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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Opinion: CART II the Last Thing We Need... Sort Of

In the past couple of weeks, more and more IZOD IndyCar Series owners have been expressing their displeasure with the way that things have been shaping up for the 2012 season under the watchful eye of new series CEO Randy Bernard.

They've begun to complain about the costs of a new car, wanting it to be pushed back to 2014. They don't seem to have the prerequisite amount of trust in Bernard or new car czar Tony Cotman to make the new program a success. Worst of all, they seem to feel as if they weren't really consulted on the new car program, featuring smaller engines and a Dallara "safety cell" that can be outfitted with multiple aero kits.

Fortunately, the IndyCar nation - especially the blogosphere - have called out the owners on their complaints, leading plenty of them to back off. Tony Johns at Pop Off Valve wrote, "The general consensus was that with aging inventory and stagnant technology, the series would actually die if steps were not taken to change things... I can't possibly imagine how a complete turnover for Delta Wings is any different at all from a complete turnover for the 2012 ICONIC spec - except for who is holding the political reins."

Longtime IndyCar writer and Speed Channel correspondent Robin Miller added, "It’s sad enough to think they held a new car revolt meeting at Sonoma without inviting Bernard and it’s insulting to hear supposedly intelligent racers lead a witch hunt after six months... To think he busts his ass and may not have the owners’ unanimous support is as ignorant as it is maddening. Just remember this: he’s trying to clean up the mess you’ve helped make of open wheel racing. And six months ain’t nearly enough time to find a big enough mop."

Truth be told, the owners in CART did, for a time, manage to run one of the best open-wheel series America had ever seen in the mid-1990s, at least as far as on-track product was concerned. Perhaps it just looked better by comparison to the generally second-tier fields of the early Indy Racing League, but CART at one time had all the big manufacturers, the top chassis builders in the country, most of the best open-wheel tracks in North America (and popular stops in Brazil and Australia) and a list of drivers whose pedigree is unquestioned, save by a few Formula 1 fans.

What killed that series was serial mismanagement - poor investments, the decision to take the company public, not showing up to those first IRL events in 1996 and smoking the little guys, instead of boycotting the sport's biggest race as they did for years. While it's nice to think that the people running the race teams have some idea of what works and what doesn't, the past 15 years have done little to prove this theory.

From an outsider's perspective, the only logical reason why any of the current owners would boycott the new car program is because current series partner Dallara, and not the owner-bankrolled Delta Wing, won the contract. That's a lot of Chip Ganassi's money that went for naught in the end.

The general theory is that the owners are simply complaining about where they're writing the checks. Any business owner anywhere knows that when a large turnover cost is looming in the somewhat distant future, you set aside money for it. True, IndyCar's value may be lower than ever, with a miserable television contract, threats to the TEAM compensation system, and even the great Roger Penske looking for sponsorship. But the owners did it to themselves over the past 15 years.

Bernard and Cotman can solve this easily enough by calling up Ben Bowlby at Delta Wing and asking their help in developing the new car. Heaven knows Cotman doesn't need it - the Panoz DP01 that he oversaw was one of the most beautiful open-wheel racecars to ever see an American circuit - but the political implications would be huge. At the very least, it'd shut up some of the series' power players and make them feel like they were a bit better represented in the new car development. (What, Gil de Ferran's presence in ICONIC wasn't good enough for you guys?)

But while we're on the topic of CART, it's safe to say that at least some of the things that made that series so popular during its heyday should be analyzed and brought back in time for the new car. The option for multiple engines and aero kits, if not entire chassis, is a step in that direction; it adds a visual variable to IndyCar that we haven't seen in years of spec cars and single engine manufacturers. The single safety cell and ability to switch aero kits during the season also protects teams from getting stuck with massively underperforming cars, like the Eagle-Toyotas that All American Racers fielded in 1996.

CART had, for the first few years of the split, all of the better open-wheel races, other than the Indianapolis 500. While returns to Michigan and California seem unlikely (due to ISC's ownership of those tracks... and that's even another story), plenty of the other tracks and cities on the schedule hosted popular events. Surfers Paradise produced a different winner almost every year -how's that for parity? Remember Alex Zanardi's pass in the Laguna Seca corkscrew? Portland stayed on the schedule for over 20 years for a reason, and Cleveland would be even more fun to watch if the rumored plan of a doubleheader - one race on the old airport course, one on a new airport oval course - was instituted.

Yes, every track that I just mentioned is a road course, save the potential Cleveland airport oval. IndyCar - at least the IndyCar that Tony George founded - was devised as an oval series. A lot of the IRL apologists and purists have fumed over the series' decision to add more and more twisties over the years, but with Bruton Smith and SMI getting closer and closer to IndyCar, the series' oval fate should be in good hands. Bonus points are to be had if the series can find a way to resuscitate the Milwaukee Mile, shut down this year after a promoter dispute.

We're talking a massive series overhaul in 2012 - in the cars, the tracks, and maybe even the owners, if they're not willing to back down from the idiotic stance they've taken over the past couple of weeks.

The ideal 2012 IndyCar Series won't quite be CART II, at least insofar as the owners will not be the ones calling the shots again. But if Bernard, Cotman, and the race promoters have their way, everything that made CART great - visual on-track variation, competition between both drivers and manufacturers, the best tracks in the country (within reason), a handful of foreign events in countries that produce plenty of drivers, and (let's hope) a greater base of American talent - is attainable in the next couple of years.

All everybody needs is to get on the same page.

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