Rivalry, NASCAR has it, CART and the IRL don't

 by Frank Ryan
April 5, 2001

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Gordon and Stewart give NASCAR another rivalry.

NASCAR has it, Major League Baseball has it, and the National Football League has it. Without it, there would be no fan frenzy, and if you didn't have it, perhaps there would be no fans at all. What is this magical ingredient that is integral to a sports success? It is RIVALRY. Better thought of as Petty vs. Pearson, Chevrolet vs. Ford, the Yankees vs. just about everyone, and just recently Jeff Gordon vs. Tony Stewart. 

While NASCAR has always had these intense rivalries, both CART and the IRL are sorely lacking this key ingredient as the days of Foyt vs. Unser vs. Andretti have long since drifted away. 

Without rivalry, sports become mundane; events pass without a mention or acknowledgement. But with rivalry, sports generate interest; they become greater than just the window of time the event is played within, they become news and history, and if the rivalry is great enough it becomes legend. 

More than ever, sports rivalry is alive and well in NASCAR. There was a moment earlier this year after the Earnhardt tragedy when I feared all was lost, but I am confident now that NASCAR will continue to prosper with new rivalries. With more than 50 victories in his short career, Jeff Gordon is now by all accounts the undisputed King of the Hill. As evidenced earlier this year in Bristol, with five laps to go Jeff Gordon gives you two choices, move over or get run over. Enter Tony Stewart, young, aggressive, and fast, maybe even more talented than Gordon. Both have quickly become fan favorites, as it is easy to like one of these drivers, and throngs of fans have pledged their allegiance and support behind them. This is the perfect mix for a successful rivalry, and when Tony Stewart came back after spinning out to give Jeff Gordon his own special "thank you" you could have heard the fans screaming in delight echoing off the Smokey Mountains. This is the start of! a great rivalry in NASCAR, and I guarantee that when those two are side by side on the track you will not take your eyes off of them.

Since its inception, the lifeblood of NASCAR has been its rivalry. There is rivalry among the drivers, among the manufacturers, and even among the fans. Look into the stands and you will see the fans displaying their loyalties to both man and machine. Shirts, hats, jackets, coolers, and other forms of paraphernalia help show their allegiance to their side of the rivalry.

Looking at motorsports in the United States, NASCAR has nearly cornered the market from the rivalry perspective. While their carefully crafted rules are created to even the playing field, they have always embraced a "favorite son". In exchange for being the selling point of the series, NASCAR also promotes the rivalries surrounding this person. For years we had "the King", then "the Intimidator", champions known by their nicknames alone. And there have been many colorful names through the years. Who else but NASCAR would have drivers named Fireball Roberts and Lake Speed? 

What do drivers and teams that make great rivalries have in common? First and foremost, they are perceived to have had "too much" success when compared to the median. Some of the drivers falling into this category include Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. All have been great champions, and all have been loved or hated when they have been on the track. 

Another key factor in rivalries is time; the drivers must remain in the sport long enough to not only have success, but to also develop a following. The fans need time to know the person (or team), to see their accomplishments, and for lack of a better term, to "jump on the bandwagon". Once on the bandwagon, the fans become the most important part of the rivalry. When two of these "favorite sons" compete against each other, the rivalry is born. The Gordon fans would boo when Earnhardt won a race, the Earnhardt fans would cheer when Gordon wrecked, and it was a wonderful thing. 

What do great rivalries mean to a sport? Plainly stated, rivalry means success, and without it the sport will flounder and lose its appeal. Take the CART and the IRL; both of these series have gone out of their way to "civilize" the garage area and the drivers. Prim and proper, yes please and thank you, while this lily-white persona may be just what the sponsor ordered, it has done nothing to attract the fans or help stimulate interest in the sport.

The only rivalry that currently exists in open wheel racing is the two series battling each other, namely CART vs the IRL. Unfortunately this approach has previously done little to build interest in open wheel racing. Most casual fans of open wheel racing would be hard pressed to tell you the difference in the two series, let alone that there are two series. As CART struggles to find itself running international venues and road courses, the IRL has chosen to stay the course, running ovals and normally aspirated engines. What does this mean to the casual fan of open wheel racing? Success can be rivalry within a series, or pitting one series against another in a championship type event. This would depend on how the rivalry is fashioned.

Juan Montoya left CART to run Formula 1.

Last year Juan Montoya dominated CART for most of the 2000 season. If he stayed in CART for a few years, he likely would have become a "favorite son", and this may have created rivalries with other drivers. But he soon split for greener pastures in Formula 1. In order to start and maintain rivalries, a racing series needs to have its drivers stay around for several years. And that's exactly what NASCAR Winston Cup does best. Guys like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Ken Schrader and Ricky Rudd have been plying their trade in stock car racing for decades. Veterans of Winston Cup have developed throngs of fans over the years, and rivalries have had a lot to do with that. Winston Cup fans are probably the most loyal of any sport in the country.

If you ever compare attendance figures for IRL, CART and Winston Cup events in this country, you will notice quite a disparity. In Texas, Winston Cup had a packed house of 200,000 fans. When IRL and CART race there later this year, they will be lucky to fill one-third of the seats. This is because rivalries develop a big fan base, and until IRL and CART can establish rivalries, they will continue to struggle at the gates.

I have two thoughts on creating rivalries within open wheel racing, although I doubt that either idea will be very popular. The first thought is to redevelop the Indianapolis 500 into the Super Bowl of open wheel racing. The Indianapolis 500 is already the premier open wheel-racing event in the country, but it has been an IRL only event. Until now, the CART teams would have to purchase an IRL car to run in the Indianapolis 500, and then sell it to another IRL team when the event was over. Needless to say, this was an expensive one-race deal. 

But now the IRL has released a new engine specification for the 2003 racing season. The engines are lighter, and could quite possibly be configured to also be developed similarly for CART. Toyota, who previously supplied engines for CART, will also now produce them for the new IRL engine spec. CART is expected to announce their new engine requirements shortly, and I would be surprised if they were not similar to what the IRL has just published. This similar engine formula would allow the CART teams to run in the IRL sanctioned races, most notably the Indianapolis 500. This would create more of a rivalry between CART and the IRL, and not the animosity that exists now between the two series.

My second thought is to forget about any type of Indianapolis rivalry between the IRL and CART, and instead (are you ready for this) run a CART or IRL race in unison with a Winston Cup event. Instead of the Busch race on Saturday, you would have an open wheel race event. Most of the tracks have a huge percentage of race attendees camp out at the event. Just imagine if the IRL cars had run this past Saturday at Texas, and Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart each had a ride for the event. Could you imagine the fans interest, can you imagine the RIVALRY that would instantly be generated between the fans full-bodied stock cars and the fans of open wheel racing? The attendance would surely be better than most open wheel events, the TV ratings would be better, and a group of race fans that never ventured to an open wheel event would be introduced to the sport. It wouldn't matter if it were CART or the IRL, either way it would be a promoters dream. Perhaps the IRL could run a couple of races on the ovals and CART could run at Watkins Glen and Sears Point. Four combined weekends a year would be the start of tremendous rivalry between the racing series, and it would generate interest from all angles.

The author can be contacted at frankr@autoracing1.com

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