Concern for IRL’s future

UPDATE There must be real problems under the facade of the IRL because now even Bruce Martin, one of the IRL's staunchest supporters, is writing negative things about the IRL in National Speed Sport News. In his latest column he writes (excerpts), As the Indy Racing League begins its 10th season of on-track competition, the series attempted to present a positive image at its annual Media Day last Friday, but private talk from some of the teams showed frustration.

That frustration stems from the IRL's inability to attract more sponsors, create opportunities for more teams, generate higher television ratings and attendance and to show a coherent plan for the future.

Last week's open test and Media Day was held at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Friday was the day to showcase the series to the media, but there was little if any buzz of activity. The Credential office for the media had just one person on duty and he appeared quite lonely because he was on the only one in that side of the office.

Inside the interview room, the IRL and its team said all the right things, forecasting another exciting season of racing, but team members and a few team owners admitted outside that room they aren't happy with some of the business decisions made by the IRL.

There are only eight team owners in the IRL right now. Teams such as Andretti Green Racing, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and Rahal Letterman Racing are propping up the car count with three or more drivers on each team. But the IRL lost one of its top drivers from 2004 when Adrian Fernandez lost his Mexican sponsorship, forcing a three-time winner to step out and serve as team owner for his two sponsored drivers — Kosuke Matsuura and Scott Sharp. Team owner A.J. Foyt has already indicated he will not compete in the three street and road-course races that are new in 2005.

Penske Racing returns with its high-profile lineup of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish, Jr., but it won't expand to three cars. Andretti Green Racing returns with a four-driver lineup — the most in the IRL — led by 2004 champion Tony Kanaan, with Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta also piloting Honda-powered Dallaras.

Ken Ungar is the IRL's director of business affairs and was a key figure in luring Toyota and Honda to the Indy Racing League. When the two Japanese engine manufacturers signed up, the IRL was expected to take off. What took off was the cost to be involved in the sport, which led most of the home-grown IRL teams to take off from the series.

One of the reasons Doug Duchardt of Chevrolet mentioned as reasons to leave the IRL at the end of 2005 was the microscopically low TV ratings. Ungar admits that is a major problem for the series.

"Ratings present a challenge for us," Ungar said. "With that comes an opportunity. So between now and the start of the season, there will be several ground-breaking announcements in terms of both the production and the promotion of the television product."

None of that will matter if the viewers aren't tuning in. The IRL has created a new marketing slogan called "Adrenaline Amplified," but a crew chief for a high-ranking IRL team said, "When you figure out what that means, please tell me."

Another disgruntled team owner said, "The IRL keeps hiring people that don't know anything about auto racing or marketing. How are we ever going to make progress like that? When it comes to driver appearances or promotions, we're better off doing it ourselves than to let them (the IRL) do it. They hold events to promote the series and then don't let anybody know about it."

They are the ones adding the most cars with the high-profile sponsors who attempt to sell their drivers and create interest for the IRL. But the public continues to pay little attention to the series which has created a potentially critical problem for the league.

If the business side of the IRL doesn't begin to produce, the series could fall further off the radar screen of the American sports landscape, making its 10th birthday something with little to celebrate. [Editor's Note: As stated on numerous occasions, when Tony George created the IRL and split the sport, he dealt Indy Car Racing a fatal blow and it's dying a slow and painful death.]

01/14/05 Question: Does Tony George or anyone in the IRL feel a bit uneasy with the future of open-wheel racing? I'm a big fan of open-wheel racing, but your recent comment about the Indy 500 not having 33 cars struck a nerve. I see the series as hanging on and not growing, just like Champ Car. It's hard to imagine why two sides that are so "passionate" about open-wheel racing can't reach a common ground to ensure that the sport doesn't fade away. Maybe they know something that the average fan doesn't, but I'm saddened and not very optimistic about the future of open-wheel racing. Bill from Dumfries, Va.
Answer: I couldn't agree with you more. Tony George and his top brass continue to show a positive public face, but among the lower types there is genuine concern. Indy Star [Editor's Note: The damage that has been done to the sport of Indy Car/Champ Car Racing in the USA since the creation of the IRL in 1995 is unconscionable.]

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