War of the Worlds


 by Mark Cipolloni
April 2, 2003

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While our troops fight on the Iraq battlefield to rid this world of Saddam Hussein and his support for terrorism, I sense another war brewing, a war that might define the future of auto racing worldwide.  This war won't be fought with jet fighters, cruise missiles and guns, but instead with brainpower, cunning and greenbacks.  You see, because of technology, this world is becoming a very small place, and it's no longer enough to sell in a national market, it's about the global market, for we live in a global economy.  As much as we like to think of racing as a sport, it's just as much a business, a very big business.  Let's set the stage for this war.....

Bernie Ecclestone speaks softly, but carries a big stick

The France family and the Hulman George family are both in the oval track business.  The Frances own the extremely popular NASCAR empire and the Hulman George family the struggling IRL series, which just so happens to include the world's most famous race, the Indy 500.  These two wealthy, powerful, families have agreed to work together to build the oval track business.  Together they form the "Oval Track Cartel" and pretty much monopolize racing in the USA, the world's biggest consumer market.

However, what if the rumors of Bernie Ecclestone buying into CART are true?  Formula One is the world's largest, most popular racing series, also controlled by Bernie Ecclestone.  If he hooks up with CART, North America's biggest road racing series, together F1 and CART form what I call the "Road Racing Cartel."

Today, Bernie Ecclestone and F1 reign over the world, except in the USA, where NASCAR is king.  Until now, F1 has had mediocre results in the USA, and Bernie needs to deliver a strong showing in America to pacify the engine manufacturers who are the lifeblood of F1.  If Bernie Ecclestone, who is extremely wealthy and powerful,  buys CART, he gets an immediate, though somewhat weak at the moment,  foothold in the Oval Track Cartel's backyard, something I'm sure will send shock waves rolling through Daytona and Indianapolis.  One things for certain, Bernie Ecclestone waltzing upon the Oval Track Cartel's gravy train isn't going to be met with open arms and the red carpet treatment.

Bill France, USA's most powerful motorsport boss

Having conquered the USA, the France family has its eyes on international expansion.  They are wooing Japanese giant Toyota and there's even a Japanese driver in NASCAR now, totally unheard of.  Just one decade ago NASCAR was almost a 100% southern USA white man's sport, but the Cartel is smart enough to know that it must break that stereotype if it's to continue the meteoric growth it has enjoyed for the last ten years. It must begin to attract fans of all races and backgrounds, hence its need for foreign drivers now.

Before hiring Christian Fittipaldi, who is Brazilian, Petty Enterprises were rumored to have made a run at Canadian Superstar Paul Tracy.  If rumors can be believed, NASCAR is also wooing Honda and Nissan.  From where I sit, much to the chagrin of some of its xenophobic following, it appears the Frances are preparing to change NASCAR from a purely domestic powerhouse (Ford vs. Chevy vs. Pontiac vs. Dodge), to an international series (Ford vs. Chevy vs. Pontiac vs. Dodge vs. Toyota vs. Honda, vs. whoever) that can be sold in any country.  Don't think for a moment that Bernie Ecclestone doesn't see the handwriting on the wall.

F1 dominates the international scene, but the Oval Track Cartel has their eyes on the global market so coveted by Bernie.  By buying CART and forming the Road Racing Cartel, Bernie gets his foot in the Oval Track Cartel's backyard (the NAFTA market) before they get their foot in his global playground.  Together, a CART and F1 alliance bolsters the road racing contingent's firepower.

Tony George, IRL and Indy 500 honcho

The Oval Track Cartel vs. the Road Racing Cartel, is shaping up to be racing's version of the War of the Worlds.  Can the Oval Track Cartel gain acceptance outside the USA where road racing is king, and vice versa, can the Road Racing Cartel make major inroads into the USA racing scene where oval track racing is loved and adored?

The war is not going to reach a fever pitch for quite a few years, neither side is fully armed and ready to engage the opposition, but you can expect some minor skirmishes before long.  NASCAR and the IRL have quite a way to go before they're ready to make an all-out assault outside the safe haven called the USA.  NASCAR tried a couple of times to break into Japan, but fell flat on its face and went home with its tail between its legs with minimal interest from the Japanese fans.  Next time it will go armed with Japanese drivers and manufacturers and I don't think they plan to fail.  The IRL is going to Japan for the first time in two weeks, armed with Japanese drivers and manufacturers.

Likewise, the Road Racing Cartel has a steep mountain to climb in the USA before it can make any serious inroads into the oval dominated USA market.  NASCAR has such a monopoly on the lucrative USA market that even Bernie Ecclestone, as powerful as he is, will need a number of years to build CART into a powerful entity in the USA.  If CART can build the road racing fan base in the USA and market F1 along the way, when F1 arrives each year, they will have a bigger chance to be a huge success.  And if CART uses engines identical to F1, Bernie will be able to deliver the entire NAFTA market to the existing F1 engine manufacturers.

The stakes are high, the money big.  Twenty years from now the racing world landscape may look a whole lot different than it does now.  Will the world of racing be dominated by the Oval Track Cartel or the Road Racing Cartel?  Will the war have just one winner, or is this world big enough for both?

I suppose we shall find out in due time.  Meanwhile, watch out for some real political maneuvering, as  you can bet these heavyweights will lob more than a few bombs at each other.   Let's just hope the fans don't get caught in the same crossfire we saw with the CART and IRL battle.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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