SBJ/May 24 - 30, 2004/SBJ In Depth

Open-wheel racing stuck in the pits

Staking out a place as the dominant car owner coming out of qualifying for this year’s Indy 500, Michael Andretti holds out a glimmer of hope for the brand of U.S. auto racing he was raised in.

When the Pettys and Allisons were running stock cars in a circuit that meant little outside the deep South, Indy car racing was where most sports-minded Americans turned when they went looking for a checkered flag on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Through the 1970s and well into the ’80s, the stars of U.S. racing were named Andretti and Unser, Foyt and Sneva, Mears and Johncock.

But then a battle of egos and wills led one successful circuit to split into two. Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the Indy Racing League would spend eight years racing each other to the brink of irrelevance, fighting over a dwindling fan base that quickly found other ways to spend its money and time.

Last year, CART went bankrupt, emerging as a property that took the name “Champ Car World Series,” but retaining only a few of its best-known drivers and a schedule that had to be pieced together on short notice.

Which brings us back to where Michael Andretti stands on this Friday afternoon in May, a day before his Andretti Green Racing team would rage through qualifying for this year’s Indy 500, placing two cars on the front row and one in the second row.

The Champ Car World Series began its 2004 season at Long Beach, Calif.
Nine years after the split, the once generic “stock car racing” has evolved into the masterfully marketed, iconically branded NASCAR. Indy car has devolved into the generic “open-wheel racing.” And yet, Andretti holds out hope. It will be only a year, maybe two, Andretti figures, before the CART derivative now known as Champ Car either folds into the IRL or turns out the lights.

Like many in the sport, Andretti believes that a long-awaited thinning of the herd could save his species.

“I still believe it can be salvaged and fixed, because I know we have the best product out there, one that really is more entertaining than NASCAR,” Andretti said. “But it all comes down to one thing: What’s going to happen with the other series. If the other series ends up dragging on for a couple of years, that could eventually destroy open-wheel racing.”

Elsewhere, there is less optimism.

As the destination cable network of U.S. gearheads, Speed Channel has carried both the IRL and CART. This year, it has neither, choosing instead to build its schedule around large blocks of NASCAR programming and sprinkling in car collector shows and live, early morning Formula One racing.

The first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race that aired on Speed this season drew as large an audience (980,000) as the first IRL race that aired on ABC (975,000), even though the latter is seen in about 40 million more homes.

“Champ Car and IRL merging would be a start, but I don’t think it’s the big, magic answer,” said Jim Liberatore, president of Speed Channel. “Open-wheel racing in this country has been down for a long time. There are things they have to look at that are more drastic. This isn’t a cycle. It’s not like for no good reason somebody is going to start loving open-wheel racing.

“Einstein’s definition of insanity is that you keep trying the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result. Nobody is doing anything different. They see the crowds at their better events, surround themselves with people who love the sport, and they don’t understand that they’ve gotten to where, out in mainstream America, there’s hardly anybody who cares any more.”

Tilt toward technology

You can fault the IRL for myriad missteps and shortcomings, but don’t for a second suggest that the sanctioning body has fallen short as a racing product. IRL races are close and exciting.

And widely ignored.

For years, the IRL screamed from the hills that its cars were faster than stock cars and its races had the closest finishes of any motorsport on the planet. Neither point resonated with television viewers. Of the 16 races on the IRL schedule last season, only the Indy 500 generated a TV rating higher than 1.8. Twelve of the 16 posted a 0.9 or lower.

CART’s numbers were even worse, failing to get above 0.4 on 10 of its 17 televised events.

“When people [in open-wheel racing] focused on a better show, and better racing, they missed the point,” said Paul Pfanner, founder and president of Racer Communications, the leading publisher of magazines that cater to open-wheel fans. “The viewers tune in for the people; for what might happen with the people.”

See also:
Losing speed: Open-wheel TV ratings
IRL and CART: From splitsville to the start of the 2004 season
Turnkey Sports Poll
As the stars of open-wheel racing retired and their memory faded, NASCAR hustled to fill the void. Consumers saw Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt in their supermarket aisles. The IRL and CART responded by marketing the speed and technology of their machines.

“Open-wheel racing has always said, ‘We’re about cool, fast, technologically superior cars,’” Liberatore said. “But people just don’t care. That’s not what racing is about in this country.”

It has taken years for the open-wheel architects to acknowledge that fact. Perhaps there is hope in the fact that the need to reverse that course is widely acknowledged.

“What NASCAR has done very successfully is build heroes,” said Kevin Kalkhoven, a prominent venture capitalist who this year has come on as one of three co-owners of the Champ Car World Series. “In open wheel, we haven’t done that. It doesn’t matter which series you’re talking about. Beyond Paul Tracy in Canada and Jimmy Vasser in the U.S., there aren’t many heroes on either side of the open-wheel fence.

“In the final analysis, people want to root for somebody.”

For evidence of that, Champ Car points to the fact that its weekly magazine show, “Dangerous Curves,” has drawn better numbers than its race coverage for Spike TV, which airs both.

IRL executives say they believe that their magazine show “Fast Life,” which airs on ESPN, will provide a connection to mainstream sports fans. If they find the drivers cool, maybe they’ll seek out IRL events.

ESPN and ABC also will bracket race telecasts with 15 minutes of coverage before and after events, an adjustment that the league and network believe will help them highlight compelling, continuing tales.

“It’s not only about building personalities, which is very important, but it also provides a great opportunity for storytelling,” said Ken Ungar, senior vice president of business affairs for the IRL. “That will be one of the prime ingredients of boosting the TV audience. It helps you set the stage and then lay the groundwork for what comes next. It’s really tough when you don’t have that.”

The lesson of NASCAR racing has been that the television audience wants to follow personalities and needs to know that they’ll be there each week. For the mainstream viewer, the details of an aerodynamics package are compelling only as they relate to a driver who has caught their interest.

“The average person doesn’t care about wing rules or pop-off valves or fuel-stop windows,” said Tom Garfinkel, vice president of Chip Ganassi Racing, which has run entries in CART, the IRL and NASCAR. “They want a consistent product that’s exciting to watch with heroes out there that they can root for. That’s what drives the fans and drives the sponsorship. And sponsorship drives the sport.”

Thus far, neither series has operated consistently enough to provide that sort of television product. This year, the IRL opened its schedule on Feb. 29, then ran only twice more in the 12 weeks leading up to the first weekend of qualifying for the Indy 500. It will run steadily from midway through June until the middle of September, giving ABC/ESPN a chance to build momentum.

Still, a similar schedule didn’t help the networks much last year. Ratings were no higher for the second half of the season than they were for the first.

Some in the sport suggest that the IRL might be better off with fewer events on ABC, which aired 11 races last year and will carry 10 races this year. ABC and ESPN executives continue to insist they can promote the series effectively across both networks, regardless of which airs the bulk of the events.

“I’m probably as optimistic as I’ve been in a number of years,” said Mark Quenzel, senior vice president of programming for ESPN and a longtime champion for motorsports on the network. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it will be at the level of NASCAR any time in the near future. But it absolutely can be a viable TV product. It was once before, and there’s not any reason to believe that it can’t be again.”

Quenzel is not talking about knocking down numbers like NASCAR’s Nextel Cup races, which regularly spit out ratings in the 5.0 to 6.0 range in the first half of the season and 4.0 to 5.0 in the second half. But he believes that an open-wheel series could get back into the 2.0 to 3.0 range if the product was consistent and the promotion was sufficient.

A revival of interest in the IRL schedule could even help pump life back into the Indy 500, which last year saw its ratings dip to an all-time low 4.6.

“When people talk about what will be the key to success for open-wheel racing, the key is not the Indy 500,” Quenzel said. “The key is all the other races. The wisdom that the Indy 500 needs to be strong for the IRL to be strong is backward. Until we can grow the league and make the rest of the schedule viable, we’re not going to get [the Indy 500] back to where it should be.”

Adding twists and turns

If you have been following the struggles of open-wheel racing for the past decade, you can’t help chuckling when IRL executives insist that it was their intention all along to add road races to their schedule at some point.

Because all you heard from IRL owner Tony George, year after year, was the same mantra: oval, oval, oval. For nine years the IRL ran on nothing but ovals, while CART opted for a mix of road courses, street circuits and ovals.

The fact that the IRL recently began to speak openly about sprinkling a mix of road courses into its schedule — it now says that it will pursue a date at Champ Car stronghold Long Beach, Calif., when that facility’s contract comes up in 2005 — tells you that the network and the sponsors want more variety out of George’s product.

For all CART’s failings, it showed in recent years that while a racing series may not be able to draw fans for an unfamiliar product, a larger event that runs through their streets can.

“The motor racing fan of the future is not necessarily the fan of the past,” said Kalkhoven, the Champ Car co-owner. “What the fan of the future wants is an experience: entertainment and an event, rather than just a race. They want something where they can bring their family and they want to be entertained through a weekend. That is what we need to do in the U.S.”

Kalkhoven said Champ Car’s current owners believe that road racing events remain a healthy and viable product in Canada and Mexico, and that to succeed a series must make those markets a priority. Champ Car’s schedule this year includes stops in Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Monterrey and Mexico City.

“The answer to whether open-wheel racing can be viable again in the U.S, honestly, is that I’m not sure,” Kalkhoven said. “NASCAR has such a domination of motor racing overall in the United States that they are definitely the 900-pound gorilla. I don’t know how long it would take to overcome that.

“However, if you ask what do we have to do to make open-wheel racing successful in the Americas, that becomes a very different question. That, I believe we can achieve.”

Michael Andretti thinks that the answer might be found in the past, that open-wheel racing had a viable formula in place through the early ’90s and that it was driven off the track by a duel of egos that yielded only loss.

Andretti believes there is hope buried beneath a decade of dispute.

“If we have one series and it’s run by one person who gets the series to look like CART used to look and has the Indy 500 on top of that as part of the series, I believe the future is bright,” Andretti said. “That’s the first part of it. After that, it all comes back to TV. We’ve got to get ratings back up. You do that and you get the sponsors support and then it all just grows.”

It sounds easy.

It always has.

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