It is with great pain that I
say what I am about to say. Who can forget the great duel between Michael
Andretti and Juan Montoya at Michigan last year, or Scott Pruett and Al
Unser Jr.? What about last years first IRL race at Texas?
Sensational! Regrettably, the events of this past weekend in
Atlanta, Georgia and Ft. Worth, Texas underscore one very simple fact -
Indy Cars probably don't belong on high speed ovals, no matter what the
horsepower. It doesn't matter if you're running with the IRL's 650
HP or CART's 850 HP, the danger to the drivers and the danger to the fans
I'm certain track owners such
as Bruton Smith won't be happy about the above statement, but he would be
even less happy had another fan been killed at his race track in Atlanta,
Georgia when yet another tire flew into the grandstands. The IRL and
Bruton Smith should count their lucky stars that someone wasn't killed. It
happened to CART at Michigan, it happened to the IRL at Charlotte, one
other track last year (I think Texas) and this past weekend in Atlanta. A
fan sitting in the top row was even killed at Indy one year when a tire
flew into the grandstands. I count at least 5 oval races whereby tires
flew into the grandstands and killed, or nearly killed race fans.
There are countless more.
IRL dodged a bullet in Atlanta last weekend. Note loose
wheels, upside down cars, fire and flying cars. One tire
cleared the catch fencing by 50 feet in this
photo and this
photo on RacingOne.com
photo on Speedvision, by F. Pierce
Williams, we count at least 5 loose
wheels. So much for wheel tethers.
Killing race fans isn't the
only issue. What about the drivers? Did you ever stand by the
track and watch the cars zip by on these high speed tracks? The cars
are so fast it's ludicrous, and I say that having watched races for nearly
40 years. Not only are the drivers reaction times reduced to almost
zero, the high g-forces put extra loads on the cars which could result in
equipment failure. And, as we saw in Texas, the cars have reached
the limit of a human body to withstand such g-forces. The IRL is
just below the limit. With a little bit of refinement by the teams,
they too will be up at 230 MPH at those tracks.
Sure the IRL, with its 650 HP
engines, race below the limit of humans being able to remain conscious and
drive the car, but just barely. The accident in Atlanta was so bad
the IRL is VERY lucky none of the drivers were killed. Winston Cup
cars racing in packs such as at Talladega or Daytona are one thing, but
open wheel cars running in packs is a disaster about to happen - witness
Atlanta. One little tap between two open wheel cars at those speeds
and a melee ensues.
Everyone marveled about how
good last years side-by-side racing at the IRL race in Texas was.
Certainly it was quite entertaining. But, whereas the Winston Cup
car drivers can make slight mistakes (i.e. tap each other all race long)
open wheel cars aren't afforded that luxury. How much longer can the
IRL have 'pack racing' at those speeds before it comes up to bite them in
the posterior? Someone is going to die - either a fan or a
Many people feel 'Indy Cars'
don't belong on high banked ovals. Given events over the last two
years, it's not hard to share that view. Dead drivers.
Crippled drivers. Dead fans. It's alarming.
CART HP Dilemma Solved too
CART has been stuck in a quandary trying to figure out what to do about
its HP issue - too much HP on high speed ovals, just enough everywhere
else. How do you build an engine to satisfy both? You can't,
hence CART has procrastinated with the issue for quite some time.
Given that even with 650 HP,
the IRL (Charlotte, Atlanta, and another track in 2000) is sending tires
into the grandstands, CART is going to have to ask itself whether it
really should be racing on high speed ovals. Even if you take the HP way
down to the IRL level, look how serious of an accident can result on these
tracks. How low do you have to take the HP before it becomes
safe? 550? 450? 350?
Given that the grandstands
look empty at those big tracks (which ruin CART's image), given the danger
to the drivers, and given the danger to the fans, are they really a place
for CART....or the IRL for that matter?
Which leads me to a key
conclusion - if CART eliminates the high speed ovals for the above
reasons, their HP dilemma goes away. CART can then have an engine with
750+ HP and race safely on all the remaining circuits - streets, road
courses, and flat ovals. As many CART drivers have said on numerous
occasions - it's nice having all that HP.......except on the high speed
By trying to race
on such a wide range of circuits, CART has painted itself in a
corner. If it drops the dangerous high-speed ovals, it can still
race on natural terrain road courses, street circuits and flat
ovals. That's still more diverse than any other open wheel racing
The fact of the matter is that
CART's most successful venues have been the street and road
circuits. The majority of its oval races are poorly attended (as are
the IRL's). Given the apparent lack of interest of the fans in open
wheel racing on oval tracks, given the inherent danger as evidenced by
fans being killed in the grandstands (Charlotte and Michigan) and drivers
being killed, maimed or paralyzed (both in open wheel and stock cars), and
given the high cost of replacing a car every time one is pulverized
against the concrete retaining walls, one has to question why CART thinks
it needs to race on the high speed ovals.
CART Must Decide What It
Wants To Be
appears stuck in another quandary, it doesn't know if it wants to be an American
racing series, an American racing series that races occasionally overseas,
or true international series. Does it want to go head-to-head with
NASCAR and the IRL and try to grab a few of few of the crumbs that are
left in a severely over saturated USA motorsports marketplace, or does it
want play in Formula One's sandbox and go after the markets F1 can't
NASCAR is successful because
it has defined its product, defined its market, and focused all of its
efforts to excel at one thing - stock car racing on ovals. IRL,
although still experiencing severe growing pains, defined its mission in life and has stuck by it.
Ditto for F1, they defined their series as the premier road racing series
in the world. In all three cases there is no mistaking what their series
is, and if you are a sponsor or a manufacturer, you know what you are
getting yourself into before you dive in. If it makes good business
sense to be in one of those particular racing series, you enter it knowing
who your market is.
Such is not the case with
CART. Is it a 'national' championship series, or a 'world'
By being mostly an American
series, CART has attracted mostly American sponsors, or American arms of
Global companies. Phillip Morris USA sponsors the Penske team.
Toyota USA foots 100% of the Toyota CART program. Pioneer USA is
sponsoring Alex Zanardi. While about 50% of CART's sponsors, such as
Texaco, would love for CART to be more international because they sell
products globally, the other 50% want CART to focus on the USA because
that is where they derive most of their sales.
CART either has to decide to
be a true global company that attracts global companies, or pull back,
merge with the IRL and become a stronger all-American Indy Car
series. However, that means bucking the likes of NASCAR, NHRA,
Baseball, Football, Hockey, Basketball, etc. In the USA there are
too many races, too many racing series, and not enough fans nor sponsor
money to go around. Although CART would lose a good number of its
current sponsors by becoming a true international series, it would pick up
just as many new ones, or even more. A company that sells product
worldwide is typically larger and has a larger marketing budget for things
such as racing.
F1 can't satisfy the world's
demand for state-of-the-art open wheel racing. There is a market
just waiting for CART to snatch it. But does CART have the know-how
and stomach to become a true 'world' championship series?
If it were me, I would
position CART as a true 'world' championship series, that races on ovals
(relatively flat ones), street circuits and road courses worldwide.
Whereas F1 is positioned as purely a road racing world championship, I
would position CART to be a bit more diverse and market that
diversity. I would shift some of CART's USA races (weaker ones) over
to Europe and Asia and add a 2nd race in Mexico City.
As can be seen from the table
below, it would not be difficult to position CART as a true world
Formula One Geographic Breakdown
CART Geographic Breakdown
F1 holds 11 of its 17 races in
Europe, which is smaller than the USA. Yet it calls itself a world
championship series. Looking at it from purely a geographic
perspective, CART could be a more diverse world championship series than
F1. Since Europe is a hot-bed of open wheel racing, I would add two
more races to the existing two European races for a total of four. I
would add a 2nd race in Mexico in Mexico City and one race in China.
It's time for CART to define
its place in motorsports and stop trying to be everything to everybody.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
to discuss this article