East – West: Bill Oursler and David Soares on the Merger
We at SCP aren’t all that eclectic, what goes down with the single seaters in
the U.S. is important. Several major sportscar races piggyback with the large
go-karts and if a race gets canned from the schedule, it affects our half of the
drainpipe. Up first is Wild Bill, then the DA himself…let it roll.
Bill Oursler on CART’S Graduation Day
So now it’s over. After three decades the great experiment in single seat
racing has closed down. Champ Car has (is about to) shut its doors. No
longer will the inmates run the institution.
At the end of February, the long rumored merger between Champ Car, the
inheritor of the CART moniker and the Indy Racing league took place. In the
mid 1970’s when such road racing luminaries turned Indianapolis entrants as
Roger Penske, Dan Gurney and Jim Hall began to bring modernity to the
United States Auto Club’s Indy scene, the Offy oriented old guard took
exception to what they saw as “outlanders” intent on raising costs beyond the
old timers’ means to compete, especially at the annual Memorial day 500-
George of the jungle…
The result was a war between the two camps that saw the Penske et al take
a walk, forming their own sanctioning body in the process. That was CART,
or, as it was officially known, Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc.
Originally set up in the summer of 1978 as a car owners group, that fall it
became the new organizer of the CART single seat tour, an enterprise, with a
little help from the courts, that became the foundation for open wheel racing in
the United States during the 1980’s and first years of the 1990’s, when the
boss of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Tony George decided to take back
control of his business affairs, and thus his future by kicking CART out and
forming his own sanctioning body, the Indy Racing League.
After several years of skirmishes between them, George and the leading
CART teams came to realize what most had seen from the start: namely that
they needed each other. The CART owners controlled the cast, George the
stage, and without reconciliation between them, the play would have a short
run. Thus came the defection of all but a few of leading CART owners over to
the IRL In fact, few if any of them had enjoyed running their own series.
Rather they would have preferred to let someone else do it. What they wanted
was not to be harassed as they went about their goal of making money. Once
George gave the proper assurances that he and they could live in harmony (a
lesson by the way that some in Formula One currently seemingly want to
ignore), the IRL became one happy family.
Yet, there was trouble among the new greener pastures. The old CART, now
immersed in its own turmoil, and sporting the new Champ Car logo, still
existed. In this case, the strain of having two groups in a universe large
enough to support one was killing the sport.
So after years of talking, negotiating, and almost coming together, and with
the realities setting in, the Champ Car camp capitulated (oh, I’m sorry,
merged) with the IRL. That ladies and gents is the short, unhappy history of
how to take a healthy enterprise and bring it to the brink of death before finally
seeking medical intervention. But, what does all of this have to do with the
sports car universe, other than perhaps providing an object lesson as to how
not do things? The answer is a lot.
First, a perhaps foremost is the issue of the interrelationship between the
formerly segregated venues within the industry. When CART and USAC were
having their wars in 1978 and –’79, about the only effect outside their universe
on the rest of the sport was the fact that CART used the Sports Car Club of
America to get the FIAS licenses they needed to run at Indy. Otherwise the
SCCA, IMSA, the NHRA and the rest went about their business as usual. Not
Take for example the American Le Mans Series, part of the Panoz
Motorsports Group that includes its Elan Technology division that built the
new chassis that Champ Car introduced in 2007. What happens to the
expected profits it thought it would make in 2008 from the sales of additional
cars and spare parts? And had does the loss of those expectations affect the
funding for the ALMS?
More importantly, what happens to the ALMS’ shared weekends with the
Champ Car at Long Beach, Houston and Road America? (Fortunately. With
Champ Car staging its “farewell” at Long Beach, that venue will present no
problems, while Road America, which will not be part of the new IRL slate this
year, has indicated it will be happy to have the ALMS as its feature Sunday
show.) Houston on the other hand is a problem. There, no one is clear
whether or not the promoters, who likewise are not included on the revised ’09
IRL calendar, will run an all ALMS show. If not, the ALMS will lose a date that
it can realistically only replace by staging a hastily organized substitute at
Road Atlanta which the Panoz organization owns.
Shared weekends, share financial responsibilities have become the norm in
the racing game, and when things one place, they now impact many other
places as well. And, that’s the short view.
Speaking selfishly, the ALMS, and to a certain extent, the Grand Am’s Rolex
series have benefited from the chaos surrounding the North American open
wheel scene. Indeed, the network ratings for the ALMS have been better on
average than the network ratings for both the IRL and Champ Car. Will that
change, now there is only the IRL? In effect, will a revitalized open wheel
universe here stunt the growth of sports car racing, or will it help it? All are as
yet unanswered questions. Even so, the merger of Champ Car and the IRL
into one brings closure to what a group of road course veterans started out of
necessity three decades ago; a move that ultimately helped change the
course of motorsport in North America forever by bringing the advanced
technological thinking that permeated the sports car and formula single set to
what most saw as the hidebound Indy community of the mid 20th century. It
was an amalgamation that has brought about the ties that bind today for
better, and sometimes worse.
David Soares: No Circuits for Old Men
As Tony George’s Indy Racing League finally ate its open-wheel rival (recently
known as the Champ Car World Series) the champagne was on ice in L.A. for
the annual Academy Awards ceremony. I decided to uncork a bit of the
bubbly myself while my womenfolk tuned-in to watch the red carpet strutting
down in L.A. I however, was toasting the final collapse of the White Dwarf of
the IRL-ChampCar implosion, which has for too long been sucking matter
from the American racing universe. As we watched the little gold statues of
naked swordsmen handed out for acting performances, we saw a sweep for
European products. Who couldn’t cheer as the lovely Marion Cotillard, the
garagiste’s love interest in the Provençal Taxi film trilogy, won best actress for
her glassy-eyed portrayal of the lifetime debauch of French chanteuse Edith
Piaf. Even the acting Oscar portion of the all-American Coen Brothers sweep
went to a European, Spaniard Javier Bardem.
I suspect that whatever open-wheel schedule manages to rise from the ashes
of the IRL/ChampCar merger will leave fans of road racing as open as were
the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to a
European product. This year the North American racing schedule is going to
be a bit chaotic as all but three CCWS dates are simply abandoned and the
American Le Mans Series is given the opportunity to headline at a few well-
established (and already heavily sold) race weekends. However, there is
another opportunity that presents itself. What I’m ultimately hoping for is that
the creation of a new national schedule for 2009 will finally put an end to
much of the street racing that the IRL and the CCWS had hung their hats on
and that the ALMS has leveraged for greater exposure the past few years.
Since my first visit to the Long Beach Grand Prix in the late Seventies, I have
hated urban street circuits. The tattoo parlors and Skee-ball dives of Long
Beach weren’t exactly Van Cleef & Arpels or the Casino de Paris when the
G.P. circus first came to town and I have always suspected that the city
would have been able to pull off urban renewal without the street race.
Despite the renaissance of Long Beach, it sure didn’t work for Detroit or
downtown San Jose.
No doubt, the Long Beach Grand Prix has always been a great party, but the
circuit itself was never all that interesting and it got even less so when the
challenging drop from Ocean Boulevard down Linden Avenue was eliminated.
Even though fence-topped concrete chutes through parking lots can make for
somewhat interesting racing between open-wheel go-karts, they’ve never been
very friendly to sportscars. When Formula 1 cars disappeared from the 1952-
54 World Championship, the Automobile Club de Monaco tried sportscar
racing on for size and ran their 1952 Monte Carlo G.P. for sportscars instead
of the Formula 2 cars contesting the championship. It didn’t work out. The
drivers complained that they couldn’t place full-bodied cars in the corners. In
part due to Luigi Fagioli’s fatal crash in practice the ACM hasn’t tried to run
sportscars around the houses again (with the exception of the final stage of
the Rallye Monte Carlo). The LBGP is a wonderful event and I hope that the
ALMS stays in 2009, but the rest of these “tracks” need to go the way of the
dodo for sportscar racing.
Ironically, the current reliance of the ALMS schedule on street races in St.
Petersburg, Long Beach, Houston, and Detroit is also largely responsible for
the series’ biggest conflict, that between Audi and the Series over the
competitiveness of cars in the “lower” P2 class against Audi’s P1 entries.
Ten seasons ago Don Panoz recognized the appeal of a truly “international”
series and partnered with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, promoters of the
24 Hours of Le Mans to base an American racing series around their
prototype and GT rules. This move created a synergy across the Atlantic
that was hoped would assure healthy and diverse fields of cars developed to
compete in the prestigious French midsummer round-the-clock sportscar
The essential problem is that cars developed to perform well in an around-the-
clock race run largely on long undulating stretches of rural public highway
aren’t necessarily well-suited to the quick transitions and twists and turns of
an urban street circuit. This situation is not limited to the diesel Audi R10’s
either. The performance of the Porsche GT2 cars has been poor on “Mickey
Mouse” tracks because of their rear-engined configuration. The 997 was
much more competitive on circuits like Sebring, Le Mans, Road Atlanta, and
Spa. Another issue is that racers at Le Mans are optimized to run their
fastest laps between midnight and 10 am when temperatures are lower. Le
Mans is a fantastic place for big P1 and GT1 cars to hurtle through the night.
The History Channel
The real weakness of sportscar racing in the United States is that these P1
and GT1 cars make little more sense on our “Mickey Mouse” circuits like
Lime Rock or even, sadly, Miller Motorsports Park than they do on the street
circuits at St. Pete, Long Beach, Houston, and Belle Isle. The ACO rules
have always explicitly been geared toward manufacturers competing in P1
and GT1 and toward the privateers competing in P2 and GT2. American
circuit infrastructure suggested to a few smart race car engineers that lighter
cars could do better and manufacturers Porsche and Honda/Acura built P2
cars for the ALMS that are competitive with the P1’s on American circuits
and blatantly don’t even bother to got to the Sarthe in June. The shenanigans
in GT1 during the 2006 ALMS led to a mere exhibition class in 2007. In my
view, all of these problems are really down to circuit infrastructure – and I’m
not talking about the restrooms and hot dog stands Herb Fischel at first
thought I was referring to when I talked to him about this issue at the
Monterey Historics, but the circuits themselves.
With open-wheel racing in transition, the ALMS has an opportunity to
consolidate itself as the way to go road-racing in North America. The open
question will be whether the series further diverges from the ACO formula and
occupies the vacuum left by ChampCar’s open-wheel road racing focus. The
way forward is fraught with tricky choices if the series is to remain relevant to
the manufacturers who have the ability to fund programs at the level that will
make the series both interesting and international. The IRL started as an oval
speedways-only series and is still oval-heavy. There will be a number of long-
established venues without races in 2008 and beyond. While Long Beach
and Belle Isle provide access to important audiences, has the series really
gained anything in Houston or St. Petersburg? Might Watkins Glen be a
better ALMS venue than Lime Rock, and Laguna be superior (and safer) for
the IRL to Infineon? I’d also personally love to see prototypes on an airport
circuit in addition to the one at Sebring. Edmonton is an old Can-Am town
and they sold a huge number of tickets (and beers) for their ChampCar date
on a new airport circuit. Why not a weekend there? I’m still a firm advocate
of the exploitation of under-utilized airports for high-speed racing with
appropriate runoff areas where horsepower can make a difference.
Shadow on the wall….
Like with the acting Oscars, Americans are ready for European product. The
best way to solve the P1 vs. P2 performance dilemma is to move to road
racing venues fit for sportscar racing. Now is the time for the ALMS to move
out from the shadow of open-wheel racing. Formula 1 is stuck in Europe and
will never take hold here; there’s too much money to be made selling it to the
Third World. American open-wheel will always mean Indianapolis and turning
left. Road racing has always had an international flavor. Let’s hope that the
powers-that-be can find a way to move away from joint events at circuits
unsuited to the equipment.