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The IRL Creates Separate Championships for Ovals and Road Courses

In an what is apparently an effort to spice up their struggling show, and also in recognition of the basic cultural divide that exists in American motor racing, the IndyCar series has introduced separate championship trophies for road courses an ovals this year.

This is the first year in which the IRL-sanctioned will feature  more road and street courses than ovals.  Ironically, when Tony George first formed the IRL series in 1996 to compete directly with CART, which had been the chief sanctioning body for Indy-type cars since the late seventies.

At the time, it was George’s stated intention to return the series to its American roots.  Since its inception, CART had evolved into more of a European-style formula, with road courses becoming more dominant on the calendar, and the teams increasingly featuring foreign drivers.

George hoped that American stock block engines would become the staple of the series again, as well as chassis constructed by American companies.  He also hoped to see the field populated more by homegrown driving talent.

Ultimately, the CART-IRL rivalry had a negative impact on American open-wheel racing as a whole.  Audiences dwindled, as did CART’s treasury, and the two series merged in 2008.  But one plus one hasn’t equaled two, and the IRL continues to struggle to find a viable fan base.

Ironically, as the IRL/IndyCar series has matured, it has grown more and more to resemble the old CART formula, the concept of which had been Tony George’s bete noir.  The Indy Car spec chassis is built by Dallara, an Italian firm; the engines are supplied by Honda, a Japanese company, and the tires come from Firestone (also owned by the Japanese now, although originally an American brand).  Moreover, of the 26 drivers listed as regular participants in the series, only three are American.  There are six from Brazil.  Other drivers hail from Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Columbia, Japan, Switzerland and Canada.

So, while Tony George’s intention might have been to fashion an open-wheeled version of NASCAR, instead he’s essentially cloned the old CART format, and in so doing has provided the US with a truly international series on home soil, much as CART used to be.  Whether or not the series will thrive in the future remains to be seen.  The chief beneficiary to emerge from the CART-IRL war was NASCAR.  While the open-wheel racing fan base became fragmented over the past 15 years or so, NASCAR boomed.

Meanwhile, in an effort to have the best of both worlds, Tony George also brought Formula 1 to Indianapolis.  It was a costly venture.  He revamped Indy to FIA specifications, with expensive upgrades to the pits and press tower, not to mention the construction of an infield course.  The F1 races were never fiscally viable, however, and eventually Bernie Ecclestone gathered up his marbles and went looking for a new game elsewhere.

Perhaps as an illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences, Tony George ended up being forced out of his position as CEO of the Indianapolis Speedway. The Hulman family had tired of the way he was running through the family fortune to promote his various schemes.  He’d held the position since 1989.  George is the grandson of Terre Haute, IN businessman Tony Hulman, who bought the track in 1945.

While George’s defenders see him as a visionary, others see him as the man who nearly wrecked open-wheel racing in this country.  Earlier this year, former Indianapolis winner, CART champ and F1 world champion Mario Andretti told ESPN.com, “Tony’s legacy is not a very good one from my standpoint.  His grandfather, Tony Hulman, did more for open-wheel racing than any other individual. Tony George did more to destroy it than any other individual.  That’s the only way you can put it. It is diminished today because he started the IRL.”

The most unique aspect of the CART series during its heyday during the 1990’s was its hybrid quality.  It boasted of being the only series that featured races on four different types of venue: short ovals, super-speedways, temporary street circuits and purpose built road courses.  The IRL has now settled into much the same format.

However, a hybrid series can be problematic.  American race fans tend to either favor ovals (which are almost synonymous with NASCAR these days), or road racing.  There’s probably a small portion of the total fan base where the two groups intersect.  This was an issue that CART faced over time (eventually they dropped nearly all of their oval and speedway venues from the schedule), and the IRL will now face it as well.

Rather than ignore the cultural difference, they’ve actually chosen to exploit it in their marketing plan, by essentially separating the formula into two separate divisions.  While it’s still one series, and presumably all of the regular teams will appear at all of the events, it will actually be two separate championships.  One wonders if, over time, this separation will see the oval and road course specialists drift apart, such that each group focuses only on their trophy of choice.

In any event, it’s an interesting idea.  I only wonder of it’s something that will breathe fresh air into the series, or hasten its demise.

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