In the end, we all learned the number 1 rule of open-wheel racing: Don’t bleep with the Indy 500.
Now that open-wheel racing in the United States is unified once again, the unified racing body can turn its attention to repairing the damage done by the Champ Car-Indy Car war. On that front, I have a few suggestions for what to do going forward:
- Recognize that the war only helped NASCAR’s rise, but was not solely responsible for it. NASCAR was arguably bigger than open-wheel racing even before the split, or at least before it really started punishing then-CART.
- Decide right away whether or not you can take on NASCAR. If you think you can (and last year suggested NASCAR may be plateauing), be aware you may need a 10-year plan for it, and hope for NASCAR mistakes. Push what makes your sport distinct, run races in places NASCAR doesn’t, and leverage the passion of the fans you have. If you don’t think you can, focus on carving out a solid niche and consider running some races overseas. Either way, immediate financial solvency should be the immediate goal if you don’t want to get absorbed into NASCAR.
- Reclaim the North and West for yourselves. CART was more popular than NASCAR entering the 90s because NASCAR was a southern sport and IndyCar racing was popular in the north. The Kasey Kahnes and Jeff Gordons of the world should not be running off to NASCAR. Rebuild the infrastructure that was there before.
- Marketability! You can attract eyeballs if you can market your drivers. You can keep drivers if you can create marketing opportunities for them. Plugging the hell out of the likes of Danica Patrick is your friend. But whoever your best drivers are, they should be appearing in advertisements and making other appearances if you want to even have a chance to keep them from jumping ship to NASCAR.
- Either fix the problems that caused the split in the first place, or recognize that they are unfixable. The IndyCar series has fallen victim to many of the same problems that caused it to split from CART in the first place. The barriers to success for Americans are especially vexing because of how far open-wheel racing has fallen due to the war. Make it more affordable and try and find more American oval tracks. If you recognize they are unfixable, take steps to appropriate them for your own benefits, and work to overcome them.
- Everything revolves around the Indy 500. I actually doubt Tony George wanted to “win” the war, only create a series to compete with CART. “Winning” and becoming the de facto open-wheel leader since about 2002 if not before only led to IndyCar inheriting CART’s problems. But the Indy 500 is the only race that matters and, despite declining ratings as a result of the war, it is more than twice, if not three times, if not four times as popular than any other open-wheel race. Any effort to rebuild the sport must revolve around putting your mark on the Indy 500, and rebuilding its prestige. Daytona is one of the biggest races on Earth, but that it is more than twice as big as Indy is unacceptable.
- ESPN is your friend – or at least it used to be. ESPN must be an equal partner in rebuilding open-wheel racing, since they, along with ABC, are showing your races. But they were probably more inclined to do so before they also started showing NASCAR races. Still, they need to plug their IndyCar broadcasts during NASCAR and generally plug that IndyCars are still here, they exist outside the Indy 500, and they’re coming back.
- Don’t completely destroy what Champ Car left behind. Only a smattering of Champ Car events are on the 2008 schedule. That doesn’t include some Champ Car events that were serving as the series’ lifeline in its later days. Completely junking almost everything about Champ Car will only alienate its fans. And it may have had only a few fans, but you need all the open-wheel fans you can get to serve as a base to grow on!