Nascar and the IRL might both need to look over their shoulders

The Indy car finale at Homestead Miami Speedway this past Saturday evening…or was that late afternoon, had everything this season had shown all year. Thrilling, wheel to wheel, side by side, nail biting, edge of your seat racing, spirited individual drives, and compelling drama.  In other words, everything racing was meant to be. As an added bonus, Indycar races do not drag on for hours and hours at a time, the action is fast and furious, when you’re cranking  out 200+ mph lap speeds, a 300 mile race goes by at a pretty rapid pace. Perfect for the busy modern lifestyle for sure. And there was no major event going on Saturday night in the Miami area, the Dolphins were not to take the field until Monday night, there were no other NFL games on, no Chase race to contend with, and after all, it WAS the season finale, with the backdrop of an oh so tight points battle between Will Power and Dario Franchitti and the titan car owners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi. So naturally the stands at Homestead were standing room only and the TV ratings off the charts, right? Ummm, not so much.

The crowd at the Homestead Speedway was dismally sparse. Personally knowing the seating there, I would say there were maybe 30,000 in attendance. This for the series Finale with the championship going down to the wire. Better late than never the IRL has discovered that the France family (ISC owns the track) has not been its friend.  The race obviously was the victim of benign neglect promotion-wise.  Its too bad that some of the series best race tracks will not be on the schedule next year for this reason. There is also no-one watching at home either. The Indy car series this year has averaged a .1 Nielsen  rating. That is .1, as in 1/10 of a percent.  Roughly speaking, an average of 98,000 fans are tuning in on TV.  Putting it in starker terms, a grand total of 128,000 folks watched that great race Sat night. That is how bad its gotten. That’s what nearly 15 years of warfare will get you, nothing. The country itself should take note of this.

On the other hand, the Stands at Kansas Speedway were packed, crowd estimates were pegged at 100,000 and that looked about right. The disparity in the TV audience was even greater, Nascar Sprint cup races average a 3.5 Nielsen viewing audience. That means that on the average about 3.4 million viewers are watching some of the worlds most talented and highly compensated drivers and mechanics contest Nascar’s highest level.  Speaking of the drivers, what is truly depressing is when one considers the constant drain of talent that Nascar continues to suck out of the IRL. Arguably the first star the IRL had was Tony Stewart. Stewart was the poster boy for what was the ‘proper’ course of events; an all American boy from the heartland,  a USAC series champion of the Sprint, Silver Crown and Midget divisions who then hit the ‘big time’ with the IRL and become a multi time series champion. The IRL did exactly what it was supposed to do, right? Not exactly, there was nothing in the script that said “Now that Tony has achieved IRL stardom, he jumps to the taxicabs of Nascar to make untold millions of dollars a year, becomes a household name for real, and forgoes a chance to win the Indy 500.”  Tony wrote a new script, and his fellow drivers took notice.  Sam Hornish proceeded to repeated that feat, he upped  the ante by being a 3 time series champion and an Indy 500 winner to boot.  Juan Pablo Montoya made the leap as well, after first leaving the IRL behind to run Formula 1.  In the heat of the champion’s glow, its easy to forget that Dario tried this exact move just a couple of years ago, as did Paul Tracy for that matter,  and others. But all of that is going to pale in comparison to what is about to happen. There is only one recognizable name in all of the IRL, and it’s not 3 time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. We all know it’s Danica Patrick, who if she stays in the series, could do two things. One, she might very well  achieve racing immortality and be the first woman to win the Indy 500.  This is not some sort of a fantasy concept, but a very achievable reality. She drives the speedway well, and she has top cars at her disposal. Ok, so did Lloyd Ruby and Gary Bettenhausen, not to mention a certain Andretti named Michael. Danica seems charmed though,  you get the feeling the speedway likes her and, unlike so many others, would reward her sometime on a hot afternoon  in late May. The other thing that this all American girl could do is hold down the IRL publicity/creditability fort until some more household names are created. That is arguably a more important, if unstated function. But that is most probably not going to happen. While it’s not a done deal yet, the handwriting is on the wall, Patrick is going to make the Nascar leap in 2012. More than anything else, in plain and simple terms, this tells ‘Joe Public’ that Nascar means more than the IRL. And in today’s  internet driven, media frenzied world, perception truly is everything. Back in 1998 when Tony Stewart was going to jump from the IRL to run Nascar full time, Tony George slipped him a cool million dollars, cash, under the table for Stewart to  hold off for a year. That’s how long, George told Stewart it would take to “finally get the series right.” Of course, what he REALLY meant to say was “finally kill CART once and for all.” We see how well all of that worked out. I hope Tony spent his million well, I’m sure he did! Somehow, even if Tony George stopped pouting and returned, I don’t think a paltry million would keep Danica in the series. That is the current state of Indy car racing, and it’s a reality check as to how far down the series now is. If Danica Patrick stays in Indy cars, that will do more for the series than any fantasy car coming off of a car designers drawing board, or any other smoke and mirror package. I think that’s the part that, at this exact moment,  Randy Bernard does not really get. And I don’t think Foyt gets it either, and that is the key problem. You see, the Indy 500 is a truly great race because of the one time public perception that the greatest drivers race/raced there. That key public perception about great drivers has made a cosmic shift to Nascar. Indy is still a great track and the Indy 500 is still a great race, but its drivers are not perceived as being THE greatest drivers. The public perception is, that  they have to go to Nascar to “become” great. And again, perception is reality. Auto Racing is a driver driven sport, it always has been, especially in the US. More so than any other single fact or concept, driver greatness is what made the Indy 500 great, and its what has made Nascar great. That’s why keeping Danica in the IRL is so very important, and its also the real reason Nascar covets her.  Right or wrong, she is “perceived” by the public as being a  “good driver”.  It’s like “she must be good, I have heard of her”.  The fact that 99% of that right now is because of her celebrity status is irrelevant. As is the fact that it was her leading the Indy 500 that opened doors for her.  Her move to Nascar will have more publicity than the mid term elections!  All good for Nascar, pure disaster for the IRL. It will transform her to “greatness.” Re-enforce Nascar as the Mount Everest of racing, and the IRL of being, at best, a Nascar feeder series.  Who will be able to argue against any of that after a Danica leap?  And much like the country itself, the rich will get richer, and the poor, well, you know. Keeping Danica Patrick in the IRL is vital to the health of the series. Randy Bernard, you have your mission, do NOT f*#k  this up!!

The real racing gems of this past weekends racing  were not droning around a Kansas oval with technology from the 60’s under their “car of tomorrow” fenders. Nor were they missiles hurdling around an oval way down south in the bean fields of Homestead. They were competing on one of the countries great courses, Road Atlanta.   The ALMS series is a true diamond in the rough, and that particular stone got some serious cutting and polishing in northern Georgia for 10 hours Saturday; showcasing and testing real word technology we can all relate to. Think about it like this, when you get into a car, what do you do? Do you climb into it through the window and then run around in a circle for hours on end? Me neither. What we DO is, we open a door, get in, buckle up, and then we might well spend hours on roads, turning left AND right, stopping from time to time for fuel, shutting the car off then, and having to restart it, we might drive at night, we might have a co-driver, and we might well be doing all of this with some sort of green/hybrid fuel and technology. Nascar’s babbling propaganda notwithstanding, nowhere in racing is the bond between the real world and racing more apparent than in the American Le Mans Series. And the race Saturday was superb, a textbook on how to properly promote a race as well as a series. The myth that folks will not come out to see road racing was blown up, the crowd was estimated to be in excess of 125,000 it was larger than the crowd at Kansas, in fact. The manufacturers love this series, where else can they test the new technology we all will be using in the near future?  They put their money where they think it can do them the most good. In Nascar you have a grand total of three manufacturers Ford, General Motors, and Toyota involved.  In the IRL one, Honda. In the ALMS, there is Peugeot, Audi, BMW, General Motors, Porsche, Jaguar, and Ford is involved with the GT effort. In fact Porsche was there with a very trick hybrid, and this is not your tree-hugging mother’s hybrid. This cutting edge  automobile  stores the energy from braking, converting into a form of hi-voltage electricity that, at the push of a button, can be worth as much as 150hp. Cool stuff.  More companies are going to be on board for next year, there could easily be a hybrid class in the near future.  This series has real world technology, and its obvious that, along with good hard racing is something that the public appreciates. If the series  can keep this up, its drivers will become great, its the perception, remember?   Never mind the future, in the here and now, great job everyone, well done!

Art Dahlberg

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