The Ben Evans column: Kiss & make up

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As is often the way, potentially the most significant motor sport story of the winter has gone largely unnoticed in the UK press, namely the reconciling of the Indy Racing League and Champ Car after 12 seasons of war.

There are few more significant motor sport cautionary tales.

By the mid-1990s Indycar as it was known was big business.

It was home to F1 stars of the past (Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti), present (Our Nige) and future (Jacques Villeneuve). It had major manufacturer support (Mercedes, Honda, Toyota). And it had substantial media presence in the USA and globally.

In 2007 the IRL and Champ Car were ghost series, carrying on because the US had to have single seater racing, even if no-one was interested – hello NASCAR!

The reasons for the split are too boring and complex to go into now, although suffice to say money (manufacturers and promoters) and ego (Tony George) lay at the heart of it. Initially Champ Car seemed to have won the day – it kept the drivers, manufacturers and all the big events (bar the Indy 500). The IRL by contrast was populated by a number of second stringers and, Indy 500 aside, had zero credibility.

But it all change: by 2000, Champ Car was routinely being dominated by top-European and South American drivers and wasn’t pressing the buttons for the all-important US market.

So firstly the key manufacturers moved to the IRL, swiftly followed by the teams and drivers who knew on which side their bread was buttered. Thus for a couple of seasons the IRL was pretty good: blue chip sponsors, large and talented field and some exciting racing.

Unfortunately the crowds still didn’t come and only the injection of a good-looking female driver did anything to generate a media stir.

Meanwhile Champ Car was sick – it plunged into bankruptcy in 2003 and returned an even paler shadow of its former self in 2004. It failed to entice big sponsors or crucially, all-American racing driver heroes. AJ Alldeminger, who came closest disappeared to Nascar, after his strongest season.

For its final four years Champ Car was dominated by a bespectacled Frenchman, a gawky Englishman and an obese and pugilistic Canadian. Great entertainment, but about as palatable to the mainstream US audience as a gay country & western singer.

Now we have the reunification, but one wonders if it is all too little too late. In the meantime Nascar has been cleaning up, drawing the track side and television crowds with lowest common denominator entertainment. This has drawn more sponsors and better coverage. To the average American NASCAR equals motor sport. Will the new world of Indycar be able to claw back the lost ground?

My view is no.

Why? Well first Indycar racing is not really as US sport – the engines are Japanese, the top drivers are foreign, and the races don’t have enough crashes in them.

Furthermore when a top-driver does emerge (Sam Hornish, Dario Franchitti, Juan-Pablo Montoya) they move to NASCAR at the first opportunity where they sink without trace trying to learn dark arts of the racing. To Billy-Bob of Waynesville Indycar racing is an inferior NASCAR feeder series, populated by Democrat-voting, book-reading, lefties.

Indycar racing has provided some superb entertainment over the past decade, I’ve spent a number of late nights glued to satellite TV enjoying some great action. I really hope that the new IRL succeeds and re-establishes single seater racing in the USA, but I have to say the future looks bleak.

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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6 comments on “The Ben Evans column: Kiss & make up”

  1. At least with CART and IRL united, they have a chance of making themselves stable, if not necessarily fight back against NASCAR very much. It would be better off concentrating on becoming a good feeder series for F1.

  2. No one lements the demise of open wheel racing in the USA as the true American fans. I tend to agree with Keith-it is too late. They need to market the new series and they have not done this yet. The only coverage is in the press. And this was just about the merger not any future races. I did not watch the NASCAR race this week end but if they want fans they must draw from them. Did they have and ads during the NASCAR race this weekend. They have not promoted themselves at all yet. I think their start is just 3 weeks away, and you would not know it. I am a race fan in the US and I have no idea when the race is. I do know that it is @ Homestead FLA. I can not tell you what network will broadcast it. But I know everything about the F1 start. I even saw one of the first ads for it on the Speed Channel last night. So my DVR is set for the whole weekend. If I miss anything I just rewatch it. IRL/CART is a mystery with 3 weeks to go(?).

  3. Actually Ben wrote this…

  4. I much prefer IRL to NASCAR but i guess a lot of Americans won’t. Something about open wheel racing I find more exciting then touring cars. Hope Sky Sports show the new series, they did show the IRL last year but I hope NASCAR is an addition to the timetable and not a replacement of the IRL

  5. I’m also an American fan, and I can agree that the new IRL series will never rival NASCAR as it once may have been able to do. That’s not to say that it can’t be a good product, attract some sponsorship and carve out a decent spot for itself- it can. But in terms of being the top American-based motorsports series, it won’t even come close.

    Perhaps some of you who follow the sport more can provide some insight on this, but NASCAR dose a great job of reaching out to the average sports/racing fan. TV and media coverage is plentiful, mercandise is easy to obtain and the races are well-promoted. The new IRL will certainly need to be more media and sponsor-friendly if it wants to develop into even a version of it’s former self.

  6. As far as I can see Tony George killed the goose that laid the golden egg when he started up IRL. He achieved none of the goals he set out to achieve apart from having more oval races. Since the split the Indy500 has been devalued to the point where it is just another race.

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