The so-called leaders of American open-wheel racing don't like to talk about the 13-year-old split between the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series that has devastated the sport. But judging by the response that is generated anytime anyone writes about it, what remains of the fan base certainly finds the never-ending conflict to be a hot topic for discussion.
When people like me write a "nice" story about the IRL or Champ Car, it seemingly goes unnoticed. Take, for example, the piece I recently wrote titled "12 People, Places and Things to be Thankful for in U.S. Open-Wheel Racing," in which I intentionally tried to equally share praise between Champ Car and the IRL. Twenty days after being posted, only two readers has made an online comment -- they are both about Formula One, funny enough -- and the only response I got in my personal e-mail was a note of thanks from a Bridgestone/Firestone public relations representative.
Contrast that with "American Open-wheel Racing Held Hostage: Year 13," which has racked up more than 60 passionate responses on ESPN.com and flooded my inbox. On the one hand, it's nice to see that a few people care enough to share their thoughts on the article and the madness that inspired it. Then again, seeing the thousands of posts related to college and professional football and basketball shows how meaningless open-wheel racing has become in the overall spectrum of American sports.
For those of you who think that specialist racing writers like me enjoy beating the dead horse that is the open-wheel war, you couldn't be more wrong. I would much rather be writing about races, personalities and technology. But when the offseason lasts longer than the racing season, when the rules in both series don't permit new cars or even significant development of the existing ones and when many of the stars are fleeing to a form of motorsport that I am not ashamed to say I simply don't enjoy (NASCAR), there's just not much else to talk about. Since there is little or no news to report, all that is left to do is analyze the overall state of the scene.
Which isn't pretty.
Frankly, neither Champ Car nor the IRL has much to offer on their own that would excite longtime followers of the American open-wheel scene. Putting the two series together tomorrow wouldn't solve all the problems within the sport or magically create a 30-car field, at least not in the short-term. But it would definitely give fans and what is left of the press corps something positive to talk about for a change -- and a more optimistic future to look forward to.
I appreciate those of you who took the time to read what I wrote, and especially those who made the effort to share your own thoughts on the subject -- even if you weren't very kind to me personally in your remarks. With that in mind, here are a few comments on your responses -- and please keep those cards, letters and e-mails coming
dcitta1 wrote: "The fact that nobody posts on this story is proof of the sorry state of open-wheel racing "
Oreo says: You are absolutely correct. People just don't care anymore, except for a small group of folks based predominantly in the Midwest who still think the Indianapolis 500 is the be-all and end-all of motorsports. Since the split, Indy has become the second-biggest race in the country (behind the Daytona 500), and there are plenty of statistics to prove it -- race purse, television ratings and on down the line. I will always believe that attending Indy is the most special experience in motorsports (I've been to 25 in my 43 years), but stop kidding yourselves if you think it's still the outright king.
antule14 wrote: "What this article forgot to mention was that Jeff Gordon couldn't even get a ride to the airport from CART much less a job, and also the rise of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as an American icon. The lack of homegrown racers really did as much to kill open-wheel racing as anything."
Oreo says: Good points. Jeff Gordon attended a couple of CART races in the early '90s, but by then most CART team owners had come to the conclusion that mid-field Formula One racers had a better chance of success in the cars and tracks that made up Indy-style racing of the era. The training that Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne et al received in USAC sprints and midgets -- front-engine, tube-frame cars racing exclusively on ovals -- was tailor-made for NASCAR and had little or nothing to do with modern open-wheel racing. If you want to blame anyone for the exodus of American drivers from Indy, point the finger at USAC for banning rear-engine cars in the mid-'70s.
IndyVet wrote: "Oreo posts some good comments but he fails to deal with the realities of what CART was doing to the sport in its heyday. They made it an exclusive club that for all practical purposes couldn't be entered into in a competitive way and set out to create 'Formula 1 Lite!'"
Oreo says: Thanks for the semi-praise. I used to love it when Eddie Cheever, who never came close to winning a Formula One race (or a CART race, for that matter) called CART "F1 Lite." Here's my take: Indy-style racing was dying in the '70s as a low-tech, all-oval series. The introduction of more sophisticated cars and road racing increased fan and sponsor interest through the '80s and '90s until the PPG CART IndyCar World Series was a genuine rival to F1 and NASCAR in America and abroad. The IRL's attempt to return to low-tech and ovals destroyed that momentum and generally proved that U.S. fans were far more interested in "F1 Lite" than they were in "open-wheel NASCAR." Hall/VDS Racing and PacWest Racing are examples of startup CART teams that became winners within a couple of years -- with the help of some mid-field F1 drivers.
dhs72 wrote: "You would have to be a complete and utter moron to not be able to understand that Tony George is the main problem regarding the split. He single-handedly ruined open-wheel racing in America. I had the pleasure to tell that very thing to Tony himself personally and it was like it didn't even register."
Oreo says: As I said in the piece, Tony and his family have been wonderful ambassadors for the speedway and the city of Indianapolis. They have never asked for or taken a single tax dollar. I think you recognize that the general perception is that Tony is simply not a very dynamic public speaker; the CART owners were wary of having him as the face or the perceived leader of their form of motorsport.
BigFeels wrote: "What about the bankruptcy judge who ruled against George's attempt to purchase CART's assets? [If] that decision goes the other way, Champ Car is never formed, and the feud is over. Also, the increased restrictions placed on cigarettes & alcohol advertising has had an effect on sponsorships; NASCAR was quicker to seek non-traditional auto racing sponsors than either open-wheel series."
Oreo says: In my coverage of the bankruptcy trial, I reported my belief that Champ Car's lawyers were just better prepared for the case and that I thought IRL counsel Henry Efromyson quickly got offsides with Judge Frank J. Otte. So point the finger at Efromyson instead of the judge. However, you are correct in believing that the IRL reacted better to the loss of tobacco money. Gerald Forsythe's Champ Car team hasn't been able to land a sponsor since Player's was legislated out of racing in late 2003 despite the presence of Paul Tracy, one of the most successful and charismatic drivers in the series. By the way, alcohol is the new tobacco look at Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, etc., now spending their millions in NASCAR.
TB wrote: "Good column very accurate. However, I think you might have forgot one guy who continues to play an important card in this duel. Paul Newman still hates Tony dating back to 1991 when the Speedway changed the catering program during the month of May. It's still the case today unless you pay $10,000 for the month to bring in your own chef. Plus Newman continued to convince the rich guys like Kalkhoven and others to stay in Champ Car and throw more money at the program. Hanging with Newman is a big deal for those guys and their wives."
Oreo says: I thought long and hard about including Newman and/or Carl Haas. But I actually respected Newman's stance against IMS. How would you feel if Budweiser was the $5 million sponsor of your car and the speedway forced you to buy Bud (or even worse, Miller Lite) for $48 a case? Or eat cold fried chicken from approved caterers instead of the hot, healthy food your team was used to? But you're right, Newman and Haas belong on a slightly expanded list.
ard1911 wrote: "Well, he definitely got one thing right: It is an idiots opinion!"
Oreo says: I beat you to the punch. Calling yourself an idiot hurts less than when an anonymous stranger does. Try pulling your thoughts into a cohesive article, then get it posted on a popular website with your name and face attached to it. Then wait for the abuse. It's not as easy as it looks.
David Abbey wrote: "Perhaps Oreovicz could have placed one or more of his fellow journalists [Gordon Kirby comes to mind] on 'The List.' It's time for Oreovicz to write about the action on the track."
Oreo says: David, thanks for having the courage to actually put your name on your comment -- assuming it's not an alias, of course. As I said earlier, I'd rather be writing about racing, but we're in the midst of a 201-day IRL offseason. When testing begins in late February, I'll be there. Until then, you're stuck with more analysis. I suppose it's fair to blame folks like myself, Kirby and Robin Miller for fanning the flames of the split. At least there are a few of us who still care enough to try to actually make a difference. I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say we are only doing it because of our lifelong passion for Indy-style racing and our sincere hope that the sport regains its rightful stature of old. We're certainly not in it for the money. Oh, and thanks for spelling my name correctly.
techdude07 wrote: "Great article! Couldn't believe you put Michael Andretti at No. 2 can't believe he stayed out as long as he did. Now he has his own team, is winning Indys and his team can actually stand toe-to- toe with Penske and Team Target. Can you blame the guy! Tony George and his gang are the real culprits [using the Indy 500 as a bargaining tool and trampling its tradition]. This whole thing is a joke restore the historical traditions of both series and make it new and even better."
Oreo says: I knew putting Mikey at No. 2 would be controversial but remember, this is just one idiot's opinion. Before I worked in the sport I was a Mikey fan, and of all the people who have jumped sides, he was the most surprising and I was personally disgusted by it. Using the 500 as a bargaining tool was a critical mistake isn't it ironic that the IRL's original "25 and 8" rule has morphed into NASCAR's "35 and 8" way of doing business.
adb44281 wrote: "Posters who accuse Oreovicz of being a pro-CART journalist haven't been reading him. He issued a scathing critique of CCWS when they displaced longtime drivers to have Latin drivers in Mexico, and in his last controversial story, he basically wrote CCWS' eulogy in an imagined scenario following the possible loss of Paul Tracy. In the Paul Tracy piece, CCWS fans were calling him the same types of names that IRL fans are calling him for this story. Maybe he's not on either series' side. Maybe he's been watching big egos erode the very fabric of our sport for the past 13 years, and he's getting a little of sick of it!"
Oreo says: Couldn't have said it better myself. Look, it's no secret that I like road racing better than ovals and I'm no fan of the loud and ugly IRL cars. But in the years that I have covered both series pretty much full-time (what journalist other than Robin Miller has done that?), I've tried to be "fair and balanced" when it comes to the racing, though that's an almost impossible task when it comes to the politics. I'm not on either series' side -- I just want to see it come together under one umbrella, and I don't really care what it's called.
st.louisrams81 wrote: "Wow I had no idea America had Open-Wheel Racing and I'm a huge ESPN watcher. I thought it was a French thing."
Oreo says: Touché. Actually, the IRL is an Italian chassis with a Japanese engine, while Champ Car is an American chassis with a British engine. The French guy you are thinking of went back to Europe, but he probably won't be replaced by an American.
wgabaldon wrote: "It's about time!!! Thank you John Oreovicz. As a long-time open-wheel racing fan, I guess I fall into the category of a victim of this split. American open-wheel racing no longer holds the appeal it once had and I find it difficult to even watch the current offerings. I hope that more people read this article and let these offenders of open-wheel racing know just how much the fans miss the sport. NASCAR definitely has established its place and fan base, but I miss the art of road racing and the mystique of the drivers. Hopefully more people will take notice."
Oreo says: Thanks for the kind words. Anyone who cares about the Indy 500 or American open-wheel racing is a victim of the split. I also hope that Champ Car and IRL leaders listen to what the fans have to say, but I'm not holding my breath. They're too interested in staking out their own piece of the rapidly shrinking pie at the continuing expense of the sport's even more rapidly shrinking fan base.
rjlinct wrote: "The fun and atmosphere around this type of racing has been [severely] hurt by pettiness. NASCAR, even with its warts, has become the racing series of choice and MONEY. Who's responsible? Every one of these ego-driven men who worry more about their own worth and legacy than the fans and racing. All you guys it's time to wake up. Your legacies are fading. The next generation of fans relate more to Dale Jr., Jimmie Johnson and the rest. The only chance you have is to get together and get it done. I for one would become a returning fan. Open-wheel racing and its future is in your hands. Stand up and LEAD. It's going to be 'One or none!' "
Oreo says: Nothing much I can add to that. I'm just afraid that in the long run, it's going to be none.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org