Back in April of 2002, at a racing summit held
in Indianapolis, Tony George let it slip that his goal was to
grow the IRL into the biggest, most popular racing series
in the world, bigger than NASCAR Winston Cup and bigger than
At the time everyone just snickered, thinking
there was no way the IRL was going to knock Winston Cup and F1
off their high perch. Since that time however, things
have changed. While NASCAR continues to grow at a
precipitous rate, F1 has fallen on relatively hard times,
having priced itself out of the market so-to-speak.
CART, meanwhile, had been run down to a shadow of its former
self by poor management and boring follow-the-leader racing at
It also became quite evident, from comments
made by the oval track camp (IRL, NASCAR, Penske, George,
France et al) that they were going to work hard to grow their
oval track business. After all, they are all in the same
business, the oval track business, and it behooves them to
work together to grow every aspect of that business. Who
can blame them?
As they say business is business, and sometime
business can be fierce and ruthless. If there is a way
to eliminate your competition, you do. Hence, the
comment from Tony George back in May that he brings his hammer
to work everyday, when asked if he was close to nailing CART's
coffin shut, was really a hint that the largely road racing
series of CART was a competitor that needed to be eliminated
to help the IRL gain market share and whatever sponsors CART
had left. At the time, he was basking in the thought
that his mission was almost accomplished.
Meanwhile, stories began to leak that Honda and
Toyota were headed to Winston Cup. Japanese
manufacturers in NASCAR? Surely this couldn't happen.
Now it appears the stage is set for American companies Dodge,
Ford, Chevy and Pontiac, to go up against Toyota, Honda, and
whoever else. NASCAR has made all their cars identical
sans the paint job and decals, making it easy for any
manufacturer to get into NASCAR. All they need is an
Make no mistake, NASCAR sees the real
possibility that it may have reached market saturation in
the USA. It needs to start expanding outside the borders
of the USA and become an international company. We saw a
Japanese driver for the first time last year, and the pump is
now primed to make NASCAR into a product that can be sold
around the world, and take the IRL along for the ride.
Some have even suggested that the current 3.5
Liter overhead cam IRL engine could replace the carbureted
pushrod engines NASCAR currently uses. Honda, Toyota and
Chevy already make one for the IRL, and Ford was close to
making one as well. Ford decided not to play the game in
the 11th hour last year, instead sticking with CART. If
they had jumped ship, NASCAR (Winston Cup, Busch, and Trucks)
and the IRL would have been poised to share a common engine
platform. Common tracks, common engines, a common racing
philosophy (low-tech, tightly controlled rules, side-by-side
racing in tight packs), and a common fan base. That
strong oval-track product featuring close side-by-side racing,
could and would be sold on the worldwide market.
NASCAR had tried to expand overseas years ago in Japan, but
that experiment was largely a flop because NASCAR was too
American. It wasn't ready for the worldwide market.
But with Honda and Toyota joining the fray, and Mercedes
indirectly through Dodge, with drivers from Japan and Brazil
(Fittipaldi) that stage is being set. The possibility of
getting Frenchman Alain Prost (former F1 champion and former
F1 team owner) to field a Winston Cup team must have the
strategists in Daytona rubbing their hands with delight -
another international component. All the pieces were
falling into place.
I am sure none of this was lost on Chris Pook
and Bernie Ecclestone. Both run road racing series, and I am
sure both could see the threat to their existence that this
mighty oval track cartel poses. It was time to band
together and form a "road racing" cartel to counter the oval
track cartel. Divided and they would eventually fall
victim to the oval track juggernaut, but together they could
strengthen their core product and protect their market share.
Getting back to the rules changes this week by
F1. In order to invite more teams and manufacturers into
F1 and CART, costs had to come down drastically. After
all, the oval track cartel has a cost-effective package, and
any good businessman knows, if your competition is pricing
their product way below yours, they are eventually going to
drive you out of the market.
Hence, the new rules, both in CART and F1, are
meant to take cost and technology as much out of the equation
as possible, and make the driver and pit crews (the athletes) the single most
important element in winning races. And if your
competition is selling close racing, you had better as well.
Looking at the new F1 and CART rules recently imposed, the
road racing powerbrokers
clearly understand the need for total reform.
And if your competition has banded together and
are racing on a common cost-effective engine platform, you had
better as well. Hence why I believe CART must, and will,
adopt an identical 3.0 Liter V-10 engine platform with F1 in
2005 (engines lasting two race weekends in 2005, and six race
weekends in 2006).
With a common engine platform, Bernie, Chris
and Max will instantly make both series more attractive to
engine manufacturers, the lifeblood of any successful big-time
racing series. This will enable any engine manufacturer
who builds an engine for one series, to, with only an
incremental cost increase, participate in both series, thereby
enabling them to race in far more markets where they sell cars
- Europe, NAFTA, Asia and Australia. With costs reduced,
and the potential to reach more markets with about the same
investment, the chances of the F1 engine manufacturers
creating a breakaway series as threatened, is greatly
diminished. And besides, Bernie and Max are too shrewd,
and will cut their legs out from under them should they try.
Between CART and F1, they pretty much will have
the world covered in terms of race markets. By 2005,
both CART and F1 will have expanded their global reach even
further, with new venues in Turkey, China, perhaps Russia, and
perhaps South Korea. With one fell swoop the road racing
cartel will 1) secure road racing's market share, 2)
make their racing affordable and competitive, and 3) head off
any attempts by the oval track cartel from making any
meaningful inroads into markets outside the USA. After
all, oval track racing is really an American thing, road
racing a rest-of-world thing, and the road racing cartel would
like nothing better than to keep it that way.
If you think about it, the strategy developed
by Chris, Bernie and Max behind closed doors over the past six
to nine months is nothing short of genius. While the complete
strategy has yet to play itself out, and while it's possible
my predictions may be wrong, somehow I don't see it coming
down any other way.
One F1 team owner put it best, "at the end of
the day, when all the competitors have played their best hand,
Bernie ALWAYS finds a way to win." And this time
the USA fans come out winners as well. When they hear
the scream of high-revving V-10 engines rushing down Shoreline
drive each April in Long Beach (and other cities) it'll bring
smiles to their faces, and nods of appreciation for Bernie,
Chris and Max.
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