The hidden costs of Indy Car racing

 by Mark Cipolloni
April 24, 2002

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The IRL was created to be a lower cost alternative to CART, it's more sophisticated, higher tech, sister Indy Car series so-to-speak.  In this article we take a look at the hidden cost to race in the IRL, and why CART may actually be cheaper.

To their credit, the Indy Racing League has been able to somewhat reduce the upfront costs to teams by placing price caps on just about everything, from the chassis, to the engine to the gearbox.  And while that may work for awhile, I learned a long time ago, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Stan Fox's career was all but ended in this 1995 Indy 500 accident.
Photo Credit: Ron McQueeney/IMS

The car manufacturers in the IRL can hardly make a profit with costs capped, but they more than make up for it in volume sales of replacement parts, which I address later.  The IRL wants to limit the series to three manufacturers, tops.  Any more than that and they all go bankrupt for lack of volume that makes up for losses imposed by cost caps.

CART engine leases are expensive, no question about it.  However, that's if you are paying for them.  A lot of CART Champ Car teams get free engines, paid for by the manufacturers.  These teams are going to be in for a rude awakening in 2003 when all of a sudden they have to pay for engines, with prices in the IRL range.

What you get with your CART engine is not only rebuilds, but two dedicated engineers per team to support that engine.

In the chassis area, the cost for an IRL car is about 2/3 that of a CART Champ Car.  The IRL transmissions are probably half as a much as a Champ Car transmission, but they don't have to stand up to the abuse a road or street circuit gives it.  In addition, the CART version doesn't hang out the back of the car like an IRL transmission does, acting as a battering ram that transmits load into the drivers spine when a car backs into a wall.  Ever wonder why so many IRL drivers break their back?  Again, no free lunch.

Hidden Equipment Costs

Billy Foster triggered this big wreck in the 1966 Indy 500.  Even the NASCAR oval series has it's "Big Ones" on a regular basis
Photo Credit: Ron McQueeney/IMS

The story that is not being told, but is about to now, is the hidden cost of competing in the IRL, costs that are driving many a team to bankruptcy.

The IRL touts the close racing they put on, and no doubt the show is usually entertaining.  However, while 'pack' racing may work in NASCAR, which has cars with fenders conducive to rubbing and banging, in open wheel racing, bunched up cars eventually lead to disaster.  One touch of rubber-to-rubber, and that's all she wrote, the cars are into the wall.

We have seen so much equipment destroyed in the IRL over the years, we can't begin to add up the numbers, but it's astronomical.  When you hit a concrete wall at the speeds the cars are running on an oval, the damage is bound to be major.  While this applies equally as well to CART's oval races, CART has very few oval races on their schedule, whereas the IRL is 100% ovals.

On a road or street circuit, an accident usually is confined to the suspension and/or wings.  Once in awhile the accident is major, but the nature of a road course is plenty of runoff area, and the speed on a street circuit is low enough to prevent terminal tub damage.

The average cost to fix a car after an oval track accident is high, very high, in comparison to the average road course accident, given the same car.  Accordia, the insurance company that insures a lot of the CART and IRL teams, charges higher rates for the all-oval IRL series because the chances a team will collect are much higher.

When you add together the initial cash outlay to purchase an IRL car, and the costs of extensive repairs (most teams can't afford to pay the insurance premiums) needed after your crashes for the year, is the cost to race in the IRL really less?

Human Costs

Robbie McGehee survived a big wreck last June at Texas.
Photo Credit: Ron McQueeney/IMS

But there's more than just equipment costs.  What about the drivers?  And I am not just talking about the cost to repair their broken bones, but also about the career-ending injuries that cost a driver his livelihood.  If you're lucky, you may just miss a race or two.  Many drivers are walking wounded, living with pain the rest of their lives.

While it's true CART drivers have been injured or even killed on road courses, the frequency is much less.  On top of that, there's more room on a road course to make safety changes.  You can even add a chicane to slow the cars in unsafe areas.

And while it's true that racing great Ayrton Senna lost his life on a road course, it was an impact with, you guessed it, a concrete wall, that killed him.  Ditto for Gonzalo Rodriguez at Laguna Seca.  Jeff Krosnoff was killed on the streets of Toronto, but there was no reason for that had the safety fence atop the barrier been constructed properly and the tree not been exposed.  That hazard was quickly removed the following year. Can't say that about an oval track concrete wall.....at least not yet, until hopefully soft walls become the norm.

Many F1 drivers refuse to race on ovals.  They are openly outspoken about the risk versus the reward.  In some drivers meetings on particularly high speed ovals on both the CART and IRL circuit, you can cut the air with a knife there's so much tension in the room.

The wreck this past weekend between Tomas Scheckter and Jaques Lazier at Nazareth didn't look particularly frightening, but both drivers ended up in the hospital and Lazier was just the latest in a long line of broken backs in the IRL.  And what about Eliseo Salazar's life-threatening injury or Robbie Buhl's head injury this year?  Donnie Beechler has been knocked on the head too many times and has retired. Robbie Buhl, of course, also suffered a neck, back or skull fracture a couple of years ago, as did Sunday's winner Scott Sharp. Then there was Davey Hamilton last year; Sam Schmidt and Davey Jones a couple of years ago. There were a whole host of injuries in the IRL back in 1997 and 1998.

This is serious business folks, and the pattern is all too common.  We all should be concerned.

The intangible cost

With a high turnover of drivers due to injury, it's hard to develop the staying power necessary for fans to latch onto a driver and get behind them.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  How do you put a price tag on that loss, or shall we say cost?  Making matters worse, many times a driver brings a sponsor to a team in the IRL.  Therefore, if they are out due to injury, their sponsor may be out too, making it hard on the team to develop and maintain staff long-term.


When you add the publicized capped purchases costs, to the hidden costs of racing on 100% ovals, one has to question which is really cheaper, and can you put a price on driver injury?  I don't know about you, but I can't.

Racing has never been safe, and it will never be 100% safe.  That's just the nature of the sport we all love.  However, at the end of the day, a team owner has to decide what series makes the most economic sense to them, and the drivers have to weigh the risks vs. reward and decide what type of racing they want to do.  They are after all, the Gladiators of the modern era.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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