Over the last seven years a lot has been made about cutting costs
in CART and the IRL, yet the two most expensive racing series in the world, F1 and
NASCAR, have grown in leaps and bounds throughout that period, and even during the
recession. Meanwhile, the cost cutting IRL and CART series, now "dumbed
down" and lower cost, have become a mere shadow of what Indy Car racing once was
As the old saying goes, people always want what they can't have.
NASCAR and F1 are so expensive, so elite, it is that much harder to achieve success at that
level. Money brings better everything. Owning a team in F1 or NASCAR, or better yet driving one of
the cars, isn't for your everyday Joe on the street, unless they are
having a Walter Mitty kind of day.
When CART was an expensive series (In the 90's), it was at its peak, but now, due to the CART/IRL split, and the low-cost
model the IRL has brought to the table, CART has had to dumb down and
cheapen its product to just stay in business. As a result, CART finds itself
limping along, dogged by fan apathy and the loss of some major sponsors
Open Wheel race cars are not meant to be dumbed down low-cost
"stock cars." The open wheel USAC/IndyCar/CART series always represented the
most sophisticated machines American ingenuity could design and race. The
Indy 500 was about the Novi's, the Turbine Car, the Lotus', the McLarens, the
Penske/Mercedes special pushrod motor. The mystique and the magic is gone,
and with it the fans.
And because of the split, neither the IRL nor CART can afford to
raise the ante and become more elite. There simply isn't enough money to support
two series at that level.....or is there?
With the talk of CART being bought out, what can be done to
get American race fans interested again? Does open wheel racing have a
chance to survive against the onslaught of NASCAR, or is it doomed to extinction
in the USA?
Drastic times require drastic measures. It's time for CART to
completely reinvent itself. To totally separate itself from the
confusion over the IRL, CART should have an image closer to F1, even if it's not
really under the covers. Think glamour - sexy cars, sexy women....sex sells.
No other series delivers that in America, as the dumbed down "stock car" mentality
has become pervasive. It might work for stock cars, but it doesn't work for
open wheel cars.
Once CART is taken private, and let's assume for argument sake it's Bernie
Ecclestone behind the deal, what needs to be done to clearly differentiate CART in
the USA motorsports arena? Here's some simple suggestions, many of which
have been discussed on these pages before, but now compiled into one document for
1. About that sound - they gotta scream - There are many
ways CART can differentiate itself in the crowded USA motorsports marketplace.
Let's start with sound, because more than anything, sound is what you sense first,
even before you get through the gates of the race track.
I had not been to a F1 race in a few
years. Recently while in Italy I stopped by the famous Monza circuit just to
have a look around. As I pulled up to the gate to pay my entry fee the
attendant said, in broken English, "you hear the Ferrari, today is your lucky day,
Ferrari is here testing today." Once inside, I decided to stand up in the main
grandstand for awhile and just watch, and listen along with the 50 or so
odd Italian race fans in attendance. Suddenly the Ferrari F1
car fired up and pulled out of the garage and onto pit lane.
Felipe Massa was testing that day. When Massa reached the end
of pit lane he lit up the rear tires and screamed down into the first turn.
The sound of the engine ran chills down my spine and each lap the car passed the
grandstand my smile grew wider. Sure a Champ Car sounds good, but man there
is nothing, and I do mean nothing, that compares to the scream of a F1 engine.
I recently wrote that a turbo is the best engine formula, and it
may be, but oh the sound of that Ferrari. And a V-10 normally
aspirated engine will be more responsive on CART's tight street circuits.
So if Chris Pook is hell bent on V-10 F1-like engines, bring them on, but at
13,000 RPM (CART's current planned rev limit) one has to wonder if they will
REALLY scream. They had better. And if they don't, then CART should
start thinking about slightly more RPM.
2. The cars - they gotta look sleek and nimble - The 2nd way
we sense racing is by eyesight. What you see has to be pleasing to look at.
Along with new engines, CART is due for new cars in 2005. About 200 pounds
should be taken out of the existing cars that are 400+ pounds heavier than a F1
car. Taking 200 pounds out means they will still be slower than a F1 car,
but at least they will be fast enough to teach would-be F1 drivers what fast
reflexes they will need in F1. And reduce the width/track a little to make
passing in tight confines a bit easier. If they are going to use airboxes to
force-feed air into a normally aspirated engine, CART is going to have to ensure
they are sleek like a F1 airbox, and not some awkward behemoth of an airbox the
IRL uses. Stock Cars are big and awkward, and if the IRL wants to try that
awkward look for open wheel cars, more power to them.
The starts - they gotta be standing - Continuing with the sight and
sound theme for a moment, the start of the race is important, and CART can be
unique to the USA in this regard. I have harped about standing starts in
CART for years. Last Sunday's three false starts at Portland were downright
unprofessional and embarrassing for CART. With the new 2005 engines should
come onboard starters and standing starts. Ever see a standing start?
They' sound and look spectacular, and it would separate CART from any other form of USA racing,
and that is key. Just one more thing to help CART define its place in the
world. And if CART is going to be a key training ground for F1, then its
drivers had better be accustomed to standing starts.
4. What you call it - its gotta sound right - What you call
a racing series is important. CART doesn't cut it. Is it a
go-kart or a shopping cart many people wonder? I vote for North American F1
or The American Grand Prix Series. Both names are associated with F1.
More importantly, it once and for all segregates CART from the IRL and the Indy
500. They are to oval racing what CART must be to road racing in the USA.
But CART must sound, feel and look completely different. No more fan
confusion with the IRL. I'm sure the IRL would welcome the distinction as
well, CART=Grand Prix Road Racing, IRL=Oval Racing. Got it? One last
point here, if CART must also race on ovals as it does now, CART will be hard
pressed to take 200 pounds out of the cars as suggested above. A lot of
material does into protecting the driver when he slams the unforgiving concrete
walls, and the suspension pieces must be beefier to withstands the g-loads on a
banked high-speed track. Flat ovals such as Milwaukee, the Rio roval, and
EuroSpeedway would probably be OK.
5. It's the drivers, stupid - Sure a screaming F1 engine
sounds great, but until the drivers become household names like NASCAR drivers in
the USA and F1 drivers in Europe, CART won't reach its full potential. Think about how
popular Ayrton Senna was. Jim Clark. Mario Andretti. Nigel
Mansell. Gilles Villeneuve. Open wheel racing in the USA so badly needs a
Dale Earnhardt-like super hero, another Ayrton Senna. Fans worship their
heroes. Heroes do heroic things, but the sanctioning body needs to pick up
on those moments and use them to grow super heroes.
6. It's also the TV, stupid - SPEED Channel is nice, but
there CART is practically invisible. What good is it if the cars sound good,
and look good, if you can't watch them? CART needs a complete overhaul of
its domestic and international TV package and I hear that will be announced soon.
7. And....It's a team sport, stupid - At first I thought
Bernie was wrong, but who was I to question the man! Bernie insists that all
team cars be painted identical so they actually look like teammates. Do all
the NY Yankees wear different uniforms on the field? CART should insist that
all team cars look like the Players team - identical. And what if the team
has two sponsors, one for each car? Then hire a graphic artists to design a
paint scheme that works for both primary sponsors and put both names on both cars.
Then if one car wins, both sponsors benefit, i.e. you double their chance of
winning. Some sponsors might prefer a car all unto themselves, but they must
be reminded this is a team sport and their double chance to win.
8. Low-cost, but high-tech and close racing - Clearly,
one-engine manufacturer series is not sustainable. The CART paddock is cash poor
because it's down to just Ford, and Ford is in no position to pump a lot of money
into the series. Lets assume Bernie Ecclestone and Chris Pook don't have V-10 engine
manufacturers waiting in the wings. What's Plan B?
How can CART keep costs reasonable, yet the cars high-tech and
allow multiple manufacturers to play? Standardize, standardize, standardize
- the engines, the transmissions, and perhaps even the cars. Removing the
stiff competition allows any manufacturer to make the components "higher-tech"
while maintaining costs, because although profit margins may be low per unit, they
make up for it by supplying the entire field (i.e. in volume). And with
standardized equipment, the racing will be fierce. It will come down to the
best driver and and the best team on any given day, and isn't that what it's all
about in the end? NASCAR has done exactly this with its body templates -
everyone is equal now. At first the naysayers complained, but now all that's
forgotten and the fans are focused on the racing, which is where it should be.
There are many car manufacturers who do not have the ability to
design a race engine like Cosworth does, but see value in a marketing/racing
platform. If CART hires Cosworth to build all the engines, CART can sell
them to car companies who want to put their name on a portion of them, for a
tolling fee. CART needs manufacturer money, and it needs it fast
Nothing lost and everything to gain by luring them in on the cheap. Maybe a
Mercedes has too much pride to badge someone else's engine, but clearly Chevy does
not, as witnessed by the recent IRL activity. What other companies would do
the same? I'm willing to bet many.
CART engines should have
a standard ECM, which means no traction control, no launch control, and all those
other expensive systems. It's important the rear of the car be kept as light
as possible or else you end up with a car that is hard to save once it gets loose
(think IRL cars where rear-first crashes into the wall are common.)
Light usually means lightweight expensive materials, and to a certain extent that
is true. However, if CART were to have a standard CART transmission
manufactured by one supplier, than money saved in volume can be plowed back in so
lighter weight materials can be used.
Ditto for the engine, if they use our standard CART engine concept,
badged by numerous engine manufacturers, then light weight heads and blocks can be
used without exorbitant costs.
Since they would have no engine to design and test, any company can jump in
quickly. CART would have 6 months to get as many signed up as possible, with a max
of say 5 (5 companies, 6 cars max each, 30 cars max). By the end of this year,
they would take whichever companies signed up, and let them choose their teams for
The trick will be how to divide up which company gets which existing team. I would
do it like a Football draft. Pick from a hat to see who goes 1st, 2nd etc, and let
each company choose a team in the first round, then reversing the order in round
two, and again in round three.
Each team would be a 2-car team, if they are not already, with factory support in
all the non-engine areas – chassis dynamics, sponsor hunts, aerodynamics,
marketing, making TV ads, hiring team personnel, etc. Each manufacturer could have
up to three 2-car teams if CART gets 5 manufacturers, or four 2-car teams each if they
get fewer companies.
This entire concept gives CART full control of the engines, which is what they
want, but gives the manufacturers enough flexibility to feel like they have enough
input into their teams to say they “won” a race. Who says an engine manufacturer
has to supply just the engine? Look at F1 where many are involved in all
aspects of the team.
I will go out on a limb and make a prediction that at some point (5 years perhaps)
CART will have so many manufacturers wanting to get in on this “fair” and
inexpensive way to go
racing, that CART could end up with 14 companies, each with a single 2-car team.
Wouldn’t that be wild?!?! It would be like baseball or football whereby each city
has only one team (well almost….).
If CART were to adopt all of the above, it would very much look,
sound, and act like an American "F1" series.....but on the cheap, and that's
exactly the point.
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