Wednesday, August 12, 2009

After the deluge: IRL post-reunification

Did reunification come too late? After losing the Champ Car World Series at the end of 2007, could it be that the Indy Racing League won’t last much longer? The news that the series’ long-time Godfather Tony George had resigned – some say been forced out – as CEO of the Indianapolis speedway is only the latest sign that all is not entirely well at the top of US open wheel racing.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that reunification has not proven to be a panacea and the state of open wheel racing in the US remains parlous. While NASCAR viewing figures stagnate and race attendance figures appear to be dipping, the people behind the IRL would probably wish they had Bill France’s problems. The Indianapolis 500 aside, the sport has a negligible profile in its home country, and is hidden away on a relatively minor TV network. Those of us who hoped that reunification of the IRL and Champ Car might help the series to rebuild its media profile have so far been disappointed. What, then, is the problem?

I think we’re still seeing the after-effects of the split, and in particular, the devastating impact it has had on the wider single seater racing landscape in the US. For years, the leading junior single seater series in the US was the Formula Atlantic series. As recently as 2007, it was boasting 25-30 car grids and appeared to be a serious feeder category, even if it was far from clear what exactly it was supposed to be feeding. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and it’s not hard to see how US open wheel racing is in such a precarious state. Formula Atlantic, in particular, has been something of a playground for European drivers without either the budget, or sometimes, it seems, the ability, to really succeed back across the pond. One has to go back to 2004 to find the last US-born Atlantic champion – Jon Fogarty. And that championship wasn’t enough for him to break into the IRL or Champ Car – he now plies his trade in the Grand Am Series alongside Alex Gurney.

The Indy Lights Series, which these days looks the stronger of the two championships thanks to its links with the IRL, hasn’t seen an American winner since AJ Foyt IV took the title back in 2002. And some of the subsequent winners have sunk into utter obscurity. Whatever happened to 2006 winner Jay Bridger? Or 2004 champion Thiago Medeiros?

The truth is that promising young American racing drivers for the most part see their future as being in NASCAR, and are more likely to be found in the ARCA series, in sprint cars, or whatever, than trying their hand in single seaters. There are some signs that this may be changing – American JR Hildebrand is looking odds on to win the Indy Lights Series this year, while John Edwards and Jonathan Summerton both look reasonable bets to overhaul series leader Simona De Silvestro and win the Formula Atlantic title.

The logical end consequence of the weakness of the lower rungs of the US racing ladder is that there is a dearth of really first-rate American drivers in the Indy Racing League itself. Now I might not give two hoots as to the nationality of racing drivers, but I expect I’m in a small minority on this. And I seriously doubt that there’s any realistic chance that the IRL will regain anything like the hold it had in the popular consciousness through the late 1980s and early 1990s for as long as it remains a series in which Australian, New Zealander, Brazilian and Scottish drivers do battle in Italian cars with Japanese engines at American circuits. Look at where F1 is most popular… Europe, and in particular, Germany, the UK and Italy, and South America, and in particular, Brazil. Could that have anything to do with where the leading drivers and teams of the last 30 years have hailed from?

Not one of this year’s 13 races has been won by an American driver. The closest that any has come was Vision Racing’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, with his second place at the opening race of the season at St. Petersberg back at the beginning of April. Since then, Hunter Reay has scarcely figured at all.

The leading American drivers in the series at the moment are Andretti-Green’s Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti and Newman-Haas’ Graham Rahal. All three have huge marketing potential – Patrick is the most successful female racing driver in the world today, and Andretti and Rahal are both sons of famous fathers. All three of these drivers are good, solid professional single seater racers – all have race wins to their name – but in the end, I’m not convinced that any one of them is really from the very top drawer. The fact that not one of them has won a race this year tells its own story.

Of course, it might be that Newman Haas and Andretti-Green simply aren’t quite on the pace of front-runners Ganassi and Penske. There might be some truth in this, but it is interesting that Dale Coyne’s tiny one-car operation has often outpaced them, at least on road courses. Why? I suspect, because in Justin Wilson, they have one of the best drivers in the series – they won at Watkins Glen, and ran right at the front in Mid Ohio last weekend until screwing up their fuel strategy. It will be interesting to see how Franck Montagny – another fast European whose F1 career never quite worked out – does when he races for Andretti-Green at Sears Point later in the year.

When Peter Windsor’s USF1 operation announced that it plans to run a promising young US driver alongside an experienced old hand in F1 next year, I can’t help but think that Andretti, Patrick and Rahal were probably not names he had in mind (although Patrick, in particular, would be a good name around which to build a marketing programme). To be fair, the state of US single seater racing is such that it’s not immediately clear who the alternatives are – Hildebrand? But is there too much of an oval series bias in Indy Lights? Summerton or Edwards? Maybe, but I’m not sure that I’d have two guys being beaten by De Silvestro marked as “future F1 drivers”. Could Allmendinger, Speed, or Hornish Jr. be tempted? Maybe. If I could persuade him to give it another go, I’d probably run Speed, but whether he’d want to do it is another matter.

That’s for another day, though really. In the here and now, the biggest problem facing US single seater racing is that it can’t even produce enough home grown talent to support it’s own series. Which is a shame, because there’s a fair bit to be positive about in the post re-unification IRL. The balance between ovals, street circuits and road courses is much better than it was in either the last days of Champ Car (when the series seemed to go to any two-bit street course that would have them) or in IRL’s earlier guise, when it was an almost entirely oval-based series. OK, so I’ll not be entirely happy until they go back to Road America – surely the best race track in North America, but in the meantime, I’ll settle for a series that includes Indianapolis, Long Beach, Mid Ohio, Watkins Glen and the Milwaukee Mile.

The quality of the drivers is considerably better than was ever the case in either the recent years of Champ Car or the pre-unification IRL too. It’s a shame that Hornish Jr. and AJ Allmendinger appear to prefer a life of obscurity in the lower mid-field of NASCAR, but drivers like Castroneves, Franchitti, Dixon and Wheldon are proven front-runners (Castroneves, I understand, thanks to his appearance in the US version of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ is the closest thing the series has to a household name besides Danica Patrick too). There is, in short, something worth saving here.

A weakness of the series this year has been the processional quality of the races themselves, especially on the ovals. If you’re marketing a racing series full of foreigners the average television viewer has never heard of, you’d better make damned sure the racing itself is worth tuning in for. And the oval races, in particular, were sleep-inducing. Because it’s a spec-formula, it’s rather easier for the series organisers to address this than has been the case in Formula 1, though, and the IRL series does seem to be serious about forcing through changes to make passing on oval courses easier.

Will the IRL survive and prosper in the long term? If you’d asked me a few years ago whether the Indy Racing League had a future, I’d have said that this rather depended on whether the Champ Car Series went to the wall, or whether Kalkhoven, Pettit et al held out longer than Tony George. Now, though, I’m not so sure. The end of Champ Car might have improved the quality of the field in the IRL, but neither the TV audience figures nor the crowds at the gate seem much changed. I had always assumed that there would always be enough of a fanbase in the US to support one top-flight single seater series. But nothing is certain, nothing can just be assumed…

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