' fault. They all became too piggish—looking out for their own world and not enough for the sport. So they need to go out of business, and Tony George needs to have the responsibility of getting open-wheel racing back to where it used to be. That being said, it's obvious open-wheel racing is still going to be hurting, because we won't have road-racing circuits and street circuits like Long Beach, which are extremely successful. Tony George says he's going to expand into road racing, but will he do it, and when will he do it? The IRL's future should be good, but it can't be the grass-roots series Tony George envisioned. That was a wet dream. That was to get car owners to get started, and I'm sure they all had a dang good time.
Pat Patrick, 74
Co-founder of CART and Indy-car team owner for 32 years.
Well, it's sad the way the thing has played out. It's very sad because I like the sport so much. The bottom line is, I think both series are in the Mexican standoff right now. And I think it's an untenable situation. It's difficult to get sponsors. Fans are leaving us. They're leaving the IRL. They're leaving open-wheel racing. I feel extremely strongly that the two series should be put back together. This business of us against them—I don't believe in that. I think CART offers the best open-wheel racing series in the world for diversity—the type of racing and the race cars and drivers themselves. And I think the IRL has a tremendous amount to offer because they put on great shows. But both series are suffering from insufficient sponsors, insufficient owners, and insufficient teams. Everybody criticized the CART owners when they were running it for conflict of interest. But look what we had. Look what we built. We had the greatest racing series in the world before we started hiring these so-called professional managers to run it.
Arie Luyendyk, 50
Two-time winner of the Indy 500.
I was always convinced the IRL would succeed because it had the Indy 500 in the schedule. I already had that answer in my head before it went about deciding who came out on top. I've always maintained that, and I've always stood behind Tony George in creating the series because of that fact. Maybe I look at it different. Coming from Europe, the only thing I heard about was the Indy 500. If you ask me about the future of CART, I would say it's not very good. But I've always felt bad that either one had to suffer. It's still basically the same group of guys.
Open-wheel racing is basically very hard to make mainstream, and that's really what it comes down to. Most people walk around in jeans. Not everybody walks around in Hugo Boss. And it's a matter of taste. Most people are drawn to NASCAR because it's easier than an Indy car, it seems to be more familiar, more household.