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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