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Editorial

A proposal for CART and IRL to coexist peacefully

 

 by Mark Cipolloni
May 20, 2001

Go to our forums to discuss this article

Enough already!  CART and the IRL can't continue to pull each other down and drive a wedge between the fans, the sponsors and the manufacturers.  We examine how CART should position the Champ Car series to coexist peacefully with the IRL, how the IRL and CART can work together for a common goal, and how Indy Lights can support both series perfectly.

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, even as weak as it still is, 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.  It wants to be a road, street and oval series so it can call itself the most diverse form of racing in the world, something a lot of people find intriguing, including I.  It wants to be an American series that occasionally ventures overseas because some of its sponsors find value in that.  Unfortunately, trying to be too many things to too many constituents is preventing CART from excelling at any one thing.  Let's look at the key areas.

Circuits/cars  Some people question whether CART can continue to compete on all types of circuits without severely compromising its product. The situation that developed a few weeks ago in Texas whereby the race had to be cancelled because the cars were too fast, proved that the current champ cars are too fast for high banked ovals.  Yet on road and street circuits one can make an argument the cars are well within the limits of the circuits to contest a safe, competitive race.   

How do you have one formula that can race on road/street circuits and on small/large ovals without having too much speed on one type of circuit and not enough on another?  The IRL cars are maximized to excel at ovals and their races are relatively competitive.  Unlike the current Champ cars, IRL cars are slow enough that they can race on almost any oval, although the 'pack' NASCAR-type racing they have created on the high-banked ovals can lead to disasters such as we saw at Atlanta recently.  Luckily no one was killed. Yet an IRL car on a road and street circuit would be eaten alive by a Champ car or F1 car.  F1 cars are maximized to be the ultimate road/street course racing cars, and they are.  Winston Cup cars have been refined from the very beginning to be one thing and one thing only, oval track stock cars and there's no denying their races appeal to a great many people.

The fact of the matter is that CART's most successful venues have been the street and road circuits, and it's overseas races.  The majority of its domestic (USA) oval races are poorly attended (as are the IRL's).  It has been suggested that CART give all its USA oval races to the IRL and focus on becoming a premier road racing series, much like F1.  I fully endorse that proposal, but with some interesting twists that I get into later.

Given the above, would CART be better served by focusing on the road and street circuits?  One can make a strong argument for that.  But what about the Indy 500?  Well........What about it?  It's part of the IRL series, and as much as CART and its constituents wish it were theirs, the fact of the matter is, it's not.  It's Tony George's sandbox, and if you want to play in it you have to buy his shovel and bucket (equipment) and race it.  Below we will address how CART drivers can compete in the Indy 500 even if it becomes a road racing series.

Stop Banging heads with NASCAR and the IRL  Like every good business, both NASCAR and the IRL want to be leaders in their market.  CART is hampered by trying to knock heads with two very powerful and wealthy entities - NASCAR (through the France family wealth) and the IRL (through Tony George's wealth).  While NASCAR has what appears to be a near-monopoly on oval track stock car racing in the USA, the IRL isn't quite there yet for open wheel cars, but Tony George isn't going to give up until it does.

The announcement this past week of a new stock car series (TRAC) starting up is more bad news for CART and the IRL.  That's another series looking to pick up sponsors and TV air time, and that spells bad news for the IRL and CART teams that are still looking for sponsors.  There is an over saturation of racing (and sports in general) in the USA, and the formation of this series is going to make it worse.

Actually, we think this is more bad news for the IRL than for CART.  Track owners like Bruton Smith are looking for more races for their oval tracks.  The IRL was trying to fill that void, though it has not been extremely successful at doing that.  Now there is another stock car series looking to fill that void for owners like Bruton Smith.  With Indy car wheels flying in grandstands on a regular basis on the high-banked tracks, how much longer will it be before Bruton Smith says enough with CART and the IRL, give me TRAC?  If Bruton Smith doesn't do it, the insurance companies likely will.  The handwriting is on the wall unless the CART and the IRL can come up with a way to guarantee the wheels don't fly.

Dividing Up The Pie  Given the above circumstances, and recognizing where CART's strengths and weaknesses are, here is how I think CART should position itself for the future.  There is a terrible void, both in the USA and internationally for more top-level open wheel road course racing.  There are many countries that want a F1 race but can't get one, and still more that already have one and want a second.  Here in North America, all of CART's road and street races are well attended.  It's clear there is a demand for more road racing worldwide.....it's there for CART's taking.  What may be even more important, is that if CART is viewed as strictly a road racing series here in the USA, it won't be trying to compete for the same market as NASCAR and the IRL does (oval track racing) and therefore, when no longer viewed as a direct competitor, perhaps will thaw some of the bad blood between them.

CART should, therefore, position Champ Car Racing (should be called FedEx cars, as 'Champ Cars' is lost on most fans) as strictly a road racing product, and it should position itself as a lower cost alternate to F1, but with turbo engines, a somewhat distinct difference.  Whereas F1 is primarily a European road racing series that sometimes races elsewhere in the world, CART can be positioned as a North American road racing series that sometimes races elsewhere in the world.   Note - size wise, North America is actually larger than Europe, so CART would actually be more spread out and not as saturated as F1 is in Europe.  

The world is a VERY big place, and there is plenty of room for CART and F1 to co-exist peacefully.  In fact, much as F1 is aligned with many engine manufacturers, perhaps CART will be able to entice more engine manufacturers to develop Champ Car engines if it brought them more worldwide exposure.  One key advantage CART would bring over F1 is better exposure in the USA market, the biggest market for most car manufacturers.

By racing on just street and road circuits, CART can optimize the Champ car rules for those types of circuits.  Gone will be the problem CART currently has with too much HP for ovals.  850 to 900 HP for road and street circuits isn't so bad given how heavy a Champ car is.  That means the current 2.65 liter turbo engines can be used for a few more years, at which time CART can adopt the 1.8 liter turbo formula, something it should have done years ago.  CART can open up talks now with all the engine manufacturers and have one or two new ones onboard to coincide with the changeover to the 1.8 liter turbo formula, in say 2004.  I would love to see the engine manufacturers, already unhappy with F1 and wanting to run their own series in 2008, force a common engine formula for both CART and F1, a lower cost, more restrictive one that could serve both series.  They certainly would get more bang for the buck.

Rescuing Indy Lights and resurrecting The Triple Crown  I feel the IRL formula is a better formula for oval track open wheel racing than the current Champ Car formula.  At 650 HP, it's the right power level for oval track racing.  Therefore, The IRL formula should become the oval track formula and the Champ Car formula the road racing formula.  CART really does not want to give up the Michigan 500 and Fontana 500, two of its more competitive races, but there's a way it can give those races to the IRL, yet still have them. For two years now I have pushed for CART to adopt the IRL formula for its Indy Lights series.  Now, more than ever, it should.  

Then I would like to see Champ Car drivers drive those cars in three Triple Crown races each year (Indy, Michigan and Fontana.  See this article for an in-depth discussion on the Triple Crown).  What about the ovals in Japan, England and Europe you ask?  The Champ Cars would run the wonderful F1 standard road course at each of those tracks instead of the oval.  Motegi, Japan and Eurospeedway, Germany have exceptional road courses.  I am not as certain about Rockingham.  I am of the opinion that CART will draw larger crowds at those races if they were run on the road courses because the fans in those countries identify with road racing more.  However, if the oval races prove successful this year, then perhaps CART can stick to the ovals in England and Germany and use the IRL/Lights cars.  Not in Japan, however, as Motegi is owned by Honda and they will want their engines in the race.

I propose that the IRL sanction all the USA Indy Car oval races each year, CART the road races, and CART and the IRL together co-sanction a resurrected Triple Crown series (Indy, Michigan and Fontana) whereby drivers from both series compete together each year for big prize money using IRL/Indy Lights cars.

However, ideally there would a unification of CART and IRL into one company with two divisions.  We talk about this more below.

In addition to the three Triple Crown races, CART teams that buy those cars run them or sell them for a support series for CART and the IRL, identical in every way, except one.  I propose that the support series have a smaller bore size to reduce the displacement of the engine by 0.5 liters.  That would require boring the block to a smaller cylinder diameter, and a different cam profile and engine computer mapping, but the engines would be required to be identical to IRL engines in every other aspect.  The question that immediately comes to mind is the fact that Indy Lights has always been a one-manufacturer engine formula.  However, NASCAR does not do that with its support series, Trucks and Busch.  By having multiple manufacturers, you bring more interest to the support series, something that Indy Lights desperately needs.  To keep costs further in check, perhaps the Lights engines can have a rev limit of 10,000 instead of 10,700 RPM to increase the miles between rebuilds.  Another issue is transmissions. The current IRL transmission would hold up just fine to the demands of road course racing, however, for outright car performance and regulation requirements a differential and reverse gear may be required. The only other area which may require some investigation is the lubrication scavenge system, as at present it is optimized for oval running. 

A 3.0L engine will produce less HP than the 3.5L IRL engine.  Therefore, the cars will be slightly slower, as they should be for a support series.  I would estimate that the HP will be in the 550 HP level, a good target for the Lights series with that weight car.  The Lights series would then have cars that were the same size as their bigger brother, the IRL and Champ Cars.  Busch cars are the same physical size as Winston Cup cars, and so too should Lights cars be the same size as their bigger brother IRL and Champ cars.  By having Lights cars identical to IRL cars, drivers can be more easily persuaded to run both series as their schedules allow, which will be another shot in the arm the support series needs.  Winston Cup drivers help out the Busch and Truck series in a similar way.  Why is it that Cup drivers can do it yet, IRL and Champ car drivers can't?  They certainly can, and would be more inclined to do so if the Lights cars were the same physical size as their IRL or Champ cars so as not to seem it's such a step down for them.

This proposal also means that all the engine manufacturers that produce engines for the IRL series, could, without a significant cost increase, produce Indy Lights engines......if they so choose.  Toyota, Oldsmobile and Nissan have already committed to the new IRL engine formula for 2003.  Would Toyota also produce a 1.8 liter turbo Champ Car engine?  Maybe, maybe not.  If they think a strong Champ Car road racing series that gives them excellent North America and International exposure is worth producing an engine for CART too, they will.  It would be up to CART to clearly define its road racing market niche, do an excellent job promoting it, have a solid TV package and make it valuable enough to entice Toyota and other manufacturers.

Conversely, would Ford and Honda also choose to produce IRL and Lights engines?  We doubt it, at least not immediately.  However, neither manufacturer is at Indy now anyway, so nothing would be lost except their Champ Car drivers would have a different engine for the three Triple Crown races each year. By eliminating 500-mile high speed ovals, the manufacturers of CART's engines won't have to produce so many various versions of the same engine, so that will reduce their costs.   If CART does their job right, their road racing focused series would give Ford, Honda, and hopefully some new manufacturers, better value than they get today. 

Ideally however, a common formula should be found for both.

Below is a proposed 2004 CART, IRL and Lights schedule that attempts to avoid having the IRL and CART race on the same day as much as possible, resurrects a joint CART/IRL Triple crown and has Lights (or whatever you want to call it) supporting both CART and the IRL.  It's a 20-race CART schedule, a 18-race IRL schedule and a 14- race Lights schedule.  The Lights schedule is two races longer than it currently is to attract more sponsor interest, plus the cars are used in the three Triple Crown races with the bigger 3.5L engines.

You will see some new races on the both the CART and IRL schedule, ones I feel should be added, or have been rumored to be coming.  Likewise, I had to make some very hard decisions, but you will see some existing races dropped, either because of poor attendance, declining attendance or inadequate track width and/or safety.  The Toyota Atlantic series would also support the CART series, but now there would be a larger step up from Atlantics to Lights in CART's ladder.

 Proposed 2004 Champ Car, IRL and Lights Schedule - IndyCar Series

Date International Road Course Division Domestic Oval Div. Lights

February 8

 

Daytona 500K
Daytona Beach
, FL (Oval)
 

February 22

St. Petersburg Grand Prix
St. Petersburg, Florida
(Street)
  Miami 100
Miami, Florida
(Street)

February 29

 

  Monterrey 100
Monterrey, MX
(RC)

March 7

  Homestead 300K
Homestead
, Florida (Oval)
Homestead 100
Homestead
, FL (Oval)
March 14 Monterrey Grand Prix
Monterrey, Mexico
(RC)
   

March 21

  Phoenix
Phoenix
, Arizona (Oval)
Phoenix
Phoenix
, Arizona (Oval)
March 28

 

   

April 4

Toyota Grand Prix of LB
Long Beach
, CA (Street)
  Long Beach 100
Long Beach
, CA

April 11

Easter Sunday - No Races

April 18 Lexmark Indy 300
Surfers Paradise
, Australia (Street)
   
April 25 China Grand Prix
Beijing,
China (RC)
Firestone Firehawk 500
Motegi
, Japan (RC)
 

May 2

Korean GP
Seoul, South Korea (RC)

   
May 9

Indy Practice Opens, Indianapolis, Indiana

 

May 15-16

Indy Pole Qualifying, Indianapolis, Indiana

 

May 23

Indy Bump Qualifying, Indianapolis, Indiana

 

May 30

Indy 500, Indianapolis, Indiana (Oval)
(Triple Crown Race #1)

Indy 200K (Sat. 5/22)
Indianapolis
(Oval)

June 6

 

Milwaukee Mile
Milwaukee, WI (Oval)
 
June 12 & 13
Molson Indy Vancouver
Vancouver
, British Columbia (Street)
Texas 500 K (Night Race)
Forth Worth,
Texas (Oval)
Texas 100
Forth Worth,
Texas

June 20

The Marconi Grand Prix 
Cleveland
, Ohio (Airport RC)

  Cleveland 100
Cleveland
, Ohio (RC)
June 27   Colorado 200
Fountain,
Colorado (Oval)
 

July 4

New York City Grand Prix
Flushing Meadow
, NY (Street)

   
July 11   Richmond 200
Richmond,
Virginia (Oval)
Richmond 100
Richmond,
Virginia

July 18

Molson Indy Toronto
Toronto
, Canada (Street)

   

July 25

Michigan 500 Presented by Toyota Michigan Speedway (Oval) 
(Triple Crown Race #2)

August 1   Kansas 200
Kansas City,
Kan. (Oval)
 

August 8

Motorola 220
Elkhart Lake,
Wisconsin (RC)

  Motorola 100
Elkhart Lake,
WI (RC)

August 15

 

Bluegrass 500K
Sparta
, Kentucky (Oval)
 

August 22

Molson Indy Montreal
Montreal
, Canada (RC)

   

August 29

 

St. Louis 200
Madison
, Illinois ( Oval)
St. Louis 100
Madison
, Illinois ( Oval)

September 4

Denver GP
Denver
, Colorado (Street)

   

September 11

 

Chicagoland Speedway
Chicago
, Illinois (Oval)
Chicago 100
Chicago
, Illinois (Oval)

September 19

Manchester 
Manchester
, England (Street)

   

September 26

German 500
Lausitz
, Germany (RC)

Texas 500 K
Forth Worth,
Texas (Oval)
Indy 100 (w/USGP)
Indianapolis,
IN (RC)

October 3

San Marino Grand Prix
Imola,
Italy (RC)

   

October 10

 

Nashville 200
Nashville,
TN (Oval)

October 17

Mexico City GP
Mexico City
, Mexico (RC)

  Mexico City 100
Mexico City
, Mexico

October 24

 

   

November 7

Las Vegas GP Las Vegas, Nevada (Street Race) 
(Triple Crown race #3)

Conclusion - What I have presented is a way for CART and F1 to coexist peacefully.  The world is plenty big enough for both to exist and the demand is there that F1 alone can't satisfy.  More importantly, what I have presented is a way for CART and the IRL to co-exist peacefully, one an oval division and one a road racing/international division, working together as one.  

The entities would jointly promote 'Indy Car' racing, especially the Triple Crown races when they race together.  I have avoided both series racing on the same day (except two, but that's when CART is overseas in China and Germany).  What I have presented allows CART and the IRL to go together to ABC and ESPN and present a 37-race schedule much like NASCAR offers, a race on almost every Sunday by either series.  I have presented a way to generate more interest in the Indy Lights series. I have presented a way for CART drivers to race in the coveted Indy 500 with what I think is an economically feasible way.

I have also presented a way for Indy Car fans to enjoy their type of motorsports almost every weekend, just like NASCAR fans get to do, without TV programming conflicts.  And most importantly, I hope I have presented something for all the constituents in CART and the IRL to gain from a stronger IRL and CART series.  

Now if we can only convince Tony George and CART to merge together under one organization called 'IndyCar', the name CART used to have.  Similar to Football's and Baseball's American and National Leagues, Tony George would have full control of the IRL/oval races, the CART owners would have full control of the CART/road races.   

I would propose that one person be selected to be the Commissioner of IndyCar racing.  A person that would be jointly elected by the IRL and CART to lead a governing body for IndyCar racing, much like the FIA has a Max Mosley that steers F1, F3000 and other series.  That person must be someone who is respected worldwide by the racing community, is well respected by the sponsors, commands a presence when he walks into the room, can be neutral, and wants to see CART and the IRL co-exist under one umbrella.  

Roger Penske is the one person who may have all the right qualities to pull the two sides together, and do for CART and the IRL what he has done for all the businesses he has touched - turned them golden.  He's not a CART Board member, no longer owns any tracks, and is sincere when he says CART and the IRL should operate under one umbrella. His only conflict of interest may be that he's a CART team owner, but I view that as a positive since he understands what it takes to run a racing operation.  Penske has built all his businesses around racing.  Just as Honda is a racing company that happens to also sell passenger cars; Penske is a racing man first and foremost, one that just happens to also run very successful automotive related businesses.

Unfortunately, Roger has too many business interests to give up to devote himself fulltime to the unified IndyCar organization......and that's too bad for all of us.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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