Friday, May 30, 2008

By George, Indy Car Racing Trying to Once Again Captivate Sports Fans

Tony George has done a wonderful job building up a racing series--unfortunately for George, the series that he helped to build is NASCAR, not his own Indy Racing League (IRL). When George founded the IRL in 1996 to compete with the established Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series, the resulting schism in open-wheel racing created a tremendous opportunity for NASCAR to expand beyond its Southern roots and become the premier auto racing series in the United States. After 14 years of bitter warfare in which both the IRL and CART lost fans, market share, TV ratings, money and prestige, CART is in its death throes and George's IRL is trying to pick up the shattered pieces of what remains of open-wheel racing in the USA.

George's grandfather, the legendary Anton "Tony" Hulman, ran the Indianapolis Speedway and played a major role in building the Indianapolis 500 into "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing"--and that was no mere catchphrase or advertiser's slogan: drivers from around the world dreamed of being one of the 33 entrants in this prestigious race and people who did not follow the sport the rest of the year watched the Indy 500 and were familiar with names like Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that even now the average person on the street is more likely to have heard of Andretti or Foyt than any of the current Indy Car drivers other than perhaps Danica Patrick, a skilled racer whose fame is not strictly connected to her driving accomplishments. If you see someone driving too fast, you will say, "Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?" and not, "Who do you think you are, Danica Patrick?"

After 1996, the Indy 500 gradually became just another race. Its TV ratings dropped from 9.7 in 1995 to 7.1 in 1996 to 5.0 in 1997. Patrick's arrival on the scene in 2005 initially helped to boost ratings a bit but the event has never regained the popularity that it previously had; the Indy 500 had a 4.8 rating in 2007 and a 5.1 rating this year. It could be argued that in some years the Indy 500 was not even the biggest event being held at the Speedway, because the Brickyard 400--which was first run in 1994--has become an important NASCAR event. While the Brickyard 400's success may have been good news for George since he runs the Speedway, it was a sign of just how much the status of open-wheel racing racing has declined.

Indy Car racing's biggest problem is that the casual sports fan does not even know who the drivers are--let alone have a rooting interest in their performances. For decades, rivalries among Andretti, Foyt and the Unser brothers captivated large numbers of fans. Second and third generation members of those families are now racing but Indy Car racing fumbled the opportunity to take advantage of that continuity by stumbling around in the sports wilderness for more than a decade.

George and the IRL have taken the first step toward fixing this mess by ending the silly feud with CART and offering financial incentives to CART teams to encourage them to join the IRL. One report estimates that the Indy Car version of the Hatfields versus the McCoys has already cost George close to $200 million of his personal fortune and that he might end up paying another $30 million to put back together what he helped to tear apart. Although George has become in many ways the face of this disaster, this mess is not entirely his fault. As racing journalist Robin Miller said four years ago, "As much as Tony George should be reviled for screwing up the Indy 500 and open-wheel racing, the CART owners should be lined up and executed right along with him."

The bottom line is that racing fans and sports fans in general don't care whose fault it is or even what the original disputed issues were between George and the people who ran CART in the 1990s; they just want to be able to see exciting racing and they want to know enough about the drivers to be able to identify with them in some way. It is not clear how well the market will support one open-wheel racing series at this point, so the idea of having two competing series was sheer folly. Hopefully the consolidation of the sport under one sanctioning body will lead to a rejuvenation of its fortunes and the development of some great driver rivalries.

No comments: