A merger (of IRL and Champ Car) is just the beginning

 by Jose Arrambide
February 21, 2006

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Is a merger finally at hand?

Almost everyone has heard of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. They are some of the most famous tales in the western world. But the open wheel racing world in North America has some tales of their own, the two most popular are: 1) if we had only one series open wheel would return to its former glory instantly, and, 2) people prefer NASCAR because they do not know open wheel racing even exists. Just like the tales created by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, they are not accurate.

Let's explore the first tale, if we had only one series open wheel would be an instant success again. This I believe is the most dangerous tale out of the two. People who believe in this tale are certain that if one of the two series disappeared (Champ Car or IRL), or a merger occurred, open wheel racing in North America would magically return to its former glory. Yes, the split hurt open wheel racing a lot, and yes, everyone knows that first we need peace in open wheel racing before it can prosper again (preferably by a merger), but the danger in believing in the one series instant magical solution is that you put the blame solely on someone else, and you fail to address the other important issues that open wheel racing has.

Both series have made errors, lots of errors. By putting the blame solely on the split, you are denying all the errors you have made in the past (although I still believe the biggest error was the split). This makes it impossible to concentrate on the difficult and long road to fix open wheel racing in North America.

Let's imagine that tomorrow one of the two series happened to disappear, or a merger happened. It is true that you would probably have a stronger series, more sponsors, a stronger grid, and a healthier schedule. But it would still lack the only thing that can save open wheel racing in North America, more race fans, lots of them.

Even though there is some overlap, if you were to add the attendance numbers of both series, you still won't get close to NASCAR. Do the same with the TV ratings of both series and NASCAR will probably beat you using only a handful of its 39 races.

And if you believe there are hundreds of thousands of fans waiting for the one series scenario to follow the sport again, then you probably believe Snow White is a real life story. Yes, having one series is the first step the sport needs, but believing it will instantly fix everything is missing some key issues that need to be addressed, issues like;

  1. Sponsors who donít activate their sponsorship,

  2. Lack of Ďstarí names and lack of promoting the drivers in every facet,

  3. Lack of sponsors in general,

  4. Lack of advertising by the race series themselves,

  5. Inability of the TV announcers to keep the TV viewers on the edge of their seats,

  6. Inability to portray the speed and excitement on the track to the TV viewer at home. Did you see Tony Stewart get his car sideways at 190 MPH in the Daytona 500 with cars all around him in the draft and save it? When was the last time open wheel had a wow-factor moment like that other than a crash?

  7. Lack of TV programming other than the races themselves,

  8. Lack of marketing skills by many of the teams,

  9. Car paint schemes that, as a result, make your product look 2nd-rate

  10. Drivers come and go making it difficult to build upon them as a series asset long-term

  11. Promotion of events ahead of promotion of the drivers. Sure the sport needs successful events, but people buying tickets to enjoy an event do not guarantee they will be true fans who will watch every race like NASCAR fans do. True fans connect with one or more drivers. What I am saying is, ďitís the drivers, stupid.Ē

  12. Lack of interest in the sport by local, grassroots, newspapers.

Now let's explore the second tale - people like NASCAR because they donít know open wheel racing exists. People who believe this tale think that stock car driving is so popular because people can identify more with the cars as something they drive on the street. They like to think of NASCAR as having a burger with beer for dinner, and open wheel racing as having filet mignon with a great bottle of wine.

The problem with this tale (besides from being very arrogant) is that you are denying all of the things NASCAR has done right Ė especially making the drivers the central focal point. Even though the Indy 500 is only a shadow of its former self, it still gets a lot of coverage in the media, especially this past year with danicamania. NASCAR fans do know open wheel racing exists, they just donít identify with the drivers because largely they are invisible. Most of the viewers who watch the Indy 500 donít watch the rest of the IRL schedule because they are fans of the event, not of the drivers or the series.

With rumors in AutoWeek today that a merger may be at hand, letís cheer if it happens, but recognize there is still a lot of work to be done.

The author can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

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