Sunday, September 4, 2011

Red Flag

Auto racing is dying in the United States. The red flag is getting ready to come out for the final time, signaling the end of major car racing in this country. The sport that once flourished, with four major racing series running on any given week and many other lesser series, is no longer at the top of their game. A sport that once featured NASCAR stock cars, Indy Car, Champ Car, and Formula One open wheel racers, is severely down on fan support across the board, and is in danger of dying out entirely.

For the past several years, only NASCAR and Indy Car (formerly the Indy Racing League) continued to operate, as Champ Car folded in 2008, and Formula One abandoned the US after the 2007 season. While Formula One is scheduled to return to the US in November 2012, major auto racing in this country is still in trouble with attendance and television ratings down for NASCAR and Indy Car.
Interestingly enough, local racetracks continue to draw crowds across the country. Dirt and paved local venues, short tracks such as the ¼ mile Texas Thunder Speedway dirt track in Killeen, Texas, are extremely popular for Saturday night racing. Prices are reasonable, the racing is fun, exciting, and competitive, and the venues tend to be easily accessible. It’s great, inexpensive family entertainment for a summer evening. The drivers at these tracks may not be famous, but they still race hard for their trophies, and they put on an exceptional show for the fans.
For many years, auto racing was not considered a major sport in the United States. USAC – the United States Auto Club – sanctioned many types of racing including sprint cars, and the open wheel cars that ran in the Indianapolis 500 and other races. Formula One began running regularly in the US in 1959, and NASCAR has, of course, been around since 1949 when Bill France, Sr. led the series.  All three major series (and their associated feeder series) grew in popularity, although slowly for the most part. For many years, racing was merely a minor league sport compared with the major North American sports baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.
Formula One has never been as popular in the US as it is in most other parts of the world. Even when F1 ran here regularly, it always took a backseat to the other series. Part of that problem is that most of the F1 schedule is run on the other side of the world, and so is often televised very late at night or early on a Sunday morning – not the optimum time to capture US audiences. The other problem with F1 is that Americans have always preferred oval track racing. Hardly anyone in the US thinks about going to a Saturday night road course race (even if there was such a thing.) What Americans like is cars that go around in circles. Regardless, though, F1 held one and sometimes two US Grands Prix every year from 1959 until 2007.
NASCAR grew slowly from its regional roots in the South. It began as the Strictly Stock Series, then the Grand National Series, evolving into the Winston Cup Series in the 1970’s with the major sponsorship and huge sums of money pumped into the sport by the new series sponsor, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The Cup series grew steadily throughout the 70’s, and into 1979 when the first live, flag to flag NASCAR event was telecast – the extremely exciting and competitive 1979 Daytona 500. Through the 80’s and 90’s, the sport exploded in popularity – with live televised races nearly every week, national exposure, and a spectacular broadening of its fan base.
NASCAR’s drivers went from virtual unknowns to national celebrities. In a sport that was virtually unknown outside of the American South, a man named Ralph Earnhardt and his contemporaries toiled in virtual anonymity through the 50’s and 60’s. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds just two generations later when Ralph’s grandson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has become one of the most recognizable athletes in America – in any sport.
Champ Car, as it was known at the time of its demise, was formed in 1979 after several car owners determined the need for a new series after disagreements with USAC created a rift. Legendary drivers such as A.J. Foyt, Mario and Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Gordon Johncock, Rick Mears and many others led the new series as the fan base broadened through the 80’s and the early 90’s.
The annual Indianapolis 500 was always the marquee event, though the series ran competitive races on many other venues across the US (and occasionally, Europe, Canada, and Australia). The cars got faster, the racing more competitive, the drivers more prominent in the eyes of the public, and the money flowed in.
Then it all changed. Unfortunately, all of major league auto racing is now on the decline in the US.
NASCAR, which evolved from a Southern, regional novelty into a major sports phenomenon, began to lose its appeal in the few years following the death of one of the biggest stars ever to drive a stock car – Dale Earnhardt, Sr. It wasn’t the death of the Intimidator that started the slide though – it was a dramatic change in the way the series operates. Back in the late 1940’s, Bill France, Sr. had pioneered the sport of stock car racing; organizing it and giving it a set of rules that allowed drivers to compete for championships; sponsors to spend and earn money; teams to flourish, and fans to enjoy great racing. His son, Bill, Jr. took over in the 1970’s and under his reign, turned the sport into a juggernaut – a powerhouse of marketing, money, and success. When Bill, Jr. retired in 2003, his son Brian France took over and NASCAR has not been the same since.
Tracks such as Bristol Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, and Texas Motor Speedway used to sell out at the twice per season races. During the glory years of the late 70’s through the early 2000’s, if you wanted to buy tickets to a race at a track such as Bristol, it was necessary to place your name on a waiting list – a list on which your name may not reach the top for years, before tickets became available to you. Now, seats are readily available at any and all NASCAR venues – no more sellout crowds. Although the television cameras attempt to avoid showing empty seats, it is painfully obvious that NASCAR events are seriously low on attendance. Where once was a sea of happy fans with not an empty seat in sight, now exists a sad picture of decline.
The Champ Car/Indy Car decline began much earlier – during the late 1980’s – long before the Indy Racing League even formed. How could the IRL start its decline years before it was formed? Read on…
Enter Tony George – then the CEO of Hulman and Company, makers of, among other things, Clabber Girl Baking Powder. George also happens to be the grandson of Tony Hulman, the man who, after buying the decrepit Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945, resurrected the Indy 500, turning it into one of the premier sporting events on the planet. Tony George became the President of the Speedway after the retirement of his mother, Mary Hulman George.
George was part of a group that did not like the way Champ Car, then known as CART, was being run. George managed to gain support for his movement over the next decade or so, becoming a more powerful voice against CART practices as the years went on. Ultimately, George forced the issue by forming the Indy Racing League in 1994. The series did not run its first race until 1996, and it was really a shell of a series – the cars were driven by CART castoffs and other drivers who were simply not talented enough to drive in CART.
The ‘war’ between the series escalated to epic proportions when, in 1996, George allowed only 8 CART drivers to compete in the Indianapolis 500 – giving the first 25 spots in the starting grid to drivers in his new series. Over the next 12 years, open warfare existed between CART/Champ Car and George and the IRL. What none of these people had the vision to see was that they were killing the sport.
The two series could easily have gone their separate ways, ignoring and not interfering with the other. They could have continued to rake in money and fans and promote their own interests independently of each other. As the war raged on, both series boasted some top name drivers. Eventually, but just for a short time, both series fielded competitive, legitimate drivers and teams, all giving the fans excellent choices for open wheel racing. The bonus for race fans was a double dose of what they loved best – racing. Each series had its own unique set of venues; the scenario was perfect for those who followed open wheel racing.
Although Tony George had a hand in the failure and demise of Champ Car, it was not entirely his fault. Men such as Joe Heitzler and Christopher Pook each took turns at running what was then called CART. Marketing had simply been ignored for years. By the time Pook took over, CART/Champ Car was already in an unrecoverable downward spiral. For years while NASCAR was gearing up an exceptional marketing campaign aimed at making its drivers as well known as other sports stars, CART/Champ Car was apparently sitting around the pool sipping drinks. Virtually no attempt whatsoever was made to market the series – a disaster in the making. Why no one at CART/Champ Car gave even a single thought to promotion is beyond reason – apparently the consensus was that there was no need. Anyone with half an ounce of marketing sense knows that advertising is essential to any business. Without it - just relying on word of mouth, is a prelude to certain death.
Incredibly, these guys just sat around and assumed that the money would continue to fall into their pockets. Then again, George and his successors didn’t do any better at marketing the Indy Racing League either. There must be something about the smell of burning rubber from open wheel racing cars that causes brain cells to cease function. Whatever caused it, both Champ Car and the IRL allowed NASCAR to steamroll over and past them.
George’s series absorbed the remnants of the once proud Champ Car Series. With George holding all the cards – all the teams and top drivers, he was in a position to run with it. A huge problem existed though – although the IRL was now the only game in town, CART/Champ Car fans were not so easily won over. To many race fans, George was the ogre who had blown the whole deal by killing off what was once a legitimate racing series. Many of those fans still refuse to watch an Indy Car race.
Regardless though, Indy Car could still have pulled itself out of the quagmire it had created and proven itself as the newest legitimate series. But once again, George and his executives dropped the ball. They did what the old CART executives had done – virtually nothing. They made a few minor and ineffective attempts at marketing, but once again, that smell of burning rubber apparently caused another round of dead brain cells.
The result is that although there are some truly fine drivers and teams in the Indy Car Series, no one knows about it. Televised races are so far up in the digital channel range that most people never get that far. Fans that may have been drawn to the series, had it been marketed, never get to the races – hence, the vast acreage of empty, lonely seats. Tony George no longer runs the series or the Speedway; he has left it all to people who have managed to continue the great American open wheel tradition of refusing to make any attempt to lure new fans to the sport.
It should be noted that Formula One continues to be wildly popular in other parts of the world. F1 doesn’t need the US – the series is a moneymaker for all concerned and popular entertainment for the fans. F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone ended the run of the USGP at Indianapolis in 2007, when George and the IMS did not agree to exactly the kind of deal Bernie wanted. Like the bully, Bernie took his toy and went home – back to where he rules racing with an iron fist and always gets his way. Even if Formula One never ran another race anywhere near the US, nothing would change in the grand scheme of the world of F1. Ecclestone views bringing F1 to the US as a favor to us, and as a thorn in his side (it is, after all, a major logistical nightmare to transport all of the cars, equipment, and people involved in F1 races to North America). Formula One continues to flourish while American car racing is going down the drain.
It may be argued that the smaller crowds at races are due to our difficult economic times – people with less discretionary money to spend. That argument doesn’t fly however, when one looks at attendance at baseball, football and other big league sports. Fans in Philadelphia have no problem spending money to pack themselves into Citizen’s Bank Park to watch the Phillies. Other sports franchises such as the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Dallas Mavericks, Montreal Canadiens, and many other teams regularly enjoy playing for sellout crowds. NASCAR did an exceptional job of promoting its product through the 90’s and early 2000’s, but even that extensive campaign won’t save them now.
No, the NASCAR problem isn’t due to the economy. NASCAR has fooled around so much with their product, that they have driven fans away rather than keep them interested. The attitude seems to be that every race must come down to the wire, with as many cars as possible inches away from each other in order to make for exciting racing. Not so - the green, white, checkers approach has ruined the sport – race finishes appear to have been engineered and the sport has lost its appeal simply because it is so contrived.
Part two of NASCAR’s problem is their choice of racetracks. The newest tracks, such as Chicago, Las Vegas, and Kansas, are ‘cookie cutter’ tracks – that is, essentially carbon copy layouts. The preponderance of the ‘same old same old’ week after week – 1.5 mile, tri-oval type track has reduced the competitive edge and fan interest. The older NASCAR venues such as Rockingham, which no longer hosts Cup events, and Darlington, one of the most unique sports venues on the planet, and the short tracks, are fading from the schedule. These once great and unique tracks at which exciting, competitive racing took place, are being replaced by the boring ‘cookie cutter’ tracks.
NASCAR officials, namely Brian France, seem to think that all fans want to see is blinding speed – fast means exciting. Not so, Mr. France – you have lost sight of what made NASCAR racing leap into national prominence – not just speed, but competitive racing, not engineered finishes. Race fans used to love the variety of tracks on the NASCAR schedule – so many different types of tracks made for exciting racing every week.
It almost defies the new NASCAR logic that a classic venue such as the ½ mile Martinsville flat track are still on the schedule. This great track is a throwback to the good old days of rubbing and racing that once took place every week. This kind of racing still happens at every local short track on Saturday nights across the country – the NASCAR powers that be seem to have forgotten where the excitement came from in the first place – places exactly like Martinsville. Yes, fans love the high-speed tracks, but at places such as Talladega and Daytona, the restrictor plate tracks, the racing is… well… restricted. The cars are fast, but the racing is boring – lap after mind-numbing boring ‘follow the leader, don’t dare get out of line, have to find a partner or be left out’ type of laps. Short track racing at Martinsville, Bristol, South Boston, and dozens of other such places, is exceptional racing – exciting, close, fan pleasing racing. NASCAR does not seem to notice.
At least at tracks such as Atlanta and Pocono, the drivers are able to drive incredibly fast while still being able to compete without being restricted – which should be interpreted by race fans as ‘real racing.’ Now, NASCAR is scrambling to figure out how to make the racing exciting again everywhere, when it is so obvious that it should jump up and bite Brian France – just let them race!
Unfortunately for all concerned – it is too late. A once exciting racing series is swiftly transforming itself back into what it once was – a regional, redneck novelty.
As for the open wheel war - Tony George and his Indy Racing League killed their only opponent, Champ Car. What an incredibly shortsighted and foolish thing that was. Competition breeds excellence; killing off your rival kills your sport. Champ Car and Indy Car were at one time completely different series. Although they were competitors, they ran on different types of venues, appealing to different types of race fans. While Champ Car ran on three types of tracks: ovals, road courses, and street layouts; the IRL ran exclusively on oval tracks.
Although the split and the subsequent entrance of the ‘second’ racing series – the IRL - should never have happened in the first place; they still had the golden opportunity to take their sport to the next level – major league.
Instead, what they did was beat each other to death, and in the process, kill open wheel auto racing as a major sports draw in the US.  Yes, the Indy Cars are still racing, but with severely diminished crowds and nearly non-existent television viewership, it is only a matter of time before the series fades into dusty memory.
And so the Red Flag looms ominously over major league auto racing in the United States. Racing Series that once enjoyed huge crowds; fans that pumped millions of dollars into the pockets of executives, owners, drivers, and their teams; have allowed their sport to funnel down the drain through greed, short sightedness, a complete lack of vision and leadership.

© 2011 LTM

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