(by Tony DiZinno Motorsport.com 2-27-09)
Much has transpired since February of 2008 in the increasingly smaller world of American open-wheel racing. Akin to Pluto, it once formed a part of racing's solar system but has since been banished to levels of obscurity leaving its fans jilted and depressed and much of what made it great gone forever, hopes of sprouting again as likely as Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell collaborating on business ventures.
The current global economic crisis has left so many people out of work and the racing world in shambles that it makes it very difficult to see the positives for the future without enduring what will come the next few years. No one is immune to the downturn.
In simplest terms, IndyCar racing will be lucky to survive until or much past 2011, the centennial of its hallmark race, the Indianapolis 500. This is even assuming its much-ballyhooed new car comes to fruition and at least one more manufacturer arrives to challenge Honda.
Some of the recent trends in the series are eerily reminiscent of what happened this time the last two off-seasons in Champ Car. Failure to recognize history ensures a quicker path to pitfalls if the issues facing the current series aren't addressed. It's particularly ironic that the warning signs there led to Champ Car's demise, yet the same ones plaguing IndyCar are being attributed mainly to the economic crisis.
It could be argued Honda runs the show more than any of the series officials or CEO. They are in an interesting position at the moment given their departure from Formula One after funding and fielding their own works program without much success, and a lack of a title sponsor the last two seasons following the end of tobacco advertising in Europe. They also have their Acura ALMS programs to worry about.
Granted, at this time last year there were still two series with each struggling to surpass the mid-teens in terms of participation. The outlook was bleak on both ends until last February's unification that, in hindsight, appears a band-aid to greater problems. The ball was placed in Tony George and his staff's court and most observers agreed this was their chance to begin the recovery process caused by a devastating twelve-year schism after the Indy Racing League was first created.
There is the issue of canceled races. Surfers Paradise never really had much of a chance as a one-year adopted race with sticking points in dates it desired and IndyCar wanted, and justifying the travel expense for going overseas unless paired with the event in Motegi, Japan.
Detroit's cancellation in December could be the tip of the iceberg in terms of street races, which prove costly due to construction and money put forth by city infrastructures. It's hard enough for a street race to break even let alone make a profit, and a race like Long Beach that has withstood the test of time for over 30 years is more the exception than the norm for street venues.
On-track, the net "boom" in car count was obvious for the races the series ran united, save for the split Japan-Long Beach weekend in April. Anywhere from 24 to 28 cars took the green flag, and Indianapolis saw its usual 33 with serious bumping for the first time in roughly a half dozen years.
But for 2009, teams are being forced to scale back as a result of the economic climate, and having to raise more money for engine leases that transitioning teams didn't worry about in 2008.
As drivers and fans have related, and depending on how many cars IndyCar will lose for 2009, in two years there is a potential for a net loss of 16 cars. Average the 18 apiece for Champ Car and IndyCar in 2007 for a total of 36, and the worst case scenario for 2009 is 20 or less.
Rahal Letterman Racing is likely to focus their interests to ALMS and managing the Formula BMW Championship given their loss of backing from the American Ethanol Promotion and Information Council. While no official announcements have been made as yet, rumors swirl that KV Racing and Conquest Racing will act similar to their final year in Champ Car with one car apiece and a paying driver.
This not only means fewer opportunities to drive in the de facto premier American open-wheel series but the ones that do arise will again go to those who carry the fattest checkbooks, not the most talent. Something's wrong given that proven race winners and champions Paul Tracy, Justin Wilson, Oriol Servia, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Buddy Rice and Bruno Junqueira are all free agents, not to mention the pipeline of young talent in the feeder series.
It will be hard for the series to attract more sponsors given the economy and their new television contract on Versus. No matter what is spun, at a net loss of 20 million homes at the best case scenario, fewer viewers will tune in to the series' broadcasts. It doesn't matter if the finished, televised product is better if no-one knows about it or watches it.
DirecTV was a presenting sponsor of the series but given the Versus contract, a Comcast subsidiary (a DirecTV competitor), it had no choice but to withdraw given it would not want to support one of its rivals.
Promotion of the series remains non-existent or microscopic in this arena. Other than the Danica Patrick godaddy.com ads, the only commercials featuring IndyCar drivers were produced in-house, saying which driver was in which car and their interests. Versus is at least trying with a couple teaser ads that have populated the web in recent weeks but again, if it isn't being discovered, it isn't being watched.
Why Marco Andretti isn't dropping off a movie at a Blockbuster in his IndyCar or Graham Rahal ordering a Big Mac and saying RI'm lovin' itS is beyond me, but again, hard to justify for a company if there isn't light at the end of the tunnel.
Longing for the days of Vasser/Zanardi Target ads or Mario Andretti talking about putting Havoline in your car is a losing proposition when you realize those days aren't coming back.
The adoption of Champ Car's best assets seems to be non-existent, or at least seriously declining. Races picked up include only Long Beach, Toronto and Edmonton, with Surfers Paradise getting the ax after a one year non-points trial run.
For the most part, option tires, push-to-pass, and standing starts have not been discussed or implemented. Sponsorship pending, some of the teams that made the switch this year might be hard pressed to stay in for the long run.
There is also the prospect of a pseudo-Champ Car series rising from the ashes, though quite how given the current economic climate is somewhat baffling.
Ben Johnston, the Atlanta businessman who also recently purchased the assets of the Atlantic Championship, has proposed the GreenPrix USA Series, which will be older Champ Car chassis racing at Savannah, Ga. this March. Supposedly the program is a show up and drive type concept, but still in the development stages, without many official press releases.
To be fair to IndyCar though, it is the dog days of a long off-season that started in September (the non-points October race in Australia notwithstanding) and won't end until the first race in early April at St. Petersburg. News is slow to come in but until the change of the calendar and some minor sponsorship acquisitions, the end of 2008 closed with a bulk of bad news.
All told, the cautious optimism from the a year ago has descended into a stupefying realism that times will be worse for IndyCar racing in the immediate future before they get better. As Kevin Kalkhoven said at the start of the year, "Unification was the first step, but not a magic bullet to fixing all that ails the sport." Some witnessed the warning signs before Champ Car's demise and the timing of the economic crisis despite the unification cannot have helped IndyCar's long-term prospects.