Jan 9, 2012
Race Fans Rule the Roost
By JR Nerad
The recent shift in fortunes between the Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams proves yet again what every savvy quarter-mile track owner in the country knows, the race fan is in charge. If race fans don't get what they want, they don't put their butts in the seats; they don't buy the beer and the t-shirts. They go on to something else.
This self-evident fact is something that seems to have escaped the self-important team owners who call the shots at CART. In their effort to become a champagne-and-caviar series, a sort of North American Formula One, they have left behind millions of beer-and-hot-dog race fans who used to be the lifeblood of the sport. Time was when the Champ Car series was populated with beer-and-hot-dog drivers, guys who were a mirror reflection of the people in the stands, except, of course, for their driving skills. But those days are long gone. Instead, the drivers' seats are filled with a bunch of guys who speak with foreign accents and can turn right as well as left. As Seinfeld would say, of course there's nothing wrong with that, but my guess is the American race fan would like to cheer for a fellow American now and then. (See NASCAR.)
One guy who shares my view is Tony George. He is the proprietor of the Indy Racing League and that most American of institutions, the Indianapolis 500, and though he was knocked early on for splitting the American open-wheel market in half, time has proven his vision is the one that makes sense for America. Of course, it doesn't hurt that his hammer is the most-watched one-day motorsports event on the planet. The point is, he has intelligently used that hammer to nail down an ABC-ESPN TV contract that has sent CART for a loop. The deal dwarfs that of CART, which has been relegated to buying time from CBS and producing its own coverage.
Because of that TV situation CART heavies like Roger Penske are headed for the IRL next season. I can't believe Penske, the guy who owns this year's recently crowned CART championship team and one of CART's founders, was eager to bail on the series he had sweated so much blood over through the years. But Penske is also a show-me-the-money guy, and his longtime sponsor, Marlboro, no doubt had a huge hand in directing the move to the IRL. After all, just like racetrack promoters, companies like Philip Morris, which owns Marlboro and a bunch of other consumer brands, is interested in butts in seats. In Philip Morris's case, though, most of the butts in seats it cares about are on couches in rec rooms watching the tube.
Interestingly, Penske will be taking two of his foreigners (and we say that fondly), Helio Castroneves and CART Champ Gil de Ferran, into the all-American, all-oval series with him. They don't seem to be too happy about that, so it will be amusing to see how it all plays out. But one thing is certain: the worm is turning toward the IRL. Congratulations to Tony George for staying the course.
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