Editorial

Now I'm Confused
 by Jim Allen
May 22, 2000

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For nearly five years, I have believed that the launch of the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series was a genuine endeavor on the part of Tony George to create a new American brand to control Indycar racing. However poorly conceived and implemented, I was led to believe that its purpose was to take open-wheel racing back to its USA oval roots. Now that I hear that George is talking about going to Europe to race, I am having to reconsider those original beliefs.

From the outset, the impression was that the IRNLS would create a racing series staged by Americans drivers in cars prepared by American mechanics on American tracks for American spectators. Teams would own their cars and engines. Lots of deserving American dirt-track drivers would get their shot at full-time rides in the big leagues of open-wheel racing and displace the foreign drivers who rented their seats. And it would be a show that the league would display exclusively on American ovals. It was a story so patriotic that if Francis Scott Key had not written the Star Spangled Banner in 1814, someone surely would have written it in 1996 after hearing George talk about the IRNLS.

Confusion over the local content of the effort began almost immediately, however. The fledgling league chose two European chassis manufacturers to supply cars to the teams while one of the two engine suppliers was Japanese. The decisions were justifiable, though, because there were no U.S.-based chassis manufacturers at the time and the league did get one of the Big Three auto makers to participate. Fair enough.

But then there were all the foreign drivers in the series. Fully 10 cars of the starting field of 33 in that first IRNLS-sanctioned Indy 500 at Disney World were driven by ex-patriots of one nationality or another. To this day, Eliseo Salazar (Chile), Stephan Gregoire (France) and Scott Goodyear (Canada) maintain secure rides. Arie Luyendyk (The Netherlands) and Kenny Brack (Sweden) would still have solid positions if they hadn't left. Greg Ray, Buddy Lazier, Buzz Calkins, Scott Sharp, Eddie Cheever, Al Unser, Jr., and Mark Dismore were the only members of the American contingent that had secure rides entering the 2000 season. Billy Boat and Davey Hamilton, two of the nine drivers (six Americans) A.J. Foyt has employed since 1996, were still scrambling last weekend to find cars to put them into the 500. Ultimately, Americans are no more secure in the IRNLS than they were in CART. 

Then there was the matter of who owns the engines. The IRNLS has made a big deal about the evils of leasing under the belief that lease contracts are the reason some CART teams win and others lose. Yet Robin Miller, the columnist of the Indianapolis Star, has reported that Roush Racing, for one, engages in CART-like leasing of its powerplants to at least one IRNLS team. 

Through it all, the one thing that was unambiguous about the IRNLS' existence was its focus on American ovals. Regardless of the folly of attempting to emulate NASCAR with open-wheel cars, the league was very clear about where it was going to run and where it was not.

That was until a couple weeks ago. That was when George sent the league's most confusing signal to date by suggesting that the IRNLS was considering taking its All-American series to Europe. This, the series created to take American open-wheel racing back to its American roots, was now saying it may try to plant new ones in foreign soil. 

It was the final straw for my beliefs about the IRNLS and it has made me consider that the last five years were not used to create an Indy Racing Northern Lights Series brand, but to create confusion for - and therefore destroy - CART's brand, particularly in the minds of casual fans. If that is indeed the strategy, then the declining attendance at IRNLS events is evidence of success, not failure.

Consider that of the five races the league held in 1996 - including the last two races of its perplexing split 96-97 season - three - Phoenix, Indianapolis and Loudon, N.H.- were run on tracks that hosted CART events the previous year. Casual fans that wanted to see the Andrettis, Fittipaldis and Tracys found they were watching Buzz Calkins compete against Eliseo Salazar instead. 

Consider, also, that George and company tried unsuccessfully to move into Cleveland this year. And they want a date at Fontana and rumored to want to run at Nazareth and St. Louis. Finally, with CART considering European expansion, George is looking to move there, too. 

Who knows, George might even look into hosting an oval race through the streets of Long Beach.

But I really don't think George or the IRNLS crew are that sinister. Such a strategy would require a capacity for cunning and guile that they have failed to show so far. 

What I really think they've done is try to move into markets that CART had already developed in the hopes of having immediate success. In every case, however, the strategy has failed. Phoenix has seen attendance fall to around 18,000 this year from around 60,000 in 1995 despite having a consistent spring date. Even Indianapolis has seen interest wane, with this year's pole day festivities drawing an estimated 20,000 people, compared with crowds 10 times larger as recently as 1995.

While diminishing CART's brand may or may not be the aim of the IRNLS, it is, nonetheless, the effect. And if CART is to save its brand from further deterioration, it must take steps to differentiate itself now while not letting its lesser competitor crowd it out of the oval market. 

One way CART can protect its identity is by requiring exclusivity at tracks where it races. If that means giving up a little in promoters' fees in the near term, so be it. The return should come from bigger paydays in the future. For example, CART should remind International Speedway Corp., owners of California Speedway, that it has brought sell-out crowds for its three races there. They should also stress that if ISC were to host an IRNLS race at the same venue, it would not only create confusion among fans and hurt attendance at a successful event, but also threaten the speedway's relationship with CART. 

CART should also hold off on moving into current and former IRNLS venues such as Fort Worth, Las Vegas or Colorado Springs for at least one or two years to let those tracks exorcise themselves of their past associations. Even more to the point, it should decide whether more D-shaped ovals are key to its differentiation, or whether historic road courses would do the trick. Road Atlanta, which is ready for a Champ Car event, and Watkins Glen - after safety improvements are approved, of course - could maintain the diversity of tracks while showcasing the series on some of North America's most fabled tracks. And unless George starts hosting road course events, such sites would differentiate CART from the competition.

But CART needs to move quickly. If George and the IRNLS are able to get footholds in current CART markets, it will only add to the level of confusion and hasten the demise of open-wheel racing in the United States
 

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