Latest Champ Car News and Commentary

Agreeing to merge Champ Car & IRL is the easy part
by E. Rasmussen Holm

 March 9, 2006

Tony George

Kevin Kalkhoven

The recent article by Mark Cipolloni regarding what we all hope will be the top American open wheel racing series, let's call it Indy Car Championship Association (ICCA) for now, raises some very interesting questions. Essentially what Mr. Cipolloni, Tim Wohlford (Link), Jose Arrambide (Link), AutoRacing1.com are doing by raising questions about the character of a new sanctioning body is asking what its role and strategy should be.

This really is not as simple a matter as fans might think and undoubtedly is occupying a good deal of Messieurs George and Kalkhoven's thinking time; for the answers to these questions will determine whether our form of auto racing will have a self-sustaining life in the next decade, indeed whether there will be a running of the l00th Indianapolis 500 as an open wheel race.

As is apparent in Mr. Cipolloni's article, there needs be a design to a racing schedule. In the USAC/CART history, this was not always the case. Instead the sanctioning body ran wherever there were at least minimal (and at Langhorne they were indeed minimal) safety standards and a promoter who could pay the sanctioning fee and post the requisite purse. In at least one instance, the sanctioning body provided assistance improving the facility; but for the most part the track's character was determined by the promoter and the crowd by the promotion, typically quite minimal. If everyone left the track alive, the purse paid, and the crowd the size of previous years', the event was a success.

Naturally there was little design to the schedule. In fact during the USAC days, the timing of the races was often determined by when the state fairs took place. When CART took over championship racing, there was considerably better control over conditions, but the design of the schedule was still largely determined by the promoters and tradition. When CART began traveling overseas, things of course were more complicated because of logistical issues, so now schedule planners seemed to feel their hands were largely tied by logistics and tradition.

As Mr. Cipolloni noted, these things certainly play a role; but what is of prime importance is the question of momentum: will there be a flow from one race to another together with mounting excitement?  What we have now is a series of events, each with its own personality and following but without a rhythm to propel a national following. For the two sanctioning organizations each to do that with their own schedule is probably not possible because of each's history. However with unification, there is opportunity to rethink the schedule question and produce over the course of the ICCA's first years the dynamic necessary to cover not a region but the nation.

Another critical issue a new sanctioning body must address is the branding one. Neither of the present bodies has succeeded in presenting itself as a Brand, although perhaps Indianapolis Racing League has an edge in this regard because of its Indianapolis 500, i.e., "Indy Racing League, Home of The 500!" Unfortunately the diminished value of the 500 reduced the keenness of that edge. In the case of Champ Car, it is, "Champ Car, The Festivals of Speed." How far that can carry CC only time will tell, but as of today it seems only to have a local ring. This lack of a brand identity is probably the greatest handicap both organizations face in addressing corporate America, Ford, Marlboro, Target, Honda, Bridgestone notwithstanding.

If a company wants to establish a symbiotic relationship, it typically finds another Brand for that purpose, not a commodity----unless peculiar circumstances convince the Brand that association with a less established, less identifiable one will benefit it. Unfortunately long run or even middle run developments frequently convince the Brand's executives they were overly optimistic. Of course there are exceptions. Ford, Bridgestone, and Honda found reasons not really disclosed to the racing public to conclude identifying themselves with one or another sanctioning body was in its corporate interest. In the cases of Target and Marlboro, the association was not with IRL or CART but with the organizations headed by Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, hence their ability to bring them with when they transferred sanctioning bodies.

That said, the truth is there is not much of this symbiosis occurring outside of NASCAR. Instead, the balance of the teams except those of Andretti-Green, Penske, Newman/Haas, Forsythe, probably Rahal and Walker, and possibly RuSPORT must cover their budget by combining whatever deals the team was able to make with sponsorship money their driver brings.

That is the problem; the question before the sanctioning body is what should it do in the face of these lacks? The teams in both organizations are rarely brands in themselves; few if any have the status of Penske Racing. In contrast, NASCAR found itself with branded teams almost from the beginning, only those teams achieved brand status not through their organizational structure. Richard Petty was his own brand, and the same was true of the Allisons, Junior Johnson, the Waltrips, Dale Earnhardt as well as others and today true of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Junior and a few more. By being the home of these driver-brands, NASCAR became a brand in itself; and as that happened, NASCAR found it could leverage itself through strict control of its product to create a particular kind of racing, to convert the commodity into a branded product.

It is perhaps very strange that the days of notable open wheel racing brands belong to the USAC years: Foyt, Jones, Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser, Ruby, Rutherford. Outside of the Andretti and Unser families and of course Zanardi and Rahal, CART did not have comparable brands. Instead CART attempted to brand itself through diversification, multiple racing forms, manufacturers, and chassis, i.e., it followed the Formula One model to the extent it could while retaining its oval track tradition. In contrast, IRL attempted to adopt the NASCAR model to open wheel racing, but except for Tony Stewart did not have drivers who could make themselves into brands as had occurred in NASCAR. The absence of the strong personalities that marked the l960s and l970s and even the l980s, whatever the reason for that might be, makes it even more imperative for either existing or proposed sanctioning bodies to develop brand identity.

Until the prayed-for ICCA finds a way to do this and thereby places itself in position to itself attract corporate Brands willing to merge their identity, the teams will find it extremely difficult to compete with NASCAR for sponsorship dollars; for they simply do not have the drivers (except for the departing Paul Tracy and possibly Helio Castroneves) who can make themselves into a brand. And even if some do arrive, there is not at present press coverage in America to convert such a driver, much less the typical driver of today, into a cult center as is done in Europe by the racing publications there. So fashioning the ICCA brand, the open wheel racing brand, will be the greatest challenge the hoped for organization will face. Virtually everything will flow from that.

Demographic considerations must play a critical role in the branding. What population groups will support open wheel racing and the Brands stepping out to support this racing? This might be the most sensitive questions Messieurs Kalkhoven and George face, because it seems each of their organizations appeals to a different population group. Neither CC nor IRL has released demographic data to the general public and while CART compiled some data a number of years ago, such information is no more than suggestive today. However judging from the crowds in attendance at the respective events, it is safe to say there are differences between the two groups----but are those differences merely a matter of accents and clothing or do they suggest different consumer patterns and different expectations?

Given the hostility expressed by the partisans of each towards the other, it is safe to say the differences go deeper than clothing. Frequently, though, it is suggested such differences are an asset, as they would result in competition and competition would strengthen the fan base. This would be especially true with two divisions playing off against each other or even in a one division structure having an elimination system such as NASCAR devised for itself. If IRL and CC do merge, the fan base will have to merge, which means structuring the ICCA into a Brand which takes into account the two demographics. While this melding would involve putting together components hitherto intense polarity and therefore be quite complicated, if and when successfully done will produce a much more positive strategy for bonding with corporate America than the trial and error approach underlying today's open wheel marketing.

Demographing the fan base will involve more than questions about income, age, martial status, gender, products owned, etc. Besides such information, typically considered crucial for product marketing, Messieurs George and Kalkhoven will need to know which racing character, CC or IRL, is preferred. Because while race fans say they want competition, for some this consists of on track passing and lead changes and for others well driven races in which the field is decided by preparation, strategy, and circumstance even at the expense of multiple lead changes.

For the first group the ideal sight is fifteen or more cars within four seconds of each other as the race concludes, while the second group accepts two or three cars emerging from the field to challenge each other for victory in the final laps. And then there is the question of what circumstances and condition are best for showing a driver's skill? Knowing what kind of racing the merged fan base wants will be critical to ICCA.

If the ICCA fan base demands NASCAR/IRL pack racing, oval racing will predominate; and that will mean the cars will have to be designed to deal with concrete wall contact at maximum or near maximum speeds. If Formula One/CART/CC races are dominant, a different variety of car from oval dominant racing will have to be designed. This in turn raises the question of the safety standard to be adopted: should it be the highly specific variety of Formula One as determined by the sanctioning body or one with minimal sanctioning body requirements, the teams being free to expand from that base? In either case, there would have to be more requirements if concrete walls are the dominant environment----even if those requirements compromise the vehicle on a road course. Furthermore, if the series is to have pack (NASCAR/IRL) racing, it will have to be prepared for multiple vehicle accidents, not as many as NASCAR but enough for this to be factored into car design.

And how do you create pack racing: by restricting technologies that would create several seconds gaps between cars and favor those who can achieve a season-long hegemony through using technology. Usually this is justified by concern over costs, a desire to have a level playing field so winning will be the product not of science but human endeavors plus blind fortune, the greater entertainment value of filling the TV screen with as many cars as possible crossing the finishing line thousands of a second apartment. Now, that's entertainment according to some fans and almost all television producers. Of course that is also the recipe for mass accidents, as restrictor plate racing sadly demonstrates. Such accidents are serious enough in stock car racing but are far more serious in open wheel racing. Here is the sanctioning body's real dilemma: to what degree should cost considerations restrict technology; how equal should the equipment be; to what extent should the entertainments needs of television control the actual race?

There are signs right now that leading IRL teams are very concerned about these issues and the future of open wheel racing. Team Penske has already created its alternatives, as has Team Ganassi. Michael Andretti has been quoted as considering other options, as might Bobby Rahal. These teams are today in a position to walk if they do not like what is being done just as they did in the last years of CART. This is why it is so necessary to be patient as the principals consider the issues AutoRacing1.com raises as well as those of which we have little knowledge. The balance struck in creating an ICCA, if there is to be one, will determine whether there will be open wheel racing in 2016, when there will be---or would be---the l00th running of the Indianapolis 500.

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