Editorial

That sucking sound you hear is NASCAR
 
by Mark Cipolloni

 February 27, 2005

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That sucking sound you hear is NASCAR

After fighting off Tony George in bankruptcy court, the fact that Champ Car had a 2004 season at all was a story in itself. But that doesn't mean Champ Car is out of the woods yet.  Most forms of racing in the USA are barely keeping their head above water because of the juggernaut called NASCAR.  That sucking sound they hear whistling past their ear isn't a 4-barrel Holley Carburetor, it's the NASCAR vacuum consuming sponsor dollars at an alarming rate.

Fresh off settling an out of court antitrust lawsuit by SMI stockholder Ferko claiming that by owning NASCAR as well as race tracks, the France family was acting like a monopoly by favoring race dates for its tracks over others, charges of antitrust still loom over NASCAR's head.

One can argue that NASCAR didn't become a monopoly because of underhanded business dealings, but because 1) It's a well-oiled, well-run business that understands its customers.  2) Indy Car Racing used to be #1 in the USA.  Not anymore.  The destruction of Indy Car Racing by Tony George when he created the IRL and split the sport has just made NASCAR's rise to the top that much easier. 

Did the Frances support Tony when he wanted to create the IRL?  You bet they did.  In 1994 NASCAR came to Indy Car's holy grail, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a year later Tony George announced the formation of the IRL just when CART was at its peak. It also led to a partnership between the Hulman-George family and the Frances (ISC) on new superspeedway tracks in Kansas and Chicago.  Together they formed a term we coined the 'oval-track cartel.'

The IRL would race on many of the traditional NASCAR tracks with the hope of developing the IRL into the NASCAR of open wheel racing - close, artificially contrived side-by-side racing.  It was thought the NASCAR fans would fall in love with the IRL too and the Frances and Tony would have another avenue to make fistfuls of money.  And more importantly, Tony George would become the Bill France of Indy Car Racing.

Nice idea, but as we all know, it failed miserably.....at least for Tony George it did.  His dreams of making the IRL the biggest most successful racing series in the world have crashed and burned right along with the IRL's plummeting TV ratings and miniscule paid race attendance.  The split caused a bitter war within the open wheel ranks that still festers today.

The end result was that the IRL opened up a gaping hole in the middle line of open wheel racing and NASCAR raced to the winning touchdown unabated.  The France family couldn't have come up with a better divide-and-conquer strategy if they tried.  Tony George handed them the keys to the palace on a silver tray.

With huge TV ratings and sponsors clamoring to get on the quarter panel of every NASCAR Cup car and driver uniform, how do the others survive when they are fractured and watered-down? Indy Car Racing remains divided between the IRL and Champ Car, Sports Car Racing is divided between ALMS and Grand-Am, and Drag Racing is divided between the NHRA and IHRA.

TV ratings for all other forms of motorsports in the USA are so low, most are now time-buys and what sponsors they did have are drawn to NASCAR's popularity.

To satisfy NASCAR's appetite for increasing amounts of money the France family has begun to tap sponsors in non-racing sports and it's looking to expand the sport globally.

Can Champ Car and others survive?
Champ Car team owners strategy of testing a whole slew of drivers in the off-season with the hope that one of them will come up with the sponsorship to field one of their cars for 2005 isn't bearing much fruit. Jaroslav Janis is the latest driver to opt out of Champ Car.  He made his International F3000 debut with Nordic midway through 2001, and returned to that championship in 2003 with PSM after finishing third in Euro3000 in 2002. Last year he raced in the DTM. The drivers were announced in a press conference in Janis' native Czech Republic.

Being run on a shoestring budget at the moment, Champ Car is doing almost zero promotion of its series, hence is largely invisible to not only the American public, but especially the European media and European sponsors. Hence, the series is finding it difficult to land a title sponsor and teams are finding it difficult to land primary/title sponsors, both from the USA and abroad.

Collectively NASCAR and F1 sponsors spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to promote their drivers, teams and F1. NASCAR itself spends over $1/4 billion a year of promotion/advertising of its series. In contrast, Champ Car spends as close to zero as it can to just keep the series afloat, hence finding sponsorship has been difficult for all.

This is of course a case of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Champ Car needs to spend money, and a lot of it, to get the world to realize it exists and emerge from the dark shadows of NASCAR.  That will in turn get the attention of other sponsors who will enter the series. Success breeds success.

Where that injection of cash will come from to kick-start a major Champ Car promotional effort remains to be seen. To date, its two primary sponsors - Ford and Bridgestone, have done the bare minimum in their promotion of their product around Champ Car. Whereas sister company Firestone runs ads for the IRL all the time, it's rare that we see anything out of Bridgestone for Champ Car. One ad did appear late last year, When was the last time you saw a Ford TV commercial or newspaper ad featuring a Champ Car or one of its drivers?

As we saw with FedEx when it was the series sponsor, landing the sponsor is one thing, getting them to activate their advertising to include the Champ Car series is quite another. As NASCAR had in Winston, Champ Car needs a major title sponsor that will not not only pay them a fee, but more importantly, market the heck out of its product using Champ Car as the vehicle.

The same can be said for the IRL, ALMS, Grand-Am and others - solving the chicken vs. egg promotion/advertising dilemma while staying out from under the NASCAR steamroller is the issue they must contend with every day.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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