The greatest threat racing faces is internal. Take Indy car racing. The Indy Racing League (IRL) was founded by Indianapolis Motor Speedway head Tony George when the deaf, dumb, and blind team owners running CART wouldn’t cut him in on their deal. The team owners that ran CART were certain their series—CART ran head-to-head with NASCAR on TV, and paid out decent purses—was bigger than a single race, even if that race was the Indianapolis 500. What could go wrong?
The team owners laughed as George morphed his series into a restricted chassis/restricted engine series with a low price of entry and guaranteed purses. The IRL wasn’t pretty—calling the blocky, homely vehicles race cars seemed like blasphemy—but it had a bankable race in the Indy 500, and a leader willing to spend untold millions to prove his point. In time, the former leaders of CART—notably Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, as well as engine suppliers Honda and Toyota—were knocking on George’s door. He let them in. However, despite the fact that the momentum shifted in the IRL’s favor, no one was willing to compromise for the good of single-seater racing in this country and put everything together under one banner. Coupled with the CART/IRL internecine warfare, is there any wonder the North American racing galaxy shifted its center to NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Florida?
On a trajectory that saw it sign a multi-billion dollar television deal, entice new sponsors, and put its drivers in just about every television commercial, NASCAR soon began to think it was invincible. Even the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., served to drive NASCAR deeper into the American consciousness. True, the folks in Daytona had been paying attention while others sat on their laurels, and judiciously planned for the future. For example, while the CART hierarchy couldn’t be bothered to talk to, much less groom, a young midget racer in the Midwest, NASCAR treated him like a prized first-draft pick. That’s one reason Jeff Gordon never ran in the Indy 500. In addition, NASCAR launched the Grand Am series as a counterpoint to billionaire Don Panoz’s American Le Mans Series, in an attempt to keep sports car racing from drawing attention from the NASCAR juggernaut. It worked, and endurance racing in North America is almost as fractured as Indy car.
Even the ill-named “Car of Tomorrow” was an answer to questions to which no one had been paying attention. Coming as it did on the heels of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death and the results of energy-absorbing barrier testing, the COT, as it is known, was designed to be safer but also gives NASCAR license to aero-match the cars to its heart’s content for closer racing. More importantly, it left the sanctioning body an out should one or more of the Detroit automakers fail or pull out of the series, and made it easier to invite in new manufacturers like Toyota in order to keep up with the car-buying habits of the viewing audience—especially those in the major U.S. markets.
What NASCAR hadn’t banked on was that the absence of competition from other series would lead to some important problems. However, I can think of five that could stall or retard the series’ growth. First, no matter how safe you make the cars, inevitably there will be accidents that maim or kill drivers, especially when they are running together in tightly coordinated packs. Should it happen to another star in the NASCAR firmament, the response won’t be as benign as it was when the elder Earnhardt died. Second, said drivers are overexposed in television, radio, and just about every other medium. It’s only a matter of time before some Arliss type pushes for a bigger piece of the pie—setting off a battle between the driving talent, team owners, and sanctioning body—or fans stop listening. Third, the COT slaps almost lifelike noses and tails on aero-matched clones in the hope that the folks in the stands won’t notice it’s all a factory-supported sham. Note to NASCAR: They have, and they’re not happy. Fourth, the creative use of cautions to bunch the field to keep the racing close is so transparent even the TV commentators make fun of them, and these “cautions” call into question the legitimacy of the results. Fifth, the sheer size and bounty of the Nextel Cup will attract more foreign drivers and eventually dilute the American presence. Try explaining that one to the fans—diehards from the heartland who reportedly have an average income under $50,000—even if they buy Toyotas.