CART must differentiate itself - clearly


 by Mark Cipolloni
June 24, 2003

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Over the last seven years a lot has been made about cutting costs in CART and the IRL, yet the two most expensive racing series in the world, F1 and NASCAR, have grown in leaps and bounds throughout that period, and even during the recession.  Meanwhile, the cost cutting IRL and CART series, now "dumbed down" and lower cost, have become a mere shadow of what Indy Car racing once was all about.

As the old saying goes, people always want what they can't have.  Because NASCAR and F1 are so expensive, so elite, it is that much harder to achieve success at that level.  Money brings better everything.  Owning a team in F1 or NASCAR, or better yet driving one of the cars, isn't for your everyday Joe on the street, unless they are having a Walter Mitty kind of day.

When CART was an expensive series (In the 90's), it was at its peak, but now, due to the CART/IRL split, and the low-cost model the IRL has brought to the table, CART has had to dumb down and cheapen its product to just stay in business.  As a result, CART finds itself limping along, dogged by fan apathy and the loss of some major sponsors and manufacturers. 

Open Wheel race cars are not meant to be dumbed down low-cost "stock cars."  The open wheel USAC/IndyCar/CART series always represented the most sophisticated machines American ingenuity could design and race.  The Indy 500 was about the Novi's, the Turbine Car, the Lotus', the McLarens, the Penske/Mercedes special pushrod motor.  The mystique and the magic is gone, and with it the fans.

And because of the split, neither the IRL nor CART can afford to raise the ante and become more elite. There simply isn't enough money to support two series at that level.....or is there?

With the talk of CART being bought out, what can be done to get American race fans interested again?  Does open wheel racing have a chance to survive against the onslaught of NASCAR, or is it doomed to extinction in the USA?

Drastic times require drastic measures.  It's time for CART to completely reinvent itself.   To totally separate itself from the confusion over the IRL, CART should have an image closer to F1, even if it's not really under the covers. Think glamour - sexy cars, sexy women....sex sells.  No other series delivers that in America, as the dumbed down "stock car" mentality has become pervasive.  It might work for stock cars, but it doesn't work for open wheel cars.

Once CART is taken private, and let's assume for argument sake it's Bernie Ecclestone behind the deal, what needs to be done to clearly differentiate CART in the USA motorsports arena?  Here's some simple suggestions, many of which have been discussed on these pages before, but now compiled into one document for review.

1. About that sound - they gotta scream - There are many ways CART can differentiate itself in the crowded USA motorsports marketplace.  Let's start with sound, because more than anything, sound is what you sense first, even before you get through the gates of the race track.

I had not been to a F1 race in a few years.  Recently while in Italy I stopped by the famous Monza circuit just to have a look around.  As I pulled up to the gate to pay my entry fee the attendant said, in broken English, "you hear the Ferrari, today is your lucky day, Ferrari is here testing today."   Once inside, I decided to stand up in the main grandstand for awhile and just watch, and listen along with the 50 or so odd Italian race fans in attendance.  Suddenly the Ferrari F1 car fired up and pulled out of the garage and onto pit lane. 

Felipe Massa was testing that day.  When Massa reached the end of pit lane he lit up the rear tires and screamed down into the first turn.  The sound of the engine ran chills down my spine and each lap the car passed the grandstand my smile grew wider.  Sure a Champ Car sounds good, but man there is nothing, and I do mean nothing, that compares to the scream of a F1 engine. 

I recently wrote that a turbo is the best engine formula, and it may be, but oh the sound of that Ferrari.   And a V-10 normally aspirated engine will be more responsive on CART's tight street circuits.   So if Chris Pook is hell bent on V-10 F1-like engines, bring them on, but at 13,000 RPM (CART's current planned rev limit) one has to wonder if they will REALLY scream.  They had better.  And if they don't, then CART should start thinking about slightly more RPM.

2. The cars - they gotta look sleek and nimble - The 2nd way we sense racing is by eyesight.  What you see has to be pleasing to look at.  Along with new engines, CART is due for new cars in 2005.  About 200 pounds should be taken out of the existing cars that are 400+ pounds heavier than a F1 car.  Taking 200 pounds out means they will still be slower than a F1 car, but at least they will be fast enough to teach would-be F1 drivers what fast reflexes they will need in F1.  And reduce the width/track a little to make passing in tight confines a bit easier.  If they are going to use airboxes to force-feed air into a normally aspirated engine, CART is going to have to ensure they are sleek like a F1 airbox, and not some awkward behemoth of an airbox the IRL uses.  Stock Cars are big and awkward, and if the IRL wants to try that awkward look for open wheel cars, more power to them.

3. The starts - they gotta be standing -  Continuing with the sight and sound theme for a moment, the start of the race is important, and CART can be unique to the USA in this regard.  I have harped about standing starts in CART for years.  Last Sunday's three false starts at Portland were downright unprofessional and embarrassing for CART.  With the new 2005 engines should come onboard starters and standing starts.  Ever see a standing start?  They' sound and look spectacular, and it would separate CART from any other form of USA racing, and that is key.  Just one more thing to help CART define its place in the world.  And if CART is going to be a key training ground for F1, then its drivers had better be accustomed to standing starts.

4. What you call it - its gotta sound right - What you call a racing series is important.  CART doesn't cut it.  Is it a go-kart or a shopping cart many people wonder?  I vote for North American F1 or The American Grand Prix Series.  Both names are associated with F1.  More importantly, it once and for all segregates CART from the IRL and the Indy 500.  They are to oval racing what CART must be to road racing in the USA.  But CART must sound, feel and look completely different.  No more fan confusion with the IRL.  I'm sure the IRL would welcome the distinction as well, CART=Grand Prix Road Racing, IRL=Oval Racing.  Got it?  One last point here, if CART must also race on ovals as it does now, CART will be hard pressed to take 200 pounds out of the cars as suggested above.  A lot of material does into protecting the driver when he slams the unforgiving concrete walls, and the suspension pieces must be beefier to withstands the g-loads on a banked high-speed track.  Flat ovals such as Milwaukee, the Rio roval, and EuroSpeedway would probably be OK.

5. It's the drivers, stupid - Sure a screaming F1 engine sounds great, but until the drivers become household names like NASCAR drivers in the USA and F1 drivers in Europe, CART won't reach its full potential.  Think about how popular Ayrton Senna was.  Jim Clark.  Mario Andretti.  Nigel Mansell. Gilles Villeneuve.  Open wheel racing in the USA so badly needs a Dale Earnhardt-like super hero, another Ayrton Senna.  Fans worship their heroes.  Heroes do heroic things, but the sanctioning body needs to pick up on those moments and use them to grow super heroes. 

6. It's also the TV, stupid - SPEED Channel is nice, but there CART is practically invisible.  What good is it if the cars sound good, and look good, if you can't watch them?  CART needs a complete overhaul of its domestic and international TV package and I hear that will be announced soon.

7. And....It's a team sport, stupid - At first I thought Bernie was wrong, but who was I to question the man!  Bernie insists that all team cars be painted identical so they actually look like teammates.  Do all the NY Yankees wear different uniforms on the field?  CART should insist that all team cars look like the Players team - identical.  And what if the team has two sponsors, one for each car?  Then hire a graphic artists to design a paint scheme that works for both primary sponsors and put both names on both cars.  Then if one car wins, both sponsors benefit, i.e. you double their chance of winning.  Some sponsors might prefer a car all unto themselves, but they must be reminded this is a team sport and their double chance to win.

8. Low-cost, but high-tech and close racing - Clearly,  one-engine manufacturer series is not sustainable. The CART paddock is cash poor because it's down to just Ford, and Ford is in no position to pump a lot of money into the series.  Lets assume Bernie Ecclestone and Chris Pook don't have V-10 engine manufacturers waiting in the wings.  What's Plan B? 

How can CART keep costs reasonable, yet the cars high-tech and allow multiple manufacturers to play?  Standardize, standardize, standardize - the engines, the transmissions, and perhaps even the cars.  Removing the stiff competition allows any manufacturer to make the components "higher-tech" while maintaining costs, because although profit margins may be low per unit, they make up for it by supplying the entire field (i.e. in volume).  And with standardized equipment, the racing will be fierce.  It will come down to the best driver and and the best team on any given day, and isn't that what it's all about in the end?  NASCAR has done exactly this with its body templates - everyone is equal now.  At first the naysayers complained, but now all that's forgotten and the fans are focused on the racing, which is where it should be. 

There are many car manufacturers who do not have the ability to design a race engine like Cosworth does, but see value in a marketing/racing platform.  If CART hires Cosworth to build all the engines, CART can sell them to car companies who want to put their name on a portion of them, for a tolling fee.  CART needs manufacturer money, and it needs it fast   Nothing lost and everything to gain by luring them in on the cheap.  Maybe a Mercedes has too much pride to badge someone else's engine, but clearly Chevy does not, as witnessed by the recent IRL activity.  What other companies would do the same?  I'm willing to bet many.

CART engines should have a standard ECM, which means no traction control, no launch control, and all those other expensive systems.  It's important the rear of the car be kept as light as possible or else you end up with a car that is hard to save once it gets loose (think IRL cars where rear-first crashes into the wall are common.)   Light usually means lightweight expensive materials, and to a certain extent that is true.  However, if CART were to have a standard CART transmission manufactured by one supplier, than money saved in volume can be plowed back in so lighter weight materials can be used.  

Ditto for the engine, if they use our standard CART engine concept, badged by numerous engine manufacturers, then light weight heads and blocks can be used without exorbitant costs. 

Since they would have no engine to design and test, any company can jump in quickly. CART would have 6 months to get as many signed up as possible, with a max of say 5 (5 companies, 6 cars max each, 30 cars max). By the end of this year, they would take whichever companies signed up, and let them choose their teams for 2005.

The trick will be how to divide up which company gets which existing team. I would do it like a Football draft. Pick from a hat to see who goes 1st, 2nd etc, and let each company choose a team in the first round, then reversing the order in round two, and again in round three.

Each team would be a 2-car team, if they are not already, with factory support in all the non-engine areas – chassis dynamics, sponsor hunts, aerodynamics, marketing, making TV ads, hiring team personnel, etc. Each manufacturer could have up to three 2-car teams if CART gets 5 manufacturers, or four 2-car teams each if they get fewer companies.

This entire concept gives CART full control of the engines, which is what they want, but gives the manufacturers enough flexibility to feel like they have enough input into their teams to say they “won” a race. Who says an engine manufacturer has to supply just the engine?  Look at F1 where many are involved in all aspects of the team. 

I will go out on a limb and make a prediction that at some point (5 years perhaps) CART will have so many manufacturers wanting to get in on this “fair” and inexpensive way to go racing, that CART could end up with 14 companies, each with a single 2-car team. Wouldn’t that be wild?!?! It would be like baseball or football whereby each city has only one team (well almost….).

If CART were to adopt all of the above, it would very much look, sound, and act like an American "F1" series.....but on the cheap, and that's exactly the point.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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