Merge CART and the IRL?  Time For A Reality Check

 by Mark Cipolloni
September 2, 1999
Negotiations with the IRL are a struggle.  Differences in philosophies are great.  Why does CART want to unify with the IRL?  Maybe it's time for a reality check!

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Everyone seems to be afraid to say it in public so I will - The only reason CART is talking to Tony George about merging with the IRL is to get CART's teams and their sponsors back at Indy.  Period.  It's not because CART wants to race at Pikes Peak, Charlotte or Atlanta.  Indy is what they want, and Indy is what they may eventually get.  But at what price?  I submit to you this:

  1. If CART and the IRL merge, a lot of racing team members in both leagues will be out of a job.  There are just too many teams and not enough available qualifying positions for all the current teams of both leagues to make the races.

  2. If CART and the IRL merge, a lot of drivers will be without a ride for all the same reasons as #1.

  3. If CART and the IRL merge, a lot of current races will be dropped.  There is even talk of eliminating races like Australia, a extremely successful event, and other overseas venues.

  4. CART is a public company, the IRL private.  Can the two different corporate cultures be happy together in the long run?

  5. If CART and the IRL merge, a lot of current equipment will get scrapped.

  6. If CART and the IRL merge, is CART willing to agree to a mostly oval series like the IRL side wants?  Given how successful CART's road and street races are, and how unsuccessful many of CART's and the IRL's oval races are, one has to wonder if a reality check is not in order.

  7. If CART and the IRL merge, the engines will become less sophisticated, the rules more limiting.  Ford, Mercedes, Toyota, and Honda don't want that.  While these companies want to build smaller, higher revving engines, the IRL wants bigger, heavier, and a lower revving variety.  Why force it on them?

  8. If CART and the IRL merge, does anyone really think current IRL teams can compete on an even plane with CART teams?  Honestly folks, that just isn't going to happen.  Why force it on them?

When one closely examines the facts, one quickly comes to the conclusion that a unified Indy Car series, although desirable on the surface, would be next to impossible to achieve. The philosophies are just too different for there ever to be harmony in the long run.

So until CART and the IRL either run each other into the ground or one collapses, a unification is unlikely.  And as much as I would love to see an end to all this bickering and animosity, I don't think a unification is necessary.  The best thing the two sides can do for the sport is agree to not schedule races on the same day and come together once a year at Indy.

Let's assume CART and the IRL don't merge.  Is that really the end of the world?  Is that the only way for CART teams to appease their sponsors by getting back to the Indy 500?  I submit to you this - a loud and resounding NO!

The IRL was formed on the premise that because it works for NASCAR, it must work for Indy cars.  The IRL has attempted to mimic the NASCAR formula in an open wheel series without success.  When I say mimic, I mean all ovals, more controlled rules and cost, and a 'stock block' sound.  CART's ovals have been far from a resounding success either.  If fans are so interested in seeing open wheel cars on oval tracks, then how come they don't watch on TV and they don't show up at the race tracks?  Nearly every Indy car race on an oval track has seen a drop in attendance from year to year for the last three years.

Because the IRL was formed, CART perceived it as a major threat so they immediately started to add ovals races to their series to counter the IRL's all-oval philosophy, when in fact that is not what the marketplace wanted.

CART has made their mark by being the premier road racing series in North America (They present a great oval show as well, but their non-ovals dwarf the ovals in popularity).  That's right the premier road racing series, and NASCAR is the premier oval track series in North America.  To the average fan, oval track racing is NASCAR.  NASCAR is huge.  NASCAR is a giant, a marketing steamroller.

If CART is the premier road racing series, then why reverse direction now?  Why try to give fans more oval racing when NASCAR gives it to them, week in and week out?  Winston Cup, Busch, Trucks - everywhere we turn we are bombarded by oval track racing.  If I am an oval track fan and I want to watch oval racing, I tune in to NASCAR.   Open wheel racing, by virtue of the fact drivers can't rub fenders, can't draft as well because the cars don't make a big hole in the air, will never race as close and never be as entertaining to the majority of oval racing fans as NASCAR.  Never!  Period!  End of story!  Live with  it!  Lick your wounds and move on!

Sure CART has a few successful oval track events.  Fontana and Chicago come to mind.  No one is saying to drop them all, but the deadbeat ones should be eliminated.  Nothing is worse for the image of a sport than to see it played before largely empty grandstands.  Ask the IRL.  Ask CART after Michigan and Nazareth.  It is demoralizing for the fans, and even more demoralizing for the drivers, teams and sponsors.

Some track owners are pushing Indy car racing toward oval tracks so they can run an additional race to generate revenue, however, will the races be successful?  Did they ever bother to ask the fans what they want?  Is it at all possible that me, the average race fan, after I have purchased tickets for, say, two Winston Cup races at Michigan in one year, I may be all tapped out and won't purchase one for your Indy car race?

This has proven to be the case at Michigan, and each of the Indy car races run at venues that also have Winston Cup races - Homestead, Phoenix, New Hampshire, Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, and Dover.  For all intents in purposes, these NASCAR successful tracks have not been able to sell the Indy car product.  Bruton Smith is on record as saying they 'marketed the hell out of the last IRL race in Atlanta', yet the attendance was so bad, the race may be dropped.  How much money do you expect the same fans to put out in one year before they say enough is enough?

By running Indy cars on the same track as NASCAR you beg to be compared.  It's inevitable.  And guess who wins every time?  NASCAR can fill the seats and every year the tracks build even more grandstands to accommodate them.  When the Indy cars show up and they are 1/2 to 3/4 empty, people come away with an image that Indy car racing is a loser.  So why put yourself in that situation?

CART must tap a different segment of the population, the road racing fan segment.  The oval track fan base is depleted,  NASCAR has sucked the well dry, and will continue to do so.  Sure the recent CART race in Chicago was a big success, but will it be once NASCAR comes to town?

Talk of eliminating street and road races in a merged CART/IRL series makes one wonder!  Record crowds continue to flock to road and street races just as fast as they are disappearing at ovals.  One has to look no further than Miami to see that CART drew 90,000 fans to its only race in the downtown Miami streets, and saw that number cut in half when it moved to the Homestead oval.  It has never recovered.

Street and road course races such as this weekends race in Vancouver are a weekend event.  Fans flock to the track Friday, Saturday and Sunday giving the track owner the opportunity to generate revenue for three days rather than one.  Road races favor camping out, concerts and other family stuff.  Given the magnitude of CART's sanctioning fee structure, road races are more likely to stay financially solvent over the long run.

Engines are another story. CART fans love the sound of turbocharged engines.  They help make CART unique.  They are the very essence of CART's heritage.  Would NASCAR ever trade in their engine formula for a turbo formula?  Heck no.  It is part of their heritage as well.  And non-turbo engines are louder.  What will the neighbors in Chicago say if the noise level goes up with normally aspirated engines?  What about Long Beach? Toronto? Vancouver? Houston? Australia? Milwaukee?  Why create more noise in today's environmentally conscious society?  To destroy the sound that distinguishes a Champ Car from a stock car, a F-1 car, or from any other form of racing, is a strategic error.  Maybe it's just me, but an Indy car that sounds like a stock car just doesn't seem right.  

CART's engine manufacturers presented to CART a viable 1.8 liter highly turbocharged engine formula, one that would probably last 10 years or more.  It would mean that CART would retain their distinctive sound, and have an easy means of controlling HP through gradual decreases in turbo boost. Small pistons of a 1.8 liter engine will allow the engineers the ability to produce a smaller, higher revving engine, one that challenges their technical imagination.   We already have a stock-block, low tech racing series.  It's called NASCAR.  Because CART thinks they have a chance of unification with the IRL they have not acted on the manufacturer's recommendation.  Big mistake.

And now back to where I started, CART at Indy.  Does CART need to unify with the IRL to race at Indy?  No, ever since the 25/8 rule was rescinded, CART teams were free to race at Indy.  However, CART made a strategic error by always scheduling a race on the same weekend as Indy and discouraging Champ car teams from racing in the 500.  

CART budgets are large compared to IRL budgets.  IRL equipment is cheap and it is now reliable.  One idea is to adopt the IRL formula for Indy Lights - See CART & IRL - To Unify...Don’t Unify.  Another is for CART to take about $20 million from their coffers and give it to every Champ Car Team (about $1 million per car) to buy some IRL equipment.

Now that the Indy 500 is only a two week event, the added cost to run Indy will increase current budgets by about 10%.  If the Michael Andretti's of the world run a few IRL races every year to acclimate themselves to IRL equipment, come May their chances of making the big race will be excellent.  And Michael Andretti or Juan Montoya showing up at a few IRL races sure wouldn't hurt the IRL.  It may be just the extra boost that series needs in its quest to mimic NASCAR.

In closing, it is evident that CART has an identity problem.  It thinks maybe it has to be a NASCAR because NASCAR is so successful.  It thinks maybe it has to be an IRL, because the IRL has the Indy 500.  It thinks. it thinks, it thinks.  What CART really needs to be (they just haven't figured it out yet) is unique.  And to stop trying to be what it is not.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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