By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. June 1st marks the beginning of the seventeenth year of Autoextremist.com as hard as that is to believe, even though I've certainly lived every moment of it. And after sixteen years of "Fumes" columns I had to wonder, what have we learned when it comes to racing and the business of motorsports? I mean really learned? And the answer is - not surprisingly - very little. Yes, there have certainly been developmental trends in aerodynamics, materials, electronics, electrification and assorted other new technologies, but has there really been a positive upward trajectory for racing, or it has it been nothing more than a constant readjustment of an existing formula to keep costs in line?
I'm sorry to say it's the latter. Because for every glimmer of hope that comes across the horizon when it comes to motorsports, there always seems to be the realization that no one ever gets it right, as hard as the powers that be try. As I've reminded my audience repeatedly over the years, racing is nothing more than politics writ large with a motorized sound track. Everything to do with racing - the international sanctioning bodies, our own national racing organizations, team owners, teams, sponsors and tracks - is linked to the political winds of the moment, and to pretend otherwise is to be seriously naive.
Today I'm going to be thinking out loud about the sport as it exists today, so buckle up.
Take F1 for instance. Please. After watching Monaco, does anyone really doubt that 600HP open-wheel machines devoid of most of the aerodynamic tweaks would be just as entertaining there, if not more so? With the money thrown around in F1, how difficult would it be for the teams to build specially-designed cars just for that race? And if that were to happen, how difficult would it be to extrapolate the new rules governing those Monaco-specific cars and adapt them to the entire circuit? I get it, F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of the sport, blah, blah, blah, but what's going on now is simply absurd. The cars are monuments to spending for spending's sake, a dimension of one-upmanship that defies all rational explanation.
And besides that, it's really not about the cars when it comes right down to it is it? No, it's really about fueling Bernie's Traveling Salvation Show on the prowl for its next mark, aka, a country leader or leadership stupid enough to do his bidding and create palatial tracks with enough specified amenities so that Bernie's circus will deign to come there. But the corporate marketing weasels line up in droves, don't they? Convinced that the global audience that F1 boasts of will somehow justify the frightening amount of money it takes to hang a 4"x6" decal on the side of third-rate car.
Those who think there's still something magical and majestic about F1 are simply delusional. It became a greed circus a long, long time ago. And even when we see occasional glimpses of what the sport used to be and should be, you get the feeling that unless and until there's a complete overhaul of leadership and thought at the top, the sport will never change for the better.
And then there's IndyCar. We just endured another weekend of indyCar visiting Belle Isle Park, and though the horrible rain conditions really dampened everything, at least the show came off reasonably well. And with the drivers having to deal with less than ideal conditions, it made for compelling viewing. But who's kidding whom here? Other than for the local media outlets - who displayed yet again their excruciating lack of understanding of racing and IndyCar itself - the weekend show will probably deliver piss-poor viewing ratings for IndyCar as is always the case.
The tremendous efforts of Roger Penske and the all-encompassing and generous sponsorship of the event by GM cannot be denied, because without their involvement this weekend simply wouldn't exist. But the fact remains that IndyCar is one race - the Indianapolis 500 - and everything else about the series is an afterthought when it comes to the mainstream media. And that's simply unacceptable to me.
That IndyCar needs a complete overhaul was obvious many years ago. Indianapolis, which used to be a hotbed of innovation, became a game of constantly jiggling the rules so that cars would qualify at around a 230-mph average and race at a little over 220 mph. Spec cars, minimal manufacturer participation and tone-deaf leadership all contributed to the decline of major league open-wheel racing in this country. It's no secret that the formula has to be changed, that diversity of technical thought has to be welcomed as part of the equation, and the need for another engine manufacturer - or preferably two - is obvious.
IndyCar leadership continues to struggle with the fundamental decision-making process and the concept of common sense, and the core pillars of the sport - the front-line team owners - are resistant to any changes that would add cost to what they do. But at some point, as sure as I'm writing this, it's all going to come apart.
As for NASCAR, what can be said that hasn't already been said? Handed the reins of American racing - at least as far as the mainstream and traditional stick-and-ball media are concerned - by Tony George's monumentally devastating decision to take control of major league open-wheel racing in this country, this moribund organization squandered every opportunity to make itself better and become more. Instead they careened from one bad decision to the next, locking their sport into a time warp of "racertainment" as I not-so-affectionately refer to it.
As I've pointed out repeatedly before, my quarrel isn't with the teams, drivers and technical people in NASCAR, because the NASCAR garage is brimming with tremendous talent. No, my vehement disagreement with "the NASCAR way" revolves around the void in leadership at the top, the utter lack of vision, the steadfast resistance to change - unless forced by gunpoint - the endless "we've always done it this way" rationales and the complete head-in-sand approach to everything they do. The litany of too many races, too many repeat visits to the same tracks, too little emphasis on safety unless they're forced to (the NASCAR "way" for pit stops is a recipe for disaster), the lack of technical currency, the list goes on and on.
And what about major league sports car racing in this country? The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship for all of its promise, is still the plaything of Jim France, and this just in: That's not a good thing. The creep of "NASCAR-ization" into American major league sports car racing is bound to have a cumulative, devastating effect, and the signs are already there. The stubborn resistance to change, the same "we've always done it this way" attitude (oh, and our "way" is always better than whatever it is that the ALMS did), the less -than-rational decisions (the pit stop process non-decision by Jim France in the face of overwhelming support to do it the ALMS way sums it up perfectly), it all points to a dismal future for a sport that desperately needed focused, contemporary leadership. And let's not forget, the rumors that World Challenge is going to be bought by France to consolidate his power in the sports car racing world are growing louder by the day, so then what?
At least the 24 Hours of Le Mans remains the beacon for what big-time sports car racing should be, although it's my fervent hope that the USCC embraces the notion for a top, "run-what-you-brung" GTX class for its American races so that we can see a bit of an American "outlaw" flavor to the proceedings.
So after sixteen years, where are we with all of this? For one thing, anyone who thinks that manufacturer involvement is a bad thing for the sport is kidding themselves. Let me put it this way, without manufacturer involvement the sport simply wouldn't exist except at the local level. The bottom line is that we need more of it. We need more manufacturers at Indianapolis and in IndyCar, we need more manufacturers in NASCAR (although if they acquiesce to the France "vision" it will be a waste of time), we need more manufacturers running for the overall win at Le Mans (see Peter's "edicts" from last week here -WG).
(Actually, in revisiting that NASCAR mention above, if I were The Dictator of the Racing World, I would redirect all of the manufacturer money - and teams and drivers - in NASCAR to the Global RallyCross championship, then institute longer races on longer courses and sit back and enjoy the show.)
We need more diversity of technical thought, we need more visionary chances being taken (you may not agree with the Nissan Le Mans effort but at least they're bringing something different to the table). In short, we need to press the "reset" button on racing because the compelling stories are waning, and the interest in the sport is waning right along with it.
I love this sport and I not only want it to survive, I want it to thrive in a new era while generating new interest from younger people.
The clock is ticking.
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)
Le Mans, France, June 6, 1966. Henry Ford II stands in the pit lane before the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After Ford was rebuffed by Enzo Ferrari from buying out the Italian firm, because Enzo refused to relinquish control of his racing team at the 11th hour of negotiations, Henry Ford II vowed to "kick Ferrari's ass" at Le Mans and ordered his company to spend whatever it took to win. And Ford did exactly that. Seven factory Ford GT Mk II's were entered, three by Shelby American, two by Holman & Moody and two by Alan Mann Racing from England. The No. 2 Shelby American Ford Mk II driven by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon won in a controversial - and bumbled - orchestrated finish, which cost the No. 1 Shelby American Ford Mk II driven by Ken Miles and Denny Hulme the win. Even though Miles/Hulme finished second, Miles never got over what he perceived to be a major slight and insult. Ronnie Bucknum/Dick Hutcherson (No. 5 Holman & Moody Mk II) finished third.
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