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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Will Open Wheel Racing Survive?

The Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League are close to a merger. After 13 years, can a unified series contend with NASCAR?

It has been reported that the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series will announce an agreement that will reunite the two series. The rumored announcement is scheduled for tomorrow. With NASCAR’s remarkable growth, one might wonder if this unification is a case of too little too late to save Indy style racing?

The late Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, built Daytona International Speedway with one motive in mind. He wanted to build a speedway that was bigger and faster than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Many saw the notion, that Daytona was a bigger draw than Indy as a dream, years from being credible.

Guess what, that day is here now. The IRL and Champ Car split in 1995, not only divided open wheel racing fans, but also aided the NASCAR growth explosion. I remember the Indy 500 after the split when the IRL was in its infancy. Teams were forced to use year old cars and drivers faced an added element of danger. The Indy 500 faced strong opposition from Champ Car, formerly known as Championship Auto Racing Teams, who staged a race in Michigan on the same day. It was a bit strange seeing drivers at Indy who might not have had the backing or skill to compete without the split.

This presented an interesting opportunity for young American drivers. The IRL was created for young American drivers whose background in sprint cars and karts would prosper in an all oval racing series. Before the split, it was difficult to find a talented American driver with decent equipment and a realistic shot at winning the Indy 500 and the season title. Most of the drivers were Formula 1 defectors with names unfamiliar to longtime Indy fans. Nothing is wrong with a foreign influence because the goal of any series is to attract and retain the best drivers available. However, CART was growing thin on American talent and top heavy with foreign drivers. Tony George, founder of the IRL and President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, disagreed with this trend and created the IRL.

This was a good idea in theory, but losing some of the best drivers and teams to CART in order to make a point seems ludicrous. Now, the IRL and Champ Car want to make up. There are some logistical items, like engine formulas, that will make this announcement a long shot. Even if things go well and an agreement can be made the damage has been done.

I am trying to imagine the entry list for the 2009 Indianapolis 500. I see plenty of drivers from Champ Car with substantial funding and just a few of the IRL regulars outside of the Ganassi and Penske teams with a legitimate chance to win. The problem of finding room for American drivers and sponsors remains. NASCAR has already taken the best drivers from the IRL and one of the best drivers period, Juan Pablo Montoya. This is really kind of sad because many people would have paid top dollar to see Sam Hornish, Montoya, Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti and the other open wheel stars battle it out at Indy.

I want to see a unified open wheeled series, but I feel like 13 years were wasted and Indy race fans are no better off. Danica Patrick of the IRL versus Katherine Legge of the Champ Car World Series struggles to evoke memories of Indy battles of the past like A.J. Foyt versus NASCAR’s stars of that era.

photo of IRL President Tony George and Tony Stewart by Ron McQueeney of IMS

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