A New Beginning for Open Wheel Racing

Sam Hornish exits his pit in the 2006 Indy 500
John Cote

One of my most cherished souvenirs is my CART coffee mug. I received it from a former accounting employee at CART when the series was based in Troy, MI. Why is this my most cherished souvenir? This is curious even to me as I have a lot of souvenirs from the CART days not to mention some fantastic memories. Furthermore, I wrote for these very pages back during the launch of AutoRacing1.com. It was a way for me to immerse myself in the action. Those were the days…

Today I feel myself wanting to get closer to that action again because I believe that the recent announcement of a reunification of American open wheel racing will in the coming years yield the kind of competitive racing we have longed for since 1996. It is not the purpose of this author to try to establish blame for the split nor to write another “if only it hadn’t" article. No, I wish to share with you the hopes and anticipation of the part of me that is still a fan of the sport of open wheel racing.

I am under no illusion that AGR, Target/Ganassi and Penske will not hammer the transition Champ Car teams in the opening rounds. This hammering will undoubtedly continue well into, if not through, the month of May. However, I know that the level of professionalism and competitiveness of the likes of N/H/L, Walker, PKV, Forsythe and Conquest will bring a spirited fight to all the opening events and throughout the year. There is no way that Paul Tracy will settle for a top 10 in any round regardless of his team joining late. I fully expect Paul to stand on it as he has since day one. To that point, I fully expect all the transition Champ Car teams to stand on it. Understand my excitement yet?

With respect to the calendar, this year we will have to endure some patchwork scheduling. This is a result of the late coming of this agreement.

For 2009, I hope to see what has been described as a clean sheet of paper approach to the calendar. Not only a clean sheet that will give a genuine chance to Road America, Toronto and Cleveland making it back to the series calendar but a calendar that must give consideration to conflicts with NASCAR and in the closing month avoiding conflicts with the NFL.

This will probably mean that the league will have to look at more Saturday night events and a more compact schedule. Might this mean a race scheduled in early May? Perhaps that will be necessary but hey; we are rebuilding a brand.

This brand in the past and in the future should include a representation of the greatest racing disciplines. That is, an even distribution of ovals and road and street courses. Why not sub-championships? This year’s Oval champ: Dan Weldon, This year’s Road Course champ: Scott Dixon, This year’s Street Course champ: Tony Kanaan. You get the point…excited now?

The League must rebuild the brand and when they’re done with that, continue to build the brand. I don’t believe it is a secret that the model this unified series is following is the CART model of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Why not? It was a time of fantastic racing, fully funded teams, recognizable names and relevant sponsors. And, they have to build the brand through the personalities. Helio Castroneves won Dancing with the Stars. He is a crossover brand now that transcends that of a mere race car driver that entered a dance contest. He’s a personality that non-racing fans tuned in to see and voted for en masse.

The League needs to ensure that this non-racing community that voted for Helio tune in to watch him do what he really does well and give them a great show. Danicamania. Enough said. Should she win a race this year; God help us all! Danica and Peyton will dominate TV commercials.

Paul Tracy is the “Smoke" of Open Wheel. That’s a good thing! There was real news covering the skirmish last season between SmOWk and Tagliani. Not to mention the new chapter of Andretti versus Rahal versus Foyt. These are names the disenchanted fans will recognize and hopefully compel them to tune in again.

I’ll be at the Indy 500 this year as I have for the past several years. And I’m looking forward to attending the races in Detroit, Kentucky and elsewhere. I can’t express to you just how excited I am looking forward to these events knowing the increased level of competition and increased car counts. I’m ready for the New Beginning of American Open Wheel racing…American Open Wheel racing fans are ready for this new beginning.

Ladies and Gentlemen…Start your engines!

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