Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Short Sightedness of Tony George

Photo courtesy  Thilo Parg [CC BY-SA 3.0*     
While watching part of the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Glen back in September, I was reminded of the short sightedness of Tony George. George's IndyCar Series is now the only allegedly 'major league' open wheel series left in the US, after he killed Champ Car. The problem with IndyCar, is that it is slowly dying, soon to be buried along with its former rival. Healthy competition can breed excellence, while a lack of it can cause the unchallenged to get lazy.

George is the grandson of the great Tony Hulman, the man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 beginning in the 1940's. George became CEO, President, and later, Chairman of the famous American venue.

Once upon a time, CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams, later called Champ Car, then CART again, and then the Champ Car World Series), was a premier open wheel racing organization. It was second only to Formula One in terms of talented drivers, quality venues, and outstanding racing. Then George formed the Indy Racing League (now the IndyCar Series). For most fans, this was bliss, with four major racing series to enjoy (along with Formula One, and NASCAR's top level, now known as the Sprint Cup Series).

Back in the mid to late 1990's, I spent a lot of time watching the 'Big Four'. It was the best of all worlds of big time racing, as each had its own niche. As fans, we enjoyed watching different types of racing cars on large and small ovals (from Talladega and Michigan, to the Milwaukee Mile and Martinsville). We saw strange but interesting ovals (like the fascinating Nazareth Speedway), and road and street courses (Monaco, Spa, Long Beach, Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, and more).

Although it seemed there was room enough for everyone to operate without stepping on each other, by the late 1990's, it appeared that George felt the world was too small for two American open wheel organizations. He pretty much declared war on Champ Car. Although it was obvious to most observers that both series could operate without interfering with the other, George threw a wrench into the works. He was okay with NASCAR, which began in 1994 racing once a year at his beloved IMS. George was still trying to woo Bernie Ecclestone and his Formula One organization, but George didn't like Champ Car.

He didn't like it so much that he wanted Champ Car dead.

It started small, but fairly soon, Champ Car began bleeding drivers and then teams to George's IRS. It was only a matter of time before the old series breathed its last breath, surely to the delight of George. When it finally happened, we can only guess at his celebration: the king is dead – long live the king.

A few years later, the IRL began adding more tracks their schedule. Yup, you guessed it – road and street courses. It was a sharp veer away from the idea they started with, exclusively running on ovals. George started the IRS because he thought open wheel cars belonged only on ovals (there were other reasons, not important for this discussion). Then he killed the rival that ran primarily on road and street tracks, and added several of the tracks he professed to not like. It was reasonably good proof that his intention all along was simply to control everything in American open wheel racing.

George built a road course at Indy, using part of the famous oval, along with the infield area. He convinced F1's Ecclestone to bring his cars and drivers back in 2000 to resume the U.S. Grand Prix after a nine-year hiatus. Unfortunately, it didn't last.  George couldn't figure out how to play nice with Ecclestone, so Bernie told Tony to stuff it. The U.S. Grand Prix at Indy ended after the 2007 race, and no U.S.  Formula One race took place until 2012. Bernie took his F1 teams and bolted Indy for a brand new purpose built road course outside of Austin, Texas.

Fast forward to 2016, and for some observers (including this writer), it's a bit of a shock that the IndyCar Series is still alive. While the Champ Car concept continues to roll over in its grave, the ICS suffers declining attendance and television viewership. George's league is relegated to the nether regions of TV channels, available only to those with certain cable packages. They do make commercials, however, those commercials only appear during IndyCar events and only on the channel on which the race is being run. I don't know what genius decided it was a great idea to advertise IndyCar races only on a broadcast watched by people who already know about it, but such an approach is obviously an exercise in futility.

Simply stated: if I'm watching an IndyCar race on television, I do not need to be reminded that there is a racing series called IndyCar. I pretty much already know about it and probably watch most of the races anyway (I used to – not so much anymore). Doesn't it seem logical that to attract new fans, one must advertise in places where such prospective new fans may be watching? Such as during a baseball game, or other sports event?

Although I don't pay much attention to racing any more, I watched the Watkins Glen race because it is such a great venue. Formula One ran there for years, and NASCAR still does. In 1992, I attended a NASCAR race at the Glen with a buddy. It was Richard Petty's final year, and his son Kyle won that day in the Mello Yello Pontiac. It is one of the world's best road courses.

Unfortunately, watching this year's IndyCar at the Glen event left me shaking my head. Long ago, race fans filled every possible seat and RV's and campers took over the infield. Now, the TV cameras showed vast expanses of empty stands. I kept thinking how open wheel racing once thrived in the U.S., and how badly it degenerated after the Champ Car murder. IndyCar may have gotten away with the crime, however, it is now deep into a slow, painful terminal illness.

Formula One still holds a U.S. Grand Prix every year, now at the Circuit of the Americas, near Austin, Texas. It's not the same though. Americans have never really warmed to or understood F1's odd brand of racing. Meanwhile, IndyCar continues to race, in virtual anonymity with the vultures circling ominously overhead. It's not that IndyCar racing isn't fun to watch. The American series is more competitive than F1, with teams on more equal footing, leading to passing and actual racing (as opposed to the F1 model, where the richest teams field the best cars, and the poor teams have no hope of winning.)

The problem is that the ICS has never made enough of an effort to market their product, and so have created little or no interest. When George killed Champ Car, he killed what should have been great competition between the two entities – competition that should have made both organizations great. The result was the IndyCar Series got lazy, apparently assuming they would thrive with no one to challenge them.

What once was the roar of engines is now the unmistakable sound of the death rattle. American open wheel racing is spiraling towards death, thanks to the shortsightedness of Tony George.

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* Photo courtesy Thilo Parg [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

If you want to read more about Indy Car/Champ Car war and Formula One, try my e-book, A Sports Junkie.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.

He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.

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