Motor Racing

Will The Champ Car World Series and IndyCar Be A Part Of Motorsports Future?

Iain Shankland,

This week Champ Car announced their TV schedule for the 2008 season. Instantly, the motorsport forums lit up with fans being vocal and furious over the coverage – or should I say lack thereof – that the series will receive in 2008 on ABC/ ESPN.

We’re thrilled to have all of our races this season on the ESPN/ABC networks in the second year of our renewed relationship,” said Champ Car President & CEO Steve Johnson. “We worked closely with ESPN to create a schedule that we believe serves both existing and future fans of Champ Car racing.

Really? He’s thrilled that instead of two-hours of live race coverage, there’ll be a bunch of tape-delayed races broadcast … and some of them will only be ONE hour long! Figure in huge blocks of commercials and there won’t be much time left for racing!

Last year Champ Car paid for the air time to broadcast the races. Don’t believe me? At the end of every race appeared the words: “The preceding program was paid for by the Champ Car World Series LLC.” Now that’s something you won’t find that after a NASCAR or F1 race … just the copy write by the corresponding series.

What can we glean from this?  Perhaps the CCWS ratings weren’t very good for ABC/ESPN and therefore they didn’t want to commit too much time to shows that produce low ratings! Personally I think Kevin Kalkhoven and the gang should have spent their money elsewhere, like perhaps the Outdoor Life Network, or HGTV – or probably more appropriate – the Comedy Network. Some network somewhere should have a couple of hours available for sale on a Sunday afternoon.

Champ Car have a very loyal and large fan base – they actually go to the races, whereas the IRL has armchair fans. They watch it on TV but can’t be bothered to go to the races.

A couple of years ago the IRL were all hot and bothered about “Danicamania” but she’s proven that even Andretti/Green racing can’t put her sorry butt onto the top step of the podium. She’s yesterday’s news and it’s showing in TV ratings and declining in race attendance figures. So….

Where does that leave open-wheel racing in North America?
Sadly, in a very precarious position. Both are struggling badly and fans of both the IRL and CCWS are watching their beloved series’ self-destruct in slow motion.

I’m a huge fan of Champ Car, but I honestly thought the season finale of 2007 in Mexico was going to be the final curtain fall for the series. I was very surprised to see their determination to continue to struggle to put another season together for 2008, desperate to maintain their presence. Granted, they haven’t actually begun the series yet, so they might not make it to the starting grid in April. As of today we’ve got a lot of questions that need answered.

Team Australia are currently considering fielding only one car unless a big sponsor steps up. Oriol Servia has signed with Forsythe/Pettit, and who knows, maybe Mario Dominguez will bring some Mexican sponsorship and get a ride there too. Paul Tracy has a contract, but there’s no confirmation he’s actually going to be driving. Minardi Team USA supposedly have Doornbos signed for ’08, but no one in the second seat as of yet. Pacific Coast Motorsports have one seat filled – the owners’ son, but no word on the second seat this year.  Newman/Hass/Lanigan have Graham Rahal, but still no news on who will fill the second seat with this prestigious team. RSPORT/RuSPORT or whatever they’re calling it these days, have yet to confirm any drivers! Justin Wilson has turned down Andretti/Green in the IRL, but hasn’t commented on where he’ll be racing this year – ALMS perhaps? PKV have Alex Tagliani sniffing around for a ride, but nothing else has been in the news. I’m guessing Dale Coyne will field the same drivers in 2008 – Katherine Legge and Bruno Junquiera – Kevin Kalkhoven’s money will pay for both of those seats no doubt, and Coyne is no fool – he’ll take the money.

A possibility of 7 – 9 drivers might be signed for 2008 in Champ Car, with the possibility of as many as 10 – 16 cars – that’s not very convincing that the series is thriving … never mind surviving!

On the other hand the IRL or IndyCar have been quietly going about their business. They lost a couple of big-name drivers to the Moving Advertising Series – also known as NASCAR (or SpeedTV), but have decided on an ingenious way to pay back to the teams that might actually help everyone involved. With each team receiving a set amount of money based on participation each week – regardless of finishing position, we’re sure to see fuller fields in the IRL and certainly, team’s can be more confident about their budget goals and requirements. If I was sitting on the fence about whether to start a team in Champ Car or the IndyCar – this single factor would likely make me commit to the IndyCar. And let’s not forget too about the floodgates of sponsorship dollars that flow in for the Indy 500 alone!

So the IRL might be in a slightly better position than Champ Car, but neither really has anything to brag about. Fans are losing interest – and fast! I’ve read on numerous forums that fans are abandoning open-wheel racing – including the in-line parade that is Formula1- for more exciting racing in the form of DTM, Australian V8 Supercars, ALMS and Grand Am. Some have even abandoned cars altogether and are focusing their interest on motorbikes.

My first GrandAm race experience came back in 2005 while covering the IRL season opener at Homestead. One race and I was hooked! The racing was exciting and close, and with two different classes of cars running side by side it really mixed things up. Back then, there were only a dozen or so Prototypes in the series, but the field has been growing in leaps and bounds, to the point that they will soon have to split the cars into their own separate races. The ALMS (American LeMans Series) is another series that’s grabbed my attention – I first got to see them live back in 2006 at Road America, and from that point on I’ve been following the series much closer. Both ALMS and GrandAm have a continually growing fan base, and their fields are expanding too, along with a good influx of viable sponsors. More than just a couple of IRL teams are covering their options by running teams in both series’ to protect themselves for the future.

Both series’ are being run by very competent people that for the moment appear to know what they’re doing. Both series’ have a showcase race – ALMS has the Petit LeMans (12 hour race) and GrandAm has their season-opening 24 Hours of Daytona. The future looks bright for both series, while at the same time Champ Car, IndyCar and even NASCAR are losing fans both at the track and on TV.

 The Conclusion
Open wheel racing seems to be on its death-bed with barely a pulse. The future in my opinion is going to be closed-wheel racing in the form of ALMS, GrandAm, DTM and even the Australian V8 Supercars.

 I’ve had the opportunity to watch both DTM and the Australian V8 Supercars over the winter and I’m seriously hooked on both. The racing is close, and a little bump here or there doesn’t put a car out of the race very often. Neither run on ovals (Yeee Ha), and both offer a variety of track styles that are interesting and different from what we’ve come to expect from CCWS and IndyCar. The ALMS and GrandAm also provide a different racing experience, because for now, both run with a GT class of cars at the same time which makes for more interesting viewing and close passing maneuvers.

For me the future of racing is bright – it just doesn’t put open-wheel racing at the top of my list any more.

Copyright © 2008 by Iain Shankland. All rights reserved.
Text / Images: Iain Shankland

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