It's time for CART to define its own future

 by Mark Cipolloni
June 7, 2002

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If it's not obvious to CART, it's certainly obvious to everyone else, CART has been had.  For several years now CART has tried to get the sport of Indy Car racing back together, only to be rebuffed time and again by Tony George.  In its latest move, CART tried to adopt the same engine platform and a similar chassis, in the hopes that CART and the IRL would share a common platform and be able to come together, if not as a single entity, then at least two divisions (road and oval) under one roof (sanctioning body).  That was until Roger Penske and Tony George joined forces, whereupon Roger Penske did an about face, and turned from calling for a merger of the two series, to saying only one would survive.

Clearly, Roger Penske has chosen sides, and clearly he is using his vast political influence in the automotive industry to help the IRL and cut the legs out from under CART.  At his recent surprise birthday party in Indy hosted by Roger's wife, Penske announced, for all to hear, that he had decided to join his friend Tony George and the IRL a year ago (May 2001).  Of course he never bothered to inform the CART Franchise Board of this decision, a board he continued to serve on until his departure from CART in late 2001, but that is a discussion for another day.

We live in a very dynamic time in the history of our sport.  There is a lot of political maneuvering going on as to who will actually be king of the sport of auto racing.  Clearly Bernie Ecclestone and his F1 series are the current world leaders, followed by the vastly popular American NASCAR Winston Cup series run by the France family.  Both have a wide lead over third place, arguably the CART FedEx Series.  However, Tony George, with the help of his 'friend' Roger Penske, have different ideas.  Tony, at a recent open-wheel summit held in Indy, stood up in front of the audience and declared  he intends to take the IRL to the head of the pack, "and that includes past  NASCAR and Formula One", declared George.

That statement was a warning shot across the bow of both Bill France and Bernie Ecclestone, who we doubt will take lightly what George said that day.  George threw down the gauntlet with that powerful declaration, and one can bet neither Ecclestone, nor France are about to roll over and play dead.  What their plan of action will be to cut George's legs out from under him, should he begin to make inroads into their sacred domains, remains to be seen, but we wouldn't want to be caught in the crossfire.

Meanwhile, George and Penske are trying to win their first battle, to dispose of pesky CART so they can have the sport of Indy Car Racing all to their own.  However, we seriously doubt, as wounded as it is, CART is going to just standby without a fight.

Many CART team owners want to compete in the Indy 500.  Having to buy totally new equipment each year for just one race was difficult.  So, at the Houston Franchise Board meeting last October, the CART board members voted with their hearts, rather than their heads.  By attempting to become an IRL clone, and obviously not realizing it at the time, they almost wrote their own death warrant. 

While it seemed to be the right thing to do in an attempt to unify the already weakened sport of Indy Car Racing (weakened by the creation of the IRL by Tony George), in fact it drove Honda out the door and tore the heart right out of its heritage (high-tech turbo engines and state-of-the-art cars), disappointed a large majority of its loyal fans, and copied a racing formula which arguably has little following. 

Oh, but it gets worse.  By copying your opponents formula, you place yourself in a position to have your opponent control your destiny.  Tony George has deep pockets, very deep pockets.  If he chose, he could make changes to his formula annually that would force CART to follow, and in doing so, add expense to the CART teams in an attempt to bankrupt them.  Meanwhile George could easily afford to increase the behind-the-scenes- funding of his IRL teams to defray these added costs.  CART would constantly be on the defensive, rather than the offensive, exactly the position George, like any smart opponent, would want.

I spoke out strongly against CART's move to the IRL engine formula, publishing numerous articles (another article, and yet a third article) arguing that CART adopt the 1.8 L turbo formula, but those pleas fell on deaf ears in the end.  Here we are in June of 2002 and CART, having attempted to emulate the IRL engine and chassis formula,  are no closer to the Indy 500 or a unified series, than they were 12, 24, 36 or 48 months ago.  In fact, one can argue in hindsight, that it's destiny is now controlled by its opponent, Tony George and the IRL.

Taking matters in their own hands
It's now time that CART take its destiny into its own hands, and out of that of its opponents.  Out of necessity to save money, and in survival mode, they have already made the decision to stick to their existing chassis and transmission to save their teams the unnecessary cost of buying entirely new cars, new cars that can't be used at the Indy 500.

Now it's time to take the next step and move as far away from the 3.5 L normally aspirated IRL engine formula as possible.  Ideally CART should eventually move to a V-10 gasoline engine formula, a detuned version of the F1 engines, because there are far more engine designers that have the know-how to design a gasoline engine rather than a methanol engine.  And the music (some might liken it to a scream) of those V-10's is Mozart and Beethoven rolled into one.

Another option would be to adopt that 1.8 L turbo engine they should have done 6 or 7 years ago when it was first proposed.  Even today, it remains a vastly superior engine formula in terms of controlling speeds (gradual reduction of turbo boost over time), longevity, sound reduction, and technical challenge (small engines are intriguing and have real-world applications).

However, it's too late to make such a drastic move for 2003, and one would argue it's too late for 2004 as well.  We are looking at 2005 at best for CART to change over to a new engine formula that will serve it's needs for the next 10 to 15 years.  If CART were to eliminate most ovals from its schedule, races that mandate much lower HP than road and street circuits for the sake of safety, CART could comfortably keep its HP in the 800 to 850 range and sell its series to fans around the world as the top-level racing formula that it always was, rather than a copycat lower-level formula that it almost became.

What about 2003 and 2004 you ask?  It's imperative that CART take control of its suppliers, especially its engine suppliers.  For too long the tail has been wagging the dog.  Engine manufacturers, who undeniably have the biggest dollar investment in any racing series, usually dictate and/or play politics to gain an advantage.  We see this in F1 especially, where the costs are so outrageously high, that the engine manufacturers almost completely control the series.

In part 2 of this article I will layout an entirely different engine supply business model to use for 2003 and beyond, one that breaks the trend of runaway costs, keeps speeds in check, reduces cost to the teams, keeps competition close, encourages manufacturer involvement at unheard of low investments, yet keeps CART as one of the top forms of open wheel racing.  It's not a win-win situation, it's a win-win-win-win-win scenario.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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