Friday, January 05, 2007

US Open Wheel Racing: Time To Bash Some Heads Together

I was looking through some old copies of Autosport the other day, dating back to the early 1990s when reigning F1 world champion Nigel Mansell had defected to the CART series to partner Mario Andretti at Newman Haas. At the time, there were those who seriously wondered whether the CART championship, with its more open competition and its mix of ovals, wonderful road courses like Road America and Laguna Seca and successful street events like Long Beach and Surfers Paradise, might become a serious rival to Formula 1. In fact, if you were living in the US at the time, the question might have been better framed the other way round. The CART IndyCar series was much bigger news than F1 ever was - especially given that in 1993, there was no US Grand Prix and Mario's son Michael was taking one hell of a pounding over at McLaren.

Fast forward to the present and Champ Car drivers like Timo Glock and Antonio Pizzonia have defected not to F1, but to GP2, to further their careers. Leading young IRL star, Mario's grandson, Marco Andretti is talked about as a potential future F1 driver. Pundits reckon though that he too would first have to prove himself in GP2. Champ Car and IRL champions Dan Wheldon and Sebastien Bourdais can't get a drive in F1 at all. And could anyone imagine that Michael Schumacher might have decided to spend this year in the IRL as a prelude to retirement?

The simple fact is that, aside from a few open-wheel purists, nobody is really watching the Champ Car World Series or the Indy Racing League these days, even in the US. And if they ain't popular at home, there's no way these series are going to find a big audience abroad. In America, 'motor racing' is spelt 'NASCAR' to the average man on the street. And indeed, its to NASCAR that washed up F1 stars are now defecting - first Juan Montoya and now, if the rumours are to be believed, Jacques Villeneuve.

And the reason for this dramatic fall? Its always hard to know for sure, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that it hasn't been the promotional brilliance of the France family alone. Instead it has been the confusing and self-defeating split between Indianapolis circuit owner Tony George and the men behind the then CART series which must take the lion's share of the blame.

On the surface, having two major open wheel series rather than one might seem like a good deal for the fans. There are twice the number of races that there would otherwise be, and two championship contests to follow. In practice, though, it has not worked out that way. Neither series is in good health, and arguably, aside from Champ Car in the late 1990s, neither series ever really has been.

Champ Car seems to attract the slightly larger raceday crowds, thanks to their policy of concentrating on street venues within easy reach of large population centres. IRL has, at least arguably, the greater strength in terms of driver quality, with more serious professionals and fewer pay-drivers. But its relative, isn't it? Neither championship has anything like the variety of circuits that the old CART series (or even the early Champ Car series) had, with Champ Car's calendar made up largely of street circuits and IRL's dominated by ovals. It is significant that neither series is able to support races at two of America's finest road circuits, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca.

Perhaps the most serious sign of failure, though, is that American race fans I have spoken to tell me that the vast majority of their compatriots, even those who consider themselves motorsport (i.e. NASCAR) enthusiasts, would have little idea who either Sam Hornish Jr or Sebastien Bourdais are. And if Sea-Bass' name rang any bells, it would probably be thanks to his efforts in the IROC series, rather than his three Champ Car titles. If fame and fortune are what either of these men are seeking, then, as AJ Allmendinger has done, they would have to go off and take their chances in stock cars on ovals.

So reunification is what is needed, but is it going to happen? Personally, I doubt that there will be any deal between Tony George and his opposite numbers, Gentilozzi, Kalkhoven et al in the foreseeable future. Both series have contracts to fulfil with chassis manufacturers, circuit promoters and so on, and it is not clear how these could easily be resolved to create a single series. The current IRL series is fundamentally built around ovals, and the new Panoz Champ Cars are not really oval machines. Any series would have to adopt either the Dallara or Panoz chassis, and either the Honda atmo engine or the Cosworth turbo. I can't say which of the two would be quicker were they allowed to race against each other, but I very much doubt that any meaningful equivalency formula could be instituted to allow the two types of car to race against each other in a single unified series.

This is a shame, because I can't help feeling that there is one really good series lurking in there. Imagine Dan Wheldon, Sam Hornish Jr, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Marco Andretti and Scott Dixon up against Sebastien Bourdais, Justin Wilson, the recently departed AJ Allmendinger (who could surely have been persuaded to stay in a unified series) and Bruno Junquiera. This would be an awful lot more like a serious major open wheel series grid, with no room for timewasters and journeymen like Nicky Pastorelli, Tonis Kasemets, Roger Yasukawa, Jeff Bucknum et al.

A series boasting Forsythe, Newman-Haas, Andretti-Green, Penske and Chip-Ganassi might not instantly rival Formula 1, but should at least stop shedding drivers to GP2 and would be easier to see as some kind of serious career move, rather than being the next best thing if you can't secure a drive at Super-Aguri or Toro Rosso. Especially if they were racing at the best of the tracks the two series have to offer: street circuits like Long Beach and St Petersburg, ovals like Indianapolis and the Milwaukee Mile, the massively successful airport race at Edmonton and road courses like Watkins Glen, St Jovite and Road America.

Don't get me wrong, it won't surpass the popularity of NASCAR overnight. Too much damage has been done by the squabbling over the last decade or so. There is a serious dearth of a US single seater racing talent as a result, and a series dominated by foreigners, hell, Frenchmen at that, is going to be a difficult sell to the US public. Nonetheless, a single premier open wheel series would have a credibility that neither IRL nor Champ Car do at present. As I said earlier, I really doubt its going to happen. I fear that the most likely outcome is that the 'winner' will be the last series left standing, though in their currently weakened states, I doubt that it will be much of a winner at all. But come on Tony, Kevin and Paul, go and prove me wrong for once...

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that one series would be better. As you note though, that is not going to happen. But citing Timo Glock and Antonio Pizzonia as losses and then arguing that CCWS trying to sell a Frenchman as it's champion seems to work against your point. Other than you and me why would anyone care if Timo and Antonio left?

3:17 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

The point is not so much that losing Glock and Pizzonia is bad for the series, as that the fact that they thought they could better further their career in GP2 is indicative of the state of the series as a whole.

And I don't think its so much a problem that the CCWS champion is French as that none of his rivals are American.

2:58 AM  
Blogger Miranda said...

A unified series would be superb: as it is IRL and CCWS seem marginalised. Unfortunately I'm not sure there's enough common ground for them ever to come together.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

There's always a common ground for this kind of thing. It's called the almighty dollar, and until it's financially feasible for both sides, there won't be a unification. Which is sad. I used to follow CART more closely than F1 back in the mid 90s because it had better racing and more diverse tracks.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. I was going to suggest that Americans dump both series and get interested in F1. But then I remembered F1 politics and the FIA...

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is official the Cart series has folded and indy is now the only oppen whell series in the U.S.

4:31 PM  

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