IRL debut at Fontana - a victim of friendly fire

 by Steven N. Levinson
March 25, 2002

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Saturday crowd.  If the IRL is growing, where are all the fans?
Photo by Steve Levinson

Penske team lines up just prior to start of the race.  How can the extremely intelligent Roger Penske honestly look at all those empty seats and say the IRL is growing?
Photo: Ron McQueeney/IMS

On Sunday afternoon, numerous motorists driving along the San Bernardino Freeway (Interstate 10) between the Etiwanda and Cherry Avenue exits reported hearing strange noises emanating from an area north of the Freeway.

Yes, there was an IRL event at the California Speedway, so some speculated that it might have been the sound of the IRL's antediluvian engine, or  AJ. Foyt bellowing about those "danged foreigners" or, Eddie Cheever blowing "hot air" at anyone, including Thomas Scheckter, or, Mr. Roger S. Penske lecturing Gil and Helio about the "Imminent Death of CART"! 

Fortunately or unfortunately, it was none of the above, but instead it was the 'rapid fire sound of nails being hammered into a wooden coffin' carrying the body of open wheel oval track racing in America. 

Anyone who read Shav's Glick's column in last Friday's Los Angeles Times could see the 'White Flag' of surrender being waived by ISC's President of the California Speedway, Mr. Bill Miller. The handwriting was on the wall. Miller had made his pre-race capitulation that the race would be a commercial and financial disaster. Of course, he had prepared a list of rationalizations in the form of 1) "the race was added last October" (translation: No Time To Properly Promote, or include the race in the season ticket package),  and 2) The Grand-Am's Road race would usurp the areas normally taken by campers and motor homes. Ah yes, this is where the 50,000 'Missing in Action' would be.



The start in Phoenix.  The grandstands officially hold 80,0000.  They were generously estimated as 20% full for a attendance of 15,000 to 16,000

This photo taken just before the race started shows the sparse crowd in the most densely populated section of grandstands.  Some say attendance may have only been 12,000.
Photos: Ron McQueeney/IMS

Then he went on with some very dubious and bizarre reasoning. "We have more people than the Staples Center" (home of the Lakers , Clippers and Kings). Then he went on to regurgitate ISC's corporate line that the 25,000 at Homestead and the 30,000 at Phoenix were good crowds. He said, "30,000 people at any event is a good event". (Please note that numerous objective observers at Homestead and Phoenix insist that those number quoted are inaccurate, and that neither crowd exceeded 20,000 including the Security Guards, Maintenance Crew, Hot Dog vendors and Ticket Takers).

Let's digress about the Staples Center, since Mr. Miller brought that up. Hey Bill, people pay good money to see the Lakers and Kings and Clippers, and I will bet that any Laker game will out do any of your IRL events at Homestead, Phoenix and Fontana in terms of gross business and profit!

Please don't insult the Lakers in order to justify the massive failure of IRL's 'inaugural debut of the Indy Racing League at Fontana.'  ISC never made excuses or rationalizations about CART's fantastic races at Michigan Speedway that drew smallish crowds.  They blamed CART and told them to take a hike.

Remember, as for Bill Miller's continued assertion that "we will grow the event"; suffice it to say if the "Inaugural Event" is a failure, the future does not look too good. And this is not like the inaugural event at Las Vegas wherein Speedway Motorsports could "Carpet Bomb" the Las Vegas Casinos with bundles of free tickets and then stand at the gates of Nellis Air Force Base across from the Las Vegas track and hand out more freebies. You don't have that luxury. Perhaps Marlboro and Yamaha could snake through nearby Ontario Mills Shopping Center and pass off a few tickets, who knows?

I'd be willing to bet that Dover Down's CART Long Beach Grand Prix will do more business in selling paddock passes than ISC has done in it's first three races at Homestead, Phoenix and Fontana. After all, even 30,000 paddock passes at Long Beach at $50 each is $1.5 Million. And they sell more than 30,000, Bill.  In fact every year at Long Beach they have some 50,000 people on Saturday, and that's not even race day.

As for Miller's "growing the event" rhetoric, this has not proven to be the case at Homestead or Phoenix. In fact this year's event at Phoenix was the 6th IRL event, and the results are, to put it mildly, not overwhelmingly "positive". The event has not shown any demonstrable growth.  In fact, the record clearly reflects that whenever the IRL has gone to a CART venue, the attendance figures have dropped dramatically, and such was the case yesterday at Fontana.

Roger Penske didn't look to jovial before the start of the race.  Neither did the Marlboro reps who all looked very sedate after glancing up at the grandstands and seeing few paying customers.
Photo: Ron McQueeney/IMS

There were a few people down the the 4th turn and the center sections were perhaps 1/2 full.

This picture of the center grandstand section was taken while they were gridding the cars.

I keep wondering what the Marlboro organization is saying after viewing three consecutive races and barren grandstands (see photos above)?  They bravely put out a statement about how they 'will help to grow the IRL.'  Quite frankly, I don't think they have enough money. People are aware of what's out there in racing, and as for oval track racing, they have made their choice. It's NASCAR, however ridiculous that is.

Roger Penske is a brilliant man. No question about it. But I can't imagine what he really thinks? Is ISC (Roger is a major shareholder and sits on the Board of Directors) forcing him to side with the IRL to bolster attendance at their oval tracks?  He has been rather quiet of late, preferring to put Tim Cindric and Gil and Helio as "Front Men". Now these three gentlemen are good and honorable men, and it must be extremely painful for them to go before the media and mouth these 'verbal PR sound bites.'  We wonder if this has anything to do with Roger recently selling almost a $1 billion worth of ISC stock recently.

For Cindric, it's "we need one series", almost as if they are afraid that CART, under Pook's leadership, is gaining momentum. They will need to run the Marlboro "Colors" at Long Beach, St. Petersburg, Miami, Toronto, Cleveland, etc, in order to race in front of some fans, hence perhaps why they want one series.

For Gil, it must be much more painful. He has to say that "the IRL is a very competitive Series"...blah, blah and more blah". I still cannot forget the look on his face at Fontana last November when I said 'Good luck in the IRL next year, we're going to miss you.'  It was sadness and pain. And then there was his 2000 Fontana "Pole Winner's Press Conference" (he qualified at 242MPH/30.222 seconds) when he was asked about future changes to Champ car specs. He said,  "I don't really care what they do as long as the cars remain a challenge to drive."  And can you believe that in Saturday's Indianapolis Star he was quoted as saying he much prefers the slower more stable IRL cars now than Champ Cars.  He's right about that, the powerful and downright scary Champ Cars, like F1 cars, are only meant for the best of the best, and for drivers who want to compete at the very highest levels.

Hmm, some challenge in driving an IRL car, as Juan Montoya referred to as "My Tractor", and later said in Autosport magazine...(IRL CAR) "too much downforce and too little horsepower".  At Fontana the drivers said they were flat out all the way around with their car fully trimmed out. Is this a show or a sport?

Maybe, ISC could have tried to market Southern California's huge Hispanic community. After all, Los Angeles is the second largest Mexican city in the world next to Mexico City. However, ISC has not done very well with Miami's Hispanic market either. And of course, IRL does not have the 'Mexican fan magnate' Adrian Fernandez or now, the "Three Musketeers" , Adrian, Michel and Mario. Mexicans are big race fans, and after 6 years or more of the CART/IRL war, they too, have already made up their collective mind that in America, "IRL is La Segunda Serie".

Shav Glick also said in his recent LA Times article something that has been written about many times on AutoRacing1, that perhaps Messrs. George and Penske fail to appreciate, "There is reason to believe that even if open wheel racing were to become a single series again, the damage done is so severe, that there may be no return to Indy Car's glory days, especially on the oval tracks.'  The only hope appears to be the path CART has taken, running mostly road and street circuits and just a few select oval races where the market can support them.

As I concluded in my article "Stranger in a Strange Land", save for the INDY 500, open wheel oval track racing is an endangered species in the USA. In fact,  if open wheel oval track racing was a human being Tony George would be convicted of "willful, deliberate and pre-meditated murder in the first degree"!  In ISC/Tony George's desire to destroy CART, they wound up killing the IRL @ Fontana... A victim of "Friendly Fire"!

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