Interview with Forsythe-Racing's VP of Operations Neil Micklewright
The State of Open Wheel Racing in the USA
by Mark Cipolloni

 August 29, 2005

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Neil Micklewright
Bob Heathcote/AutoRacing1.com

This is Mark Cipolloni with AutoRacing1.com. I'm here this morning in Montreal with Neil Micklewright. Neil is the Vice President of Operations of Forsythe-Racing. Today's topic is the state of open-wheel racing in America.

Neil, welcome.

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Good morning, Mark. Appreciate being here.

Q. As a little background for our readers, could you tell us how long you've been in racing, when did you get started and how?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: I've been in racing full-time since the summer of 1972. I got started working for Mo Nunn actually as a go-fer, making the coffee, sweeping the floor and polishing the wheels. Just worked my way up since then.

Q. And how long have you been in Champ Car with Forsythe Racing?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: I've been in Champ Car with Forsythe Racing since the latter part of 1994. So we're looking at about 11 years now.

Q. So then you were here in the so-called good times just before the split?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Yeah, absolutely. I was there with Forsythe at that time.

Q. Now, you just came into the sport, into CART, in '94. The split happened at the end of '95. How did you feel at the time? Did you feel like you maybe made the wrong move?

Neil Micklewright (L) and Paul Tracy
Bob Heathcote/AutoRacing1.com

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: No, well, actually, let's back up a little bit. I mean, I did 11 years total in Formula One and actually came over to the US and started working within CART, team or teams, in the latter part of 1983. I've actually been over here now for, you know, 20 some years.

No, I think that CART, even though it had some issues, I think was a great series with an awful lot of good things going for it. I was fortunate enough to land the job as the vice president of operations with Forsythe. Even though the split occurred, no, I never felt as though I'd made a bad choice.

Q. We've heard a lot of talk about who to blame on the split, whether it was the CART owners or Tony George. You were inside the sport at that time. What did you feel was the root cause of the split?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Tony George. I think you have a situation where an individual who has inherited certain properties and rights to, you know, what is arguably the most significant open-wheel racing certainly in North America, and felt that owning that race and that track, that being Indianapolis, was not enough for him.

I think that he felt that he didn't get the respect or the input into open-wheel racing that he wanted, and consequently decided to run his own series.

Q. A lot has been said about what's happened to the sport since the split. We've seen NASCAR - although NASCAR was already getting strong - we've seen NASCAR really get strong since then, and we've seen open-wheel racing kind of go down the tubes, so to speak. It's still alive, but it's not doing as well as it was. Is there anything good that came out of the split, anything at all?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Uhm, no, I don't think there's anything positive for open-wheel racing that came out of this whatsoever. You know, I think that the reasons for the split or at least the stated reasons, why they're needed -- let me rephrase that.

There never was a split per se. A competing series was set up, which then through one way or another was able to fish or attract teams that had hitherto been involved with CART. I don't see one positive thing. It's been said for centuries "divide and conquer." Open-wheel racing became divided and is close to being conquered. It never will be, I don't believe, because there's enough support for open-wheel racing, whether it be IRL or Champ Car. There's always going to be fans who are going to be keen on that.

Certainly the popularity of NASCAR has been there for a long time. You know, it's been going for a long time. It continues to grow. I'm sure it will continue to grow into the future. But that doesn't mean that there isn't room for open-wheel racing.

Q. Trying to look at it objectively, what good do you see in the IRL and what good do you see in Champ Car? What do they do well?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Well, I think certainly, you know, Champ Car has a business model or a plan, I'm keen on road courses, on turning right as well as left. I think the way that the demographic of North America and the rest of the world has changed, certainly entertainment needs to be taken to the people. I think you've got a situation now where fewer people are likely to go out in the middle of nowhere for an entertainment event, you know, there's so many other options people have, places to spend their discretionary dollars.

As far as 'good' is concerned, I mean, CART and then Champ Car was always fairly diverse with the races that it would run, whether it be road course, street course, superspeedways, short ovals, so on and so forth. And I still see that as being a good thing. I don't see anything particularly good with the IRL.

Q. So nothing that you think the IRL does better than Champ Car does?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: I think that what they do better than Champ Car at this point in time is their marketing and the spin that they put onto things. You know, they've certainly done a good job on getting out there and, you know, finding something upon which to base or build their series, and then exploit that to the maximum.

Q. They've put a lot of emphasis on Danica Patrick here recently. She seems to be getting the majority of the PR for the series. Is that a good thing for them?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: I think they obviously feel that it's a good thing for them. I mean, she's certainly a talented driver. She's a hell of a lot quicker than I am, and quicker I'm sure than a lot of drivers out there.

Whether or not it's fair on her I guess is really a question for her. It's not what I would be doing. Then again, that's probably one of the reasons I'm not involved with their series.

Q. We talked about the split or the two series. There's been a lot of talk also about getting the two series back together. Do you feel it can ever happen or is it just too much bad blood at this point?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: No, never say "never." I certainly think there are options or opportunities that will arise in the future that would make that possible. And I don't think that at that level bad blood is something that comes into it, I think it's purely business.

You know, I don't know all of the ins-and-outs of what has gone on with the various negotiations, nor do I need to know that. Ultimately my understanding is that it comes down to a question of control. And if one side or the other wants veto power or absolute control, then it will never get back together.

Q. Along that line, we have seen in NASCAR and F1 where a dictatorship does work well, and I can assume that Tony George thinks that that's the way it has to be in open-wheel racing, as well. Do you agree with that?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Well, I think certainly we can look at the types of series or racing that you've mentioned, plus a whole bunch of other sports where, you know, a singularity or a particular dictatorship can work. But I think as in most instances, it depends on who the dictator is.

Q. Assuming there is never a unification and IRL and Champ Car continue down the road they're going, can either one of them or both of them prosper apart?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: I think there's certainly an opportunity for both of them to prosper. You know, if we take NASCAR out of the picture at least for a moment, as I said earlier, I think there's a core group of people in North America and around the world who like, appreciate and enjoy open-wheel racing. You know, I don't see either the IRL or Champ Car going anywhere -- going away in the near future.

I would like to think that if as much energy could be concentrated on each series just doing its own thing, which is what Champ Car's been doing now for several months, I think both can prosper. I don't think it's necessarily the best overall thing for open-wheel racing in North America. But, you know, it's a free country. If they want to have two series and if people want to run in one or both of those series, I think they should be free to do so.

Q. NASCAR is so strong in the United States. Champ Car and IRL have struggled to make a big dent here with NASCAR being as big as it is. We see Champ Car trying to go more international: Mexico, Canada, Australia, trying to go to China, going to be in Korea this year. The IRL seems to think the focus should be on America, the United States. How do you feel about that?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: I think that to insist that the focus -- first let me say that the IRL is saying at this point that the focus should be on North America and the United States. Obviously, they said at one point the focus should be on American drivers and grass roots racing, coming from Saturday night at the dirt tracks. So a lot of what they've insisted were the right things to do seem to have changed over the last couple of years.

You know, the world is becoming a smaller place, a 'global village.'  America holds a very prominent place in the world, and I think that we don't need to be provincial, we don't need to be parochial. I think while there's a market out there for people who want to see Champ Car-type racing, I don't see any issues with going abroad and being an American-based series.

Q. Engine manufacturers have been a big part of open-wheel racing, of all racing really, since day one. We've seen them in CART in its heyday, we saw them leave. We saw them in the IRL, now we see them leaving. What is your feeling on the engine manufacturers' involvement in racing? Good, bad? How much influence should they have? How do you use their money without letting them have too much control?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Well, I mean, I don't know which order to answer those questions in. They all really combine into one.

The bottom line is that the involvement and support of engine manufacturers in any series, you know, is a mixed bag. I mean, certainly on the upside, the amount of money that those engine manufacturers spend in development, in publicizing, promoting the events or series they're involved in can't be underestimated and is very hard to replace.

Of course, the downside is what do they want back in return for that? Well, I think we saw in CART that the amount of power and influence that the engine manufacturers were wielding through the involvement with individual teams was significant, to the point that you had a whole bunch of different people pulling in different directions based on what it is or there was at that time that the engine manufacturers wanted to get out of it.

At the end of the day the engine manufacturers I think tend to be involved because it's a business proposition for them. They're looking to invest money both in promotion and in development, and they want a return on that. If they're able to achieve the return on that, they can be reasonably happy, I guess, sometimes, and then they move on to the next challenge.

Q. Right now we have just Ford in this series with Cosworth engines. They're basically badged the Cosworth engine. If CART were ever to let additional manufacturers back in, what can be done to keep the parity that we see today or at least near that, or is that just impossible when you have competition?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Well, I don't know that it's impossible, but I certainly think that it would take quite a significant infrastructure to have some type of checks, balances and controls in there.

I think what might be important in the future for a series such as Champ Car, you know, F1 is something on its own all together, but with regards to our type of open-wheel racing over here, I don't see that there isn't a place for other engine manufacturers. I would rather see them involved with the series rather than with individual teams.

To say that they can't, you know, have individual teams, but I think that the parity that's there is important, and that needs to be maintained so that you don't have, you know, one or two teams who are not only receiving better engines, but are also receiving massive amounts of financial support. We saw that in CART. We've seen it now in the IRL.

When the money disappears that teams are used to getting from the engine manufacturers, that's when things get a lot strange, more strange than they had been. You know, certainly with Champ Car since the engine manufacturers left the series, I mean, Champ Car spent a lot of time and effort trying to find ways to cut costs, to get costs more in line with the type of finances that are actually available these days for this type of racing with all of the big sponsors having gone to NASCAR.

It leaves a massive void, both a void in financial input as well as the void in technological development and is something that needs to be carefully controlled and policed.

Q. Going back a little bit to Champ Car and the diversity that it had at one time. We see less and less ovals on the schedule. Now we're down to two this year, Milwaukee and Las Vegas. There's a new car coming out in '07. Do you feel that car should be designed to run on ovals? Should the series stick with oval racing or just focus on road and street circuit events?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Well, you know, certainly there's a lot to be said maybe for Champ Car just concentrating on road and street circuits since the IRL is predominantly ovals. But, you know, I also feel, though, that some of the historic background for Champ Car has been its diversity. I think there's a place for ovals. I think the new car should be designed and built such that it is capable of racing on ovals.

The problem I see with Champ Car is not so much that -- the ovals are the same, they haven't changed over the years. Our ability to put a car on there that produces an exciting and entertaining race has changed. That's what we ought to be looking at rather than just abandoning the ovals.

Q. As somebody who doesn't own the team but has to manage the budget, looking at what we've seen in the IRL with a lot of crashes, a lot of crash damage, what does that do to your budget if you have a lot of ovals on the schedule?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Well, certainly it does tend to be more expensive to race on ovals than it is on road courses. It's difficult to have small crashes on ovals just by the very nature of them. You know, from a budgetary point of view, it can significantly increase the budget, at least from the crash damage allocation or from taking out some type of insurance.

Q. In wrapping it up, you talked about the split, the unification. Your own personal feeling, do you want to see the two get together again?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: I'm pretty ambivalent about it. I don't really care whether they get back together or not. I don't go to bed at night wishing that they would get together, nor do I go to bed at night wishing they would stay apart.

What I would like to see is what's best for open-wheel racing in this country. Right now there are two opposing views of what's best. I just happen to buy into the view that Champ Car has, you know, prefer that way forward and hope that that will work out.

Q. If they got together, is there any role for Tony George in the unified series?

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Not in my opinion, no. I haven't seen anything in the last 10 years that would suggest that he individually has anything to bring to the party.

Q. Neil, thank you very much for your insight.

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Thanks very much.

Note:  The opinions expressed herein are those of Neil Micklewright, not necessarily those of Champ Car or AutoRacing1.com.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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