Can open-wheel racing come back?
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- It didn't have the metaphorical perfection of the driving of the golden spike to link the transcontinental railroad or the significance of a treaty ending some long gone war.
George and Kalkhoven, the Champ Car co-owner whose series agreed to have its teams and most valued assets melded into the once-rival circuit, knew much ground had been lost in 30 years of squabbling within the sport and 12 years of outward venom since George founded the IRL and broke away from what was then known as CART.
NASCAR drove through the wreckage and was an easy lap ahead now. So everyone spoke of small gains.
"It's going to take some time,'' George said. "But it all starts here today.''
Everyone spoke of determination.
"This is not some magic bullet,'' Kalkhoven said. "It's going to take an awful lot of hard work.''
And everyone spoke of modest expectations.
"This is the time we've been waiting for, for open-wheel racing to come back,'' said driver
But regaining that lost status was clearly an objective for a sport that collectively weak and divided could only ponder holding onto memories. But is it up to the job of reclaiming its legacy?
"I do think so. At least I hope so,'' said former Champ Car driver
"I think (the IRL) definitely can get a toehold,'' he said. "Will they ever recover from the 12 years of rancor and discord that basically handed the platform of American racing and the mainstream media to NASCAR? No. There's no chance. I think basically all they can hope for is a focused presentation of their type of racing and a gradual return from a lot of their fans that drifted away during the twelve years.''
DeLorenzo said NASCAR's ebb after 20 seasons of explosive growth may allow the new IRL a chance to succeed, if not with fans, in corporate board rooms. That will be just as important for a series that has struggled to find sponsorship in competition with the higher-profile NASCAR series. The cost of sponsoring a high-level Sprint Cup team is over $20-million, with perhaps twice that required to properly "activate'' or promote a brand. NASCAR has recently lost high-profile sponsors such as Tide, with other stalwarts such as Interstate Batteries routinely selling their races to recoup their investment.
"Part of the reason for that is a lot of corporate America is getting tired of the money involved to get involved with a top NASCAR team,'' DeLorenzo said. "You have lowering TV numbers, empty seats and I think corporate America is starting to drift away from NASCAR. So yes, I would think the IRL will get a closer look now.''
"It's very important because the title sponsor helps build the racing series and its profile (much like Winston did for NASCAR),'' Brown said. "It's a must we get one.''
"Indy is still a great event,'' he said. "It's in the top tier of U.S. motorsports without a doubt. I think sometimes that gets lost on people. It may not be No. 1 any longer but it's still up there. I always hesitate to pile on Indy because Indy itself is still a pretty fantastic opportunity for sponsors.''
Especially if a dynamic, boundary-crossing driver is involved. And the IRL currently has one of the best in the world in terms of marketing in
"She's off the chart,'' Wright said. "She is a unique personality and she's usually the storyline one way or another.''
Now the IRL has to find a way to parlay her popularity and that of two-time Indy 500 and
"I think Danica Patrick personally needs to win this year because she's been right on the cusp,'' DeLorenzo said. "But I think it's absolutely crucial for the series. She and
"Do we really want to follow the model that caused CART and Champ Car to go out of business?'' he posed. "Temporary street courses, taking a paycheck from a promoter that has no future and won't be here in three years, foreign drivers? Or do we stand back and look at it, the slow nickel versus the fast dime?"
Gossage's thinking is contrary to the movement inside the IRL even before the amalgamation and the success in St. Petersburg. The thought: do something NASCAR could not by bringing racing into intimate urban environments. As recently as last year, the league had discussed informally the prospect of racing on Governors Island in New York Harbor. George envisions a 20-race series with only about half ovals.
Though he stressed "there's a certain charm that international flavor brings,'' and doesn't want to sound xenophobic, Gossage said the IRL must not become "CART II.''
But above all, he said, there must be humility.
"Be humble. Be loyal,'' he said. "IndyCar racing, through its 'heydays' never acted humble toward the fans. Give them a reason to come back to see you.''
To that end, George and Kalkhoven used the word "fan" no less than 15 times in their news conference on Wednesday.
An offseason in which IRL drivers won dancing trophies on national television and posed for the
So now the league must sell itself on the track. Two-hour races often decided by fractions of second at speeds in excess of 200 mph would seemingly do that. At least they do at Texas Motor Speedway. Gossage said therein lies the formula.
"I'm not suggesting it try to be NASCAR,'' he said. "There's a unique nature of open-wheel racing -- open cockpit, open-wheel, speed, that makes it so cool. There's no way you can look at an IndyCar and think about anything but it being fast, man. And that's what it needs to sell itself as.''
But it'll never get to sell itself in the same market as NASCAR, Gossage said. Though chairman
"Not going to happen,'' Gossage said.
Maybe catching back up to NASCAR won't either. But on this day, there was finally an excuse to hope.