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Bill Oursler: Roll The Credits

These are unique times. Never in modern history have we faced a global economic crisis such as we face today, and never have we in motorsport been so uncertain of our future, especially in light of the plight the world wide automotive industry faces as a result of that crisis. To put it in its most blunt terms, the car business depends on credit no matter what part of the earth in which it is conducted.

Therefore, without credit the car business is out of business, and today there is no credit.

And, because the upper echelons of the motorsport industry can’t exist without the manufacturer investment they currently enjoy, then racing is in trouble. No matter how justified car makers might be in their support of the business, it is nearly impossible for them to make their case for doing so when they are laying off workers, closing plants and asking for governmental bailouts. It just ain’t gonna happen folks.

Then again, it might.

It might if racing changes its ways and understands that if it is going to accept financial support, it is going to have give back something of value in return. Fortunately there is a new face in the picture which could bring a just such a new attitude to the international scene: American Nick Craw, who was recently elected as the FIA’s Deputy President for Sport. Craw’s election to the post is a major break with tradition in that he is an American, not a European in what has been a Euro-centric organization. Still, there are good reasons for turning to Craw at a time when the antics of FIA President Max Mosley have brought not only controversy, but disrepute to the FIA and the sport it governs.

A longtime member of the establishment, Craw is a politician, having served in the White House in the Nixon administration as the Director of the Peace Corps. He further honed his skills in that area during his 17 year stint as president of the Sports Car Club of America not only controlling its often disparate factions, but enlarging its presence both in terms of membership and its importance within the sport during his tenure. Even so, Craw is not just another bureaucrat. Rather he is a race driver with championship credentials in single seaters as well as prototypes and GT cars, having run his own teams and having been employed by factories as well.

Most important of all, though is the fact that the pragmatic Craw has demonstrated throughout his adult life an ability to keep his ego in check and contain any lingering sense of arrogance, something not true with Mosley in recent times. And that friends and neighbors brings us to the heart of the issue: Will Craw be able to oversee the FIA’s competition arena, or will he be relegated to something of a figure head under the tandem of Messrs. Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone?

Clearly the FIA has seen its influence lessen in the past several years as manufacturers have put increasingly huge amounts of cash into racing, not just Formula One, but also on the sports car side as well where the L’Automobile Club du L’Ouest (ACO) has charted its own course, thus given cars makers leverage they didn’t have before to pressure the FIA to see things their way when it comes to the drafting of the regulations. That latter fact is evidenced by the new FIA GT scriptures which are far more what the manufacturers wanted than what the FIA had intended to impose on the participants. Perhaps equally telling is that while F-1 has Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari, Honda and Toyota, the line up of factory involvement on the sports car side has its own heavy hitters such as Volkswagen through its Audi brand, Peugeot, as well as Porsche, Honda, GM with Corvette, and even to a certain extent, Ferrari.

The reality check here of course is that the size and breadth of Formula One in terms of its audience, and thus its prestige is far grater than that enjoyed by the sports car set. But, that equation could well be different in the future for while F-1 is trying to go “green,” the sports car universe already is heavily involved in the technologies that will not only shape the automotive industry of the future, but will insure its survival. Equally important here is another fact: sports cars, even prototypes relate far more to what people purchase in the showroom and drive on the street. Formula One may be a dream, but the sports car scene is reality, and if reality can be served in a sauce of pizzazz then the playing field could well tilt in favor the bi-fendered community.

Still, with the economies of the world the way they are, all this, not to mention the long term survival of motorsport will require enlightened leadership rather than leadership imbued with self importance and self interest. Nicolas Craw is far from a perfect individual, but then who is? Regardless, Craw could be exactly the kind of new blood to guide the FIA through these difficult times and help it regain the place it once held within the sport that many believe is necessary for its, and even the industry’s, continued existence.

                                                                      Bill Oursler
                                                                   November 2008

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