Friday, July 20, 2007

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.”


Jeff said...

Well written and well said!

Tony George's words burned to my soul when he declared that if you don't play by my rules, you can't run at Indy. He then put into place his own agenda, claiming that the IRL was to return to oval racing only. It was also understood that no foreign drivers would be permitted to race in the IRL, at least that was my understanding. He also blackballed the use of turbochargers in an attempt, he claimed, to even out the playing field.

Now that over a decade has passed, the IRL is chock full of foreign drivers, road courses will outnumber ovals by next year, and turbochargers will soon return.

The fact that the IRL absorbed Champ Cars was supposed to be a good thing. But how this 'marriage' is being handled makes as much sense as the formation of the IRL. Omitting MIS from the race schedule is a perfect example.

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