Tuesday, April 14, 2009

State of Play: IndyCar

First, the micro analysis:

As noted previously, St. Pete was an entertaining, if sloppy, race. But, as it turns out, a mere 233,000 households watched on VERSUS. Sure, the coverage was quite good. But when you're on a minor-league network,...

More uplifting news from Curt Cavin: Indy car count could reach 40. Even Robin Miller, who was quite gloomy weeks ago, seemed optimistic on WindTunnel. In this economy, 40 entries would be, yes, quite astounding.

That said, some notes of caution: The Rahal stuff is pure speculation at this point, and the 3rd (?!) KV is really wild. I fully expect a 2nd Coyne car and the 2nd KV entry (w/ PT!) will be announced Friday. As for the rest, just guessing, but we WON'T see a 5th AGR car (though from a quality POV, they could use it), a Herta entry or another Vision machine. I'm dubious on a 2nd Conquest entry, though I won't rule it out. Despite my above comment, I think Rahal WILL run a car. Foyt obviously will too, along w/ a couple others.

But was some of this optimism based on hopes the economy had bottomed? If so, the numbers the last few days are mixed, at best. That, and as a TF member posited, the atrocious ratings on Vs. might be scaring sponsors and $$$ away. One wonders if THIS depressing news is a result.

Now, to the macro, which started, in my mind anyhow, with the following Cavin Tweet

Note the irony: As Helio waits for jurors, national tax day looms and Paul Tracy lands an Indy 500 ride.

Indeed, it is. '02 was a critical year in the split. Honda jumping to the IRL effectively ended CART as we knew it. In theory, the split should have ended then. But the aftermath of that 500, and articles like THIS, stirred even more anymosity, esp. between the fans, and, more importantly, exacerbated fundamental differences in the visions of the sport.

On one side, we had the Indy-centric IRL, founded, in truth, to preserve the 500 and IMS dominance of the sport. The other side, road/street course-heavy CART/Champ Car, began to feel that breaking from Indy was the way to go. The end of the split speaks to the efficacy of such thinking.

But the issue remains: Does Indy dominate the sport to a detrimental end? Look, we have TWO full races before the Month of May, and what's the talk? Car count for the 500!

I found THIS thread interesting for many reasons, but for now, we'll focus on Malone's commentary. To which most IRL fans would respond, not without merit, "Without Indy, you have no sport." That overstates it (Milwaukee is OLDER than IMS), but only by a little. Beyond the obvious, like "It's called 'IndyCar!'", this sport IS different, in history, than NASCAR. The latter always had an important presence in Daytona Beach, but it was also based in the Carolinas, Virginia (Martinsville) and all over the Southeast.

Perhaps because it has been around since 1909, and the fact that the first 500 really was something revolutionary, IMS became THE center of what evolved into American open-wheel racing. It became the thing that animated the sport (for a time, most of American racing) and utterly dominated it.

CART's formation was meant to put a dent into this. To an extent (a small one), it did. Prior to it's formation, the other races on the USAC Trail were just that: "other races." Part of this was the usual USAC incompetence, but another part was mindset: The 500 is the center upon which all other races revolve. Dan Gurney and crew fundamentally disagreed with that (as they would have seen it) "extreme" notion.

Events like Long Beach, Michigan and others seemed to prove their point. They became important, well-attended events, moving beyond, seemingly, a "just Indy" mentality. Or did they?

If the split taught us one thing, it's that within the shrinking world that is open-wheel racing, Indianapolis is the Alpha Dog of the sport. CART had the teams, drivers, and most of the tracks. It did not have the Indianapolis 500. You know the end result, but let's break it down.

Despite numerous efforts, CART never found a signature event to hang it's hat on. W/o that, it's hard to gain real traction. Why did they fail? Several reasons come to mind. For one, it's true, as many Champ Car fans allege, that Penske, Ganassi, and others ALWAYS had "Indyitis," a desire to return to the 500. Initially, they all thought they'd quickly dispatch Tony George and the IRL. Mistake #1 in an endless litany of post-split CART fuck-ups.

One wonders what would have happened had 1996 gone differently. What if that U.S. 500 had not started w/ a massive pileup?

What if it had been a classic, or at least a solid show? Would that have, eventually, challenged the supremacy of IMS? We'll never know, so it IS moot, but I'm not sure how much different things would have been.

It goes back to historical connections. The sports history, for good or ill, has been interwoven with Indianapolis. During the 80's and early 90's, CART managed to build up other events, but whether subtly or explicitly, it did so in part on the back of the 500. The "Cars and Stars" of Indy, if you will.

But once Indy was taken away, CART's identity, whether they knew it or not, was gone. They tried Michigan, Long Beach, and a couple others, but no event ever caught fire. Even in the case of Long Beach, which started as an F1 race, the history of the events lacked the depth of the 500 and the meaning they had once Indy was gone.

Yes, Long Beach was always well-attended, but like many street races, slowly lost its national resonance.

Then, of course, began the trickle of CART teams back to Indy and, eventually, the IRL. CART, as we knew it, was finished. Champ Car, some will say, could still have survived w/o Indy. Those who believe this will, essentially, argue that CC should have ignored Indy and the IRL and stopped competing with them. Instead, chart out a new, road/street-oriented path.

Indeed, that WOULD have been truly revolutionary. A vision of the sport totally independent of IMS had never been tried. And, on the surface, they did just that. By '07, the series raced on no ovals and used radically different (from the IRL) machines. But the hearts of the new management never seemed fully devoted to... well, much of anything (Witness the on-again, off-again talks with the IRL).

It's hard to judge whether this could really have worked due to the litany of..., er, fuck-ups by management (the presence of Paul Gentilozzi speaks to this). Could a more devoted management team have made it work?

That's the fundamental question, still unsettled, that hangs over the sport today. I, myself, go back-and-forth on this. Which brings me back to Sean Malone.

Should the rest of the season be promotedly more independently of Indy? Though regretably incomplete, history suggests to tread carefully. I submit that you CAN promote the events themselves, but eliminating the ties to the 500 and not mentioning the 500 is a mistaken strategy. Finding that balance, esp. w/ IMS in charge, is the trick. The sport's future hinges, in part, on just that balance.

It's all the more complicated because the 500 is not, nationally, what it once was. Can you/should focus primarily on building that up, in the hopes it will carry everything else with it? Or does that have it backwards? Is there a middle ground?

Good questions.