June 6, 2012
Fixing IndyCar? Good luck with that.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 6/4, 11:30 a.m.) Detroit. Mark Reuss, GM North America's president and the company's Chief Enthusiast is the man responsible for getting Chevrolet back into IndyCar, and for that he was promised that the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle would be put back on the IndyCar schedule. Randy Bernard, the IndyCar CEO was eager to accommodate Mark's wishes and thanks to Roger Penske, the prime mover behind any IndyCar race in the Motor City, the race was resurrected. And just when it seemed safe to have a shred of hope for IndyCar after the scintillating Indianapolis 500 of over a week ago, and with the table set for the return of IndyCar to Detroit after a four-year hiatus, the reality for the series and its participants - combined with the ever-present politics involved - threatened to swallow the sport whole.
The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle was supposed to be a triumph for the city - a place so overwhelmed by problems and financial despair that it has become the Depression Capitol of the United States - and yet the race weekend got caught up in the IndyCar political firestorm of the moment. Hand-wringing, accusations, denials, Randy Bernard getting up in front of the media and basically telling the owners to go pound sand because he works for the board of directors, it was all there and then some. And that was even before the race started. (The track coming apart seemed somewhat sickeningly fitting, given what the city has been through and the horrendous quality of our roads, but I digress.)
When reality came bubbling to the surface for IndyCar in Detroit it was clear that the reality for the series - when judged in the harsh light of day - was a giant bowl of Not Good.
We all know the details now, thanks to Robin Miller's always laser-sharp reporting, but basically one or more IndyCar owners want Bernard out, suggesting that his lack of fundamental knowledge of the sport has finally caught up with him and that it's time for a change. Now I happen to think Randy Bernard has done a superb job given the circumstances and the mountain of crap he inherited, but could he stand to have a right-hand guy with deep connections to the sport? Yes, of course. And with the addition of that person I think Randy should be given every opportunity to finish the job he signed-up to do.
But let's examine this situation further.
On the one side are the owners, who will remind everyone every second of every day that if it weren't for them there wouldn't even be an IndyCar Series. And when you look at it from their perspective, it's hard to argue with them. After all, when it comes right down to it they're the ones spending considerable piles of money trying to make it all run like a business, while chasing down sponsors 24-7. They are, at the end of the day, some of the most deeply committed enthusiasts for the sport of Indy car racing imaginable, and given everything it takes to muster the effort it takes to compete in the series, I would never question their love of the sport. But loving the sport and doing what's good for the long-term future of the sport are two distinctly different things. The owners have never really been good at doing what's good for the overall health of the sport type of thing, at least they're not consistent about it at any rate. Their individual concerns usually take precedence.
And it's also no secret that IndyCar owners have massive egos that almost know no bounds. They are used to running their individual fiefdoms without question or second guessing from anyone, and if they get pushback they're not happy. We've seen this throughout recent Indy car racing history, by the way. It contributed to the split away from Tony George and his "vision" for the sport and it led to the formation of CART (a good thing). But lo and behold with the car owners running things by egomaniacal committee during the CART years, we saw a revolving door of CEOs come and go as the owners fiddled and fumbled their way to irrelevance (a bad thing).
On the other side we have the governing body of IndyCar. Long a joke because of mismanagement and flat-out bone-headed decision making, IndyCar took the radical and unexpected step of hiring Randy Bernard, who made his bones by turning the Professional Bull Riding championship into a viable and surprisingly successful enterprise. Bernard is a genius promoter but he knew jack shit about IndyCar or the sport of open-wheel racing in America. He listened, studied and learned, all while trying to hammer out a viable schedule, get contracts with individual race promoters finalized, and grow the visibility - and the sponsorship support - of the series. A tall order for anyone.
The fact that I believe Bernard has done a superb job given the circumstances matters not one iota to the team owners. There are clearly those in the IndyCar owner ranks who think they could do better than Bernard, and when IndyCar allowed Honda to make changes to their engines over GM's repeated objections, protests and appeals, the long knives came out for Bernard. And when the new Dallara chassis came in costing more than what was originally promised, that didn't help either. By taking the discord public through twitter and his in-person oration to the media, Bernard didn't make things any better, according to some disgruntled owners.
But it's a moot point at this juncture, because the ugly reality for IndyCar is that except for the visibility and TV ratings of the Indianapolis 500, they are nowhere. As in almost nonexistent on the sports media radar screens. What can be done to "fix" Indy car racing in this country? I have a few recommendations:
1. Racing series do not run by consensus or group hugs, they can only function with a leader who has unquestioned dictatorial powers. NASCAR would never have gotten off of the ground if Big Bill France didn't take control of his fledgling sport by the scruff of the neck and run the owners off who didn't comply with his way of thinking. The moment that IndyCar owners take control of IndyCar and start appointing their "acceptable" leader/flavor-of-the-month is the moment that the series implodes. Randy Bernard lashing out and using his bully pulpit to clarify his position to the media is fine with me, because if he is the unquestioned leader of IndyCar, that's the way it should be. And if the owners don't like it that's fine too. IndyCar must have an unquestioned leader with whom the buck stops. And if IndyCar owners don't like it or fundamentally endorse the efficacy of it in the interest of the long-term health of the sport, then they can always find something else to do.
2. Spec racing is an unmitigated disaster. I said this a couple of weeks ago and I'll probably repeat it a few dozen times before the year is out as well. When IndyCar endorsed Dallara for the "new" car there were positives involved, namely familiarity with the manufacturer and noted safety improvements. After that, not so much. IndyCar had a chance to open the floodgates to innovation and creative thinking and they just couldn't muster the energy to get it done. And when the new car came in some $200,000 more than expected - after insisting that the decision to go with Dallara was a way to rein-in costs - well, no wonder the owners are less than enthused. The real problem with the Dallara decision was that it closed the door to alternative approaches in power and the visual diversity that would come with multiple chassis manufacturers and a fuel-efficiency formula that would encourage "blue sky" thinking. As long as IndyCar continues to operate in the Fear of the Unknown mode instead of the embracing the possibilities of The Future we will continue to see IndyCar lost in a swirling maelstrom of predictability and sameness that will ensure waning interest.
3. More engine manufacturer participation. The addition of Chevrolet to IndyCar was great for all concerned with the sport, but it isn't enough. IndyCar needs at least four competitive engines on the grid (and no, Lotus doesn't count). It's yet another major bullet point on Randy Bernard's list of things to do but it has to happen if IndyCar is going to thrive over the long haul. Where is VW? Audi? Kia? Hyundai? Nissan? Mercedes-Benz? Porsche? And before you say no way, I'd rather say, why not?
I believe we've reached a crisis point yet again in the sport of Indy car racing, and I sense an abject refusal by the players involved to acknowledge it. For the owners, if IndyCar would just listen to them and do exactly what they want when they want it then it will all be good. And for IndyCar management itself there seems to be a deep abiding faith that if they just stay the course and make incremental improvements things will come good eventually.
And how have those two schools of thought worked out for the sport of Indy car racing so far? Not very well, actually. IndyCar has one race of prestige and importance, the Indianapolis 500. After that, they got nothin'. Oh sure there are little pockets of interest and minimal success at some of the other venues, but overall IndyCar is damn-near invisible.
The powers that be at IndyCar, its owners and the participating engine manufacturers have a very clearcut decision to make: They either get on the same page and do what's best for the future of the sport, or they continue flailing away at windmills - and each other - until there's no sport left.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for the world of motorsports this week.
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
New York, 1964. A Ford GT40 Mark I at John F. Kennedy International Airport. One of the first two GT40s built by Lola, the racing machine was flown to New York for inspection by Ford executives. Upon approval, it was immediately returned to England to be prepared for the official Le Mans test day slated for April 16, 1964. Powered by a 4.2-liter aluminum block V8 originally developed for its Indianapolis 500 racing program (with a Colotti gearbox), the new racing machine, complete with white with blue trim - the international racing colors assigned to the U.S. - was disappointing at the Le Mans test because of its evil instability at high speeds. Despite that, Ford decided to enter the Nürburgring 1000km race in Germany with drivers Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren. The duo qualified second to a Ferrari 275P, but retired their GT40 after 15 laps. Undaunted, Ford entered three GT40s in the 24 Hours of Le Mans (along side several Cobra Daytona coupes managed by Shelby American), while Ferrari entered four factory prototypes at the French endurance classic that year, including three 3.3-liter 275Ps and a 4.0-liter 330P. Three other Ferrari 330P prototypes were entered by the American North American Racing Team (NART), Maranello Concessionaires (from Great Britain), and Equipe Nationale Belge, from Belgium. After two of the Ford GTs encountered problems (including Richard Attwood's No. 12 Ford GT40 catching fire in the night), Phil Hill spurred the sole surviving GT40 into the top three (coming from 32nd) and established a new lap record at 131.375 mph (211.4 km/h). Hill then brought the GT40 to the pits at 5:30 a.m. and retired with a broken gearbox. The factory-entered No. 20 SpA Ferrari SEFAC Ferrari 3.3-liter 275P of Jean Guichet and Nino Vaccarella took the win, followed by Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier in the No. 14 Maranello Concessionaires 4.0-liter 330P and the No. 19 SpA Ferrari SEFAC Ferrari 4.0-liter 330P driven by John Surtees and Lorenzo Bandini. Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant finished fourth overall in their No. 5 Shelby American-entered Cobra Daytona Coupe ahead of a brace of Ferrari GTOs and Porsche 904s. Watch a video here.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" with hosts John McElroy, from Autoline Detroit, and Peter De Lorenzo, The Autoextremist, and guests this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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