Monday, July 23, 2007

This isn't about the CART/IRL Split

(Below is my story that I published in in August, 2004. Photos by Gary Shook)

This article isn't about the CART - IRL split, nor the latest scuttlebutt over which driver is coming from or going to F1. It's about the wonder of kids who see a big-time auto race for the first time, marveling at the size of the grandstands, the noise of the cars, the smell of the rubber, and the antics of the drunks sitting a few rows down. It's the way that we all fell in love with racing, and the way that someone who cared for us delighted in seeing out eyes light up we got to see our first race car up-close, sharing with us something that they love.

I grew up in the Indianapolis area. Like most kids in my neighborhood, I was infected with Indy fever every month of May. Names like "AJ", "Mario," "Bobby" and "Johnny Lightning" were part of our daily conversation. We all sang the STP jingle, and Andy Granatelli was a household name. Watching nightly news coverage of the action at the track was a springtime family tradition.

Unfortunately, Indy in the late 60's and early 70's wasn't a place to take kids. Drivers regularly died fiery deaths, culminating in the awful 1973 race. Drunks outnumbered the sober. The Snakepit... well, the name speaks for itself. My mother-in-law claims she wore out her binoculars in the '74 race, when streaking was the national fad. The Indy 500 was definitely a place for grownups. Due to the TV blackout, it was a radio-only event for me during my childhood.

But now I'm a grownup. And, for all of its faults, the IRL has done a great job of being family-friendly. Also kid-friendly is Michigan International Speedway, which is just a few miles from my home. Built to accommodate NASCAR crowds of 150,000+, there are tons of unsold MIS seats for IRL races, and ISC is really anxious to fill them. If I couldn't go to the Indy 500 as a kid, perhaps I could take all those kids whose parents can't... or won't... take them to the local IRL race.

It's one thing to say that you're gonna do something, and quite another to do it, especially if you have no clue what you're doing. Memo to those who try this: You're gonna need good help. I got lucky. I'm the president of a Kiwanis Club, and among my members is a staff member of the local YMCA. She is a natural detail person, and is a natural working with kids. I had to convince her that the race would not bore the kids (she'd never been to an open-wheel race either), but my natural charm (and tons of begging) won her over. I owe her big time. Worse yet, she knows it.

Kay (that's the lady at the Y) also knew the kids that we'd take to the race. The kids she deals with come from tough homes. Sometimes mom forgets to cook supper. Many of the kids don't know their father. Kids show up for swim classes without swimsuits 'cause mom can't afford them. Some live at the local shelter for abused women. We took over 60 people (kids and chaperones) to the race. Only two of the chaperones, and none of the kids, had been to any legal auto race, even though three are held each year at MIS.

The request for freebie tickets from Michigan Speedway was the easy part. In fact, their staff people treated me like I was organizing for a major sponsor. I got 100 free tickets, no questions asked, no hassles, no forms to sign, when I explained what I was doing. Members of the press loved the idea, and the local media gave me front-page coverage. The local stores gave me food for the tailgate. The folks at Historical CHAMP / Indy Car Association even offered to let the kids sit inside of one of their cars! Of all of the companies and people that I asked to help me, only one company turned me down. We did the project virtually for free.

The best part of the whole trip, of course, was watching the kids' faces as we walked into the massive track, seeing them jump when the first engine is fired, grabbing their earplugs on the first lap. I watched as youngsters' mental wheels went into overdrive as they sat inside of a 1920's Indy car, asking the function of every lever and gauge. The seeds of a serious race fan, or even a race driver, were planted. Memo to open-wheel race fans: If you want more fans at your races, round up some neighborhood kids and take them with you.

Best of all, I have the warmest feeling in my heart. Between squirt bottle wars I saw moms bond with kids, and big brothers bond with their "littles". I saw kids suddenly find out there was a huge world beyond their own city block. People smiled, and had a great time. Memo to human beings: If you want to feel good about yourself, round up some neighborhood kids, give them some earplugs, and take them to a race.

My next project? There's a local 1/3 mile dirt track.....

Friday, July 20, 2007

And a NASCAR Race Broke Out?

Ashley Judd, laughing at the idea of going with Marco to his senior prom
Picture of Ashley Judd, probably laughing at Marco's suggestion that she could go to the prom with him. Neither Ashley nor Marco work for me, read this blog, or even like me. Copyright, 2007, Tim Wohlford

The common joke, of course, is that "I went to a fight and hockey game broke out."

It seems as though two of the three of the IRL's best promotional events involve hockey games breaking out after a race -- AJ swinging at Arie Luyendyk after a race in 1997 (Foyt was right), and lately between Sam Hornish's father and some friend of the Andretti Family at Watkins Glen. (The third, of course, is anything that Ashley Judd does, especially if it involves rain-soaked cotton). I've met lots of PR types in the garages of NASCAR, IRL and CART, and I'm pretty sure that this isn't what they had in mind to promote the sport, but like hockey, either the fights must be stopped or more grandstands must be built.

Today, I was driving in traffic on I-94. It was fast-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic, the kind that makes one pretend that they're driving Talladega, if for no other reason that to break up the boredom.

Well, boredom wasn't an issue today -- I looked over, and saw a driver and his female companion engaged in a remake of "Debbie Does Dallas." Even more incredibly, the lady was unclothed, at least on the top half. She was, uh, well endowed by her creator.

Mind you, this is the kind of thing we used to see in the infield of a good NASCAR race. In the good old days, I think that ESPN would employ interns to look for such exhibits of the human body, and the ESPN techs were treated to video of infield life during commercials and after the end of the race.

If I had trouble paying attention to Interstate traffic, it makes it all the more amazing that drivers could pay attention to their race while women danced au natural on top of old school buses. David Pearson, I salute you!

Death of a Great Auto Race

(This is a copy of an article I published in on July 17, with some later additions).

The YouTube videos don't lie – they tell you everything you need to know about open-wheel racing at Michigan International Speedway.

Unlike Indy, every fan could see ever part of the racing surface. The finishes at MIS were always breath-taking, especially after the Hanford device was introduced. CART once counted 62 official lead changes, but the unofficial number must've been 3 times that. The videos of the IRL race show more of the same – more close, entertaining races, with lots of lead changes and drama, often with drivers and teams that raced during the CART days, all with Indy 500 experience.

How does a magnificent facility like Michigan, whose Indy car races literally rivaled the Indy 500, find itself without an Indy car race for 2008? How does a track that is literally in the back yard of Doug Shierson, Pat Patrick, Lewis A. Welch (the Novi), Gordon Johncock, Scott Brayton, 3 IRL drivers and the American auto industry go silent? How does a track that hosted 56 open-wheel races since 1968 end up with a crowd so small that pundits joked that Team Penske's hospitality tent could've fed 'em all? How does a track, whose open-wheel races once prompted Roger Penske to build an empire of auto racing tracks, end up calling the IRL offices to make a “Dear John” phone call?

Living in the shadow of Michigan Speedway, I've spent considerable time over the past few years trying to understand the decline of Indy car racing at MIS. While open-wheel fans might argue this issue over several Molsen or Tecate beers, here is my take on what happened.

According to former CART PR guru Michael Knight, the CART Board of Directors was concerned about the safety of running Indy cars for 500 miles when Roger Penske first proposed the idea. “There was concern if the drivers and cars would hold-up for 500 miles at those speeds on the banking,” Knight commented. “Wally Dallenbach (Sr.) was the chief steward and, after thinking about it for several minutes, said he thought it could be done. The Board approved and we all went to work.”

Sadly, the safety issues never went away during the CART years. Before the Hanford devices were implemented, Michigan became the fasted oval race anywhere in the world. Al Unser Jr. averaged 189.727 mph in the 1990 Marlboro 500, which is still the fastest 500 race ever run at MIS. In 1996, radar clocked Paul Tracy at 256.948 mph during a practice session. In 1997, Richie Hearn was clocked at 249.018. Even after the Hanford device was installed, Paul Tracy qualified at 234.949 in 2000, which is still a track record.

While no drivers have been killed at a MIS open-wheel event, many drivers expressed grave reservations about racing at such speeds during the CART years, and few drivers looked forward to racing at MIS. Crashes at MIS ended the careers of Chip Ganassi, Emerson Fittapaldi, Hector Rebaque and Danny Sullivan, and injured Derek Daly, AJ Foyt, Al Unser Jr, Gordon Johncock, Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal (to name a few). Michael Andretti and Nigel Mansell both complained publicly about the high speeds; ironically, both won in the years that they complained the loudest. Crashes from mechanical failure due to the high G-forces, or because of the Hanford device's air turbulence, almost always resulted in a written-off race car.

In 1998, a tire from a crash was punted over the fence into the grandstands. Three spectators were killed, and several more required hospitalization. Two of those killed were decapitated, and the carnage was visible to most in the grandstand. All of those killed and injured lived within an hour's drive of the track.

The video tape of 1998's race shows a packed grandstands, but the 1999 video shows a large number of empty seats. Corporations that previously promoted the race, and gave out large numbers of tickets to its employees, dropped their support after the tragedy. By 2001, the ARCA (single-A stock car league) event the day before the CART race drew a larger crowd.

Both CART and IRL were guilty of over-saturation. CART used to race at Indy, Cleveland, Mid-Ohio, Elkhart Lake, Detroit, Chicago, and Toronto – all within a half-day's drive of MIS – and often within days of one another. The IRL's schedule is much the same.

Worse yet, there are two NASCAR events at MIS, plus one each at Indy and Chicago. At the birth of the Brickyard 400, some Indy car fans that attended the MIS event changed their travel plans, as the MIS Indy race and the Brickyard 400 event were held within days of each other.

Inevitably, the attendance at the Indy events is compared to the NASCAR events. To be clear, aside from the first US 500, Michigan's Indy race was usually a 50,000 person event before 1998, as were most Indy car races aside from the Indy 500. As the NASCAR tracks built the grandstands to accommodate the NASCAR crowds at Michigan (now 135,000 seats), the CART and IRL crowds looked increasingly small, and the crowds less enthusiastic.

The bottom line is that in 2007, there were 27 major motorsports events (Cup, IRL, CCWS, F1 and NHRA) within a day's drive of MIS, representing an excess of 2 million seats. The IRL has a total of 10 races alone, with over 660,000 seats.

Obviously, everyone involved points to the 1996 split as a major factor in the decline of open-wheel racing. Derek Daly commented, “The reason there is no Indy race at MIS next year is that no one cares. No one cares about the IRL anymore. I'm worried about the next generation – forget about this generation, they've been passed over. Not having a race at Michigan is just confirmation. It's very obvious what needs to be done – I just wish that someone would get it done.” Daly commented that it would take 5 to 8 years to rebuild Indy racing, if it can be rebuilt at all.

There is enough stupidity in the Indy divorce to go around, but some on the CART side bears mentioning. In 1996, CART decided to hold the US 500 opposite the Indy 500, engaging in a pissing match that neither side won. Knight comments: “I remember telling Pat Patrick, Chip Ganassi, Derrick Walker, Carl Haas, Steve Horne and others -- including Andrew Craig -- that if they were going to take on an American institution then they better make a five-year commitment to it and be prepared to approve a budget for an all-out promotional and marketing effort. They were not going to accomplish their goal with a one-time event. That wasn't done and Craig's attitude was extremely arrogant and he was going to 'show' Tony George. The race was close to being sold out but CART never ran directly opposite Indy again.”

Actually, many of the fans in attendance were there due to their employer's wishes. Toyota, for instance, highly encouraged (“ordered”) its employees to attend, even providing expense money for the trip. A true measure of the amount of propping up by corporate sponsors is seen by the crowds that remained after the 1998 tragedy.

When the IRL took over in 2002, MIS played a large part in their oval racing plans. According to an MIS staffer, the IRL race was a profitable venture, and showed some growth in attendance in the past few years. However, with the resurrection of the Belle Isle race, MIS became less important. In 2006, ABC notified the Indy people that it would like to move the Brickyard 400 to the traditional MIS Indy date. Already committed to a Mid Ohio race, Indy begged MIS to host them a mere 2 weeks before the August NASCAR race. MIS agreed, with the promise was a 2008 date that would return to the traditional July date. By the time that this date was announced, MIS had already mailed season ticket request forms, and the irritation factor at MIS was considerable.

Sadly, the IRL asked MIS for the same arrangement in 2008, refusing MIS's offer of other dates. Worse yet, the IRL turned down the MIS request for a return to a twin-200 event, which local promoters thought would create some buzz around the event. Rebuffed at every turn, MIS called up the IRL offices, and told them that the relationship was over. After a run of 39 years, the marriage was heading for divorce. “We're just starting over clean” one MIS official told me.
Sadly, the IRL was caught off guard. John Griffin, VP of Public Relations at the IRL, commented: “Today’s announcement itself was a surprise to us although we felt that as late as this weekend we were at an impasse. Putting a schedule together is never as easy as it looks... the league and speedway were at an impasse over a date that worked for both sides. That said, our major concern over the twins (twin 200-mile races) was teams having the ability to race in both in case of an incident.” Ironically, this followed by a few days the decision by Tony George to dump F1 due to the same sense of frustration that MIS felt in this case.

So where does this leave us?
Cats is no longer on Broadway. Miss Kitty no longer flirts with Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke. And now, Michigan International Speedway has dropped its open-wheel race, an event that dates back to 1968. Once a part of the “Triple Crown” of CART racing, once the home of the fastest auto racing in the world, once the home of the US 500, the only track that rivaled Indy, it now joins the ranks of NASCAR-only tracks as open-wheel racing continues to fall into obscurity.

It also means that, aside from Indy, there are no 2- or 2.5-mile tracks on next year's IRL schedule.

Worse yet, the cruel truth is that MIS dumped the IRL after the IRL ran off with not only one, but three “other women” -- a NASCAR event at Indy, plus road races at Belle Isle and Mid Ohio. The pain of losing ground to NASCAR is obvious, but to lose an prime oval race to the very road races that the IRL said that it hated in 1996, the kind of races that made CART's cars unusable at places like MIS, is stunning. Again, Michael Knight summed it up best: “I'm sure the news of no-more-MIS will leave those fans who bought into Tony George's original concept for the IRL, which was to protect the Indy series' oval-track heritage, with an increased sense of disenfranchisement. I don't blame them.”