Saturday, September 5, 2009

IndyCar would be in better shape if it embraced ovals

(by Pete Pistone cbssports.com 9-2-09)

Last week's IndyCar stop at Chicagoland Speedway resulted in Ryan Briscoe somehow edging Scott Dixon by an amazing 0.0077 seconds, the fourth-closest finish in series history.

That came on the heels of the last speedway thriller the series turned in, when Briscoe nosed ahead of Ed Carpenter at Kentucky Speedway's finish line by .0162 seconds on Aug. 1.

But rather than building up IndyCar racing around this fantastic and heart-pounding kind of competition, series officials inexplicably are moving away from oval tracks in favor of adding more street circuits and road courses.

It's maddening, confusing and downright stupid.

But it's only one of several issues the IRL needs to address if American-based open-wheel racing is to ever mount a comeback in popularity:

More ovals, not fewer

The crown jewel of IndyCar racing is the Indianapolis 500, an event that transcends the sport and reaches a mainstream population around the world. The IndyCar Series should be built around that foundation and support its showcase event with a strong base of oval-track dates.

A finish like this one -- Ryan Briscoe edging Scott Dixon at Chicagoland by 0.0077 seconds -- is reason to have more ovals. (Getty Images)

When the IRL-CART split first happened nearly 15 years ago, a positive offshoot was a new series created around the concept of oval-track competition. The IRL started out as an American-based open-wheel series created to run primarily on oval tracks.

The result was a tantalizing new form of IndyCar racing that provided fantastic racing and mesmerizing finishes at places like Texas, Michigan, Las Vegas, Kansas, Nashville and Kentucky.

Slowly but surely, the series strayed away from that idea in favor of adding road races to the calendar. Before long, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Vegas, Michigan and Nashville were left by the wayside.

A sprinkling of road races and street circuits is fine, but IndyCar racing should always be weighed in favor of oval tracks. Emphasizing and broadening, not abandoning the kind of racing on display last Saturday night at Chicagoland would enhance the IRL tremendously
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Obi-wan

Where’s Pete “The Pistol” Pistone been the last fourteen years?

Evidently, no where near American IndyCar racing.

Haven't we heard all this before? If memory serves, I think it was just before the Idiot Grandson dreamed up his misbegotten league. Or perhaps it was just minutes after the league was proved to be one of the most colossally bad ideas in the history of American motor sports.

Pete forgot a few. The league left the Walt Disney World, Dover, Charlotte, Pikes Peak, Atlanta, Richmond, Nazareth, Gateway, and California speedways by the wayside, too. Unless I missed one, that’s fifteen American speedways the ICS has abandoned in all.

Why would the league do that? Pete thinks it is because the league’s leaders are “downright stupid.” While that is probably true, that’s not the reason that the ICS abandoned all but a handful of the speedways that were available to it.

The IRL dropped fifteen speedways because the races held at them didn’t make a profit; not for the track owners and promoters, and not for the IRL. It’s that simple.

Most of the abandoned speedways are theoretically available to the ICS today; if the league is willing to rent them. The problem is, after losing an estimated $600 million on the IRL, the league’s backers are no longer willing to take the chance.

It is this reality that makes a fool of Pistone. Because if micro-close finishes in speedway races mattered, the IRL’s races wouldn’t have gone broke. The same holds true for the league’s “fantastic and heart-pounding kind of competition.” Pistone may like it but the paying customers at the track and the television viewers at home obviously do not.

Here’s where the few remaining IndyCar journalists like Pistone have a big problem: they find it impossible to put themselves into the mindset of their intended audience, or they fail to empathize with them, or they simply are too dumb to read the handwriting on the wall.

It is an article of faith with the Gomers that the league’s salvation lies in exposing its “fantasic and heart-pounding kind of competition” to the masses. This parochial view was summed up years ago in song lyrics which asked: “How can you keep them down on the farm, once they’ve seen Paris (pa’ri)?” In the context of this pipe dream, the ICS is a stand-in for Pa’ri.

Well, practically from the league’s inception it has been carpet bombing a wide area around its speedway races with free tickets and other inducements to the casual motorsports audience in an attempt to get it to sample the IRL's wares. Additionally, its deep-pocket “partners” like Marlboro and the league’s auto manufacturers have been buying up huge blocks of tickets and conducting national direct mail and advertising campaigns in attempts to do the same thing. As a consequence, at some of the IRL’s past speedway races the at-track audience has included large numbers of guests dubbed the “Red-Hat Brigade,” because of their distinctive scarlet giveaway hats (which accompanied their free tickets).

The result of all this sampling of the league’s product is that the majority of people who answered the league’s siren call never came back. They came, they saw, they left … and stayed away.

If any one event should have proved this notion a fallacy, it was the Indianapolis 500; the league’s centerpiece event. At its height after the formation of Tony George’s breakaway league, perhaps as many as 300,000 spectators attended the race and millions of people watched it on television. Yet, every year since the league’s founding attendance at the big race has declined; as has the television audience at home.

During this same period, attendance and TV ratings for NASCAR’s rival speedway racing series has skyrocketed. Thus, in a head-to-head “taste test” of oval racing brands, the paying customers prefer NASCAR’s brand by a landslide.

Still, desperate fans of the league are deluded enough to think that if they can only expose current NASCAR fans to one of their millisecond photo finishes, it will instantly convert the redneck heathens to the true path. It ain’t gonna happen. I dare say the majority of NASCAR fans across a broad demographic have viewed an IndyCar race or two or three … and decided to stick with their choice of the stock car series.

There is also a problem with Pistone’s contention that:

”The fact is, exposing more NASCAR fans to the heart-stopping brand of oval-track racing the IRL has created will in turn bring more of those full-fender fans back to the sport for more.”

The problem is that it is a wish, a hope, but not a “fact.”

Pete Pistone
Embrace NASCAR

There's certain smugness around the IRL, in terms of how it views the stock car world. Rather than recognizing NASCAR's potential benefit to the sport, the IndyCar seems hell-bent on thumbing its nose at the stock car crowd.

The fact is, exposing more NASCAR fans to the heart-stopping brand of oval-track racing the IRL has created will in turn bring more of those full-fender fans back to the sport for more.

The IRL should pair up with NASCAR at a handful of dates and run in conjunction with the Nationwide or Sprint Cup Series. There are currently a few IndyCar-Camping World Truck Series weekends on the calendar, but aligning with one of NASCAR's top two divisions would put the IRL in front of thousands more fans.

There was some hesitance a year or so ago when this idea came up, reportedly because the IRL did not want to play the role of support division. Get over it. The chance to showcase your product on a high-profile weekend far outweighs any perceived notion of playing second fiddle.


Start your engines ... earlier

Pushing back the start time of the Indianapolis 500 a few years ago killed the chance for any driver to try what had become known as "The Double," running both Indy and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte later that day. Robby Gordon, John Andretti and Tony Stewart had all pulled off the amazing feat in the past, with Stewart nearly winning both events.

But when the green flag at Indy went to 1 p.m. in an attempt to attract the West Coast television audience, the possibility of pulling off the twin bill went out the window. It's now logistically impossible to finish at the Brickyard and jet down to Charlotte in time to compete in the stock car nightcap.

That needs to be fixed immediately.

Any opportunity to draw NASCAR participation to the Indianapolis 500 should be pursued. Just having Richard Petty at the track last May as a car owner created incredible buzz and awareness of the race.

Imagine what having the likes of Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. or even Kyle Busch participating in the Memorial Day classic would have on the sport. Every media outlet in the country -- and maybe the world -- would no doubt follow the exploits of this group of drivers competing in 1,100 miles at two of the most famous tracks in racing.

And should someone pull off the feat of actually winning both races, it would go down as one of the greatest accomplishments in sports history. The IRL and the speedway should pull out all the stops to make it happen as soon as 2010.

There are other things that need attention in the IndyCar world to elevate the sport back to a more prominent position in American motorsports. More American drivers, a better television package rather than being buried on Versus (which also resulted in a ridiculous 10 p.m. ET start at Chicago last week), a series title sponsor and, of course, ensuring Danica Patrick doesn't bolt for NASCAR are imperative for the Indy Racing League to have any chance to prosper in the coming years.

We know the league is capable of generating exciting racing. More people need to find out about it
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Obi-wan

Besides the delusional thinking – specifically the magnetic attraction of the ICS’s brand of racing – there is an assumption on Pistone’s part that the oval-racing fraternity is just one big, happy family. These two ideas are so incompatible that it’s a wonder they don’t spontaneously explode on the screen, like mixing sodium and water.

A moment’s thought should have clued The Pistol into a realization that if the same company doesn’t own both motor sports, they are by definition, rivals. Resources diverted to the IRL are not available to NASCAR, and vice versa. So, what CEO of a competing company is going to expose his/her customers to a rival product if there is truth to the belief that: ” The fact is, exposing more NASCAR fans to the heart-stopping brand of oval-track racing the IRL has created will in turn bring more of those full-fender fans back to the sport for more?” The answer is: none.

This fairly begs the question: Why on earth would NASCAR help the ICS steal its customers?

Perhaps Pistone might answer: Because NASCAR needs more races to increase the profitability of its speedways. There may have been a time when misguided souls thought this was true, but no more. At the height of their sport’s popularity, NASCAR’s oval cartel was working a dodge involving the IRL: they were combining a demand for their motor sport which exceeded its supply with the availability of cheap (or even free) IndyCar races to create their infamous Track Packs. In this scheme, NASCAR Cup fans were forced to buy tickets to a speedway’s ICS race in order to be permitted the privilege of buying tickets to the speedway’s desired Cup races. Through this creation of artificial demand, the oval cartel was able to effectively double the price of Cup tickets by including cheap, filler ICS races.

Now, though, the global recession has cut deeply into the demand for NASCAR’s products and their most immediate response has been to cut prices across the board. At speedways using the Track Pack scheme, the price reductions have been relatively painless because the management has trimmed the “fat” – i.e., the ICS – out of the mix. By dropping the ICS from Track Packs, the oval cartel can simply return Cup ticket prices to the level that they were before they were artificially inflated by the addition of the IndyCars. Assuming the recession lasts for more than a couple of years, look for the oval cartel to either drop the ICS from its speedway schedules or put the league on a “pay as you go” basis (meaning either track rentals or profit-sharing with guarantees).

In the world of the NASCAR oval cartel, the France’s ISC has always had an insurmountable advantage over the other cartel members: they literally own the motor sport (through ownership of its sanctioning body). Consequently, all oval cartel members have to pay a sanction fee to the Frances, while the Frances simply transfer money from one of their pockets to another. However, their ownership of the sport confers much greater power than this; in any dispute between cartel members involving the sport, the Frances are always capable of legislating a win for themselves (see Kentucky Speedway). Thus, no matter how hard they tried, speedway owners like O. Bruton Smith and Roger Penske never had a chance of besting the Frances; as soon as they got close to it, the Frances quickly changed the rules of the game to ensure their advantage.

The reason I raise this point here is to point out the advantage held by the NASCAR oval cartel over the ICS. The cartel owns all but two of the major speedways in the United States. The two speedways not in the cartel are Milwaukee, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Consequently, if any dispute should arise between the ICS and the NASCAR oval cartel involving speedways – say, the scheduling of races – the oval cartel will always win. The structure of American speedway ownership allows no other possibility.

During the years of anti-war protest against America’s involvement in Viet Nam, there arose a rule of thumb regarding free speech: “In order to have a free press, one needs to first own a [printing] press.” That was just a fact of life. If one had an anti-Establishment point of view and wanted it expressed in a newspaper or magazine, one needed first to own or control a newspaper or magazine.

Basically, the same reality applies to Pistone’s speedway races. If one owns a motor sport and wants it to race at speedways, one needs to first own speedways if one wants to guarantee it a place on their calendar. Not to belabor the obvious, but NASCAR is an oval-centric motor sport and its owners and principals own perhaps two dozen speedways; essentially all the major ones. Pistone’s ICS aspires to be an oval-centric motor sport and its owners possess one speedway (IMS); so the series is guaranteed a place on the schedule at only one speedway. Ergo, the moment that the ICS began to encroach on the popularity and/or profitability of NASCAR, the oval cartel would immediately move against the ICS and it would win; at least where speedways were concerned.

The bottom line is that American speedway racing isn’t one big, happy family. NASCAR may be one and its members may or may not share, but that generosity does not extend to rival motor sports (be they open-wheel or sports cars). If an oval-centric ICS had anywhere near the potential that Pistone believes it does, the oval cartel would likely move to either destroy it or buy it. In fact, rumor has it that the IRL is for sale now; but the oval cartel has no interest in buying it.

The foregoing reality also explains why the current ICS has such an “outlaw” schedule, filled with an odd mix of eclectic races. The ICS has been forced (as CART before it) to tap into the disorganized mix of venues that exist outside the formal network of oval cartel speedways. The league must exploit temporary venues and the few permanent road-racing courses than remained after sports car racing ceased to be a prominent motor sport in the U.S.

Tony George wanted to break away from the established IndyCar in 1992 and form an oval-centric series but he was forced to wait until 1996 to take to the track in part because he faced a de facto speedway blockade on all sides. On the one hand he faced a lockout by the NASCAR oval cartel (ISC, SMI and Dover Downs) and on the other hand a wall of resistance from PMI (i.e. Penske’s CART-allied speedways). He was finally able to move when he bartered with the Frances, giving a NASCAR race at IMS in return for an accommodation from the oval cartel to open some of its speedways. Also, there existed at the time a small group of independent speedways (Milwaukee, Phoenix, NHIS, etc.) and brand-new speedways built expressly for NASCAR but without its support (e.g. LVMS). Even so, there weren’t enough available speedways to support a potential open-wheel rival to NASCAR. So, George came up with a plan to build a string of temporary speedways in prime urban markets across the U.S. and beat NASCAR to the punch. The Walt Disney World Speedway was his pilot project but it quickly showed the flaws in his scheme which would make it unworkable.

At that point, George could have moved in several directions to secure a base of operations for his oval-centric motor sport. He could have bought some of the new speedways that had yet to become part of the oval cartel and/or he could have begun to build speedways in the conventional manner. He made a tentative step by joining in a limited partnership to build Chicagoland (which he recently sold back to ISC); but other than that, he made no moves to secure speedways for the IRL. Gradually, the oval cartel gobbled them up one by one or in a group (as with PMI). Also, the oval cartel moved to weed out the small, independent tracks which might pose a threat to their NASCAR hegemony (e.g. Pikes Peak, Nazareth).

Today, the IRL is more vulnerable than at any other time in its history with respect to its choice of venues. Even if the league wanted to reverse course and morph back into an oval-centric motor sport, it would have to rely on the kindness of ISC, SMI, and Dover to do it. Here the oval cartel would probably allow the league to start off by renting speedways to it; but always under the threat that if it succeeds, it can be cut off at the knees at a later date.

Thomas Wolfe once noted, “You Can’t Go Home, Again;” the same also probably applies to abandoned speedways.

JM2c

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