I have been a fan of Indy car racing since I was a child. It was my early fascination with the Indianapolis 500 that led to the discovery that some of my heroes actually raced at other places and in equipment such as the dirt champ cars and sprints and midgets.
I loved the move to diversify that came in the mid-1960s when the road courses were added to the all-oval schedule. But I also joined the U.S. Auto Club in order to write a letter of protest when they announced that the mile dirt tracks at Indianapolis, Du Qoin and Springfield would no longer be part of the national championship after the 1971 season.
I was reporting on the sport by then and I adored everything about Indy car racing, particularly the years when the field for the 500 would include F1 drivers, and NASCAR stars, and sports cars racers and the best of the midget and sprint-car crowd.
Unlike some of my compatriots, I was on the fence when CART split from the USAC in 1979. As with everything in life, the fight was over money: the USAC was happy with the status quo; Roger Penske, Pat Patrick, Dan Gurney and Jim Trueman saw what F1 was raking in when it raced in Montreal and Long Beach and wanted in on that action.
When I say I was on the fence, I could see where CART was headed and I wasn’t convinced the sport needed another F1 series. But when the USAC threw in the towel and CART was all we had, I climbed aboard like most others.
But there were things happening that made me uneasy. Guys I’d never heard of were getting rides. Unlike F1, with Ecclestone, and NASCAR, with the Frances, there wasn’t a steady hand on the Indy car tiller because every two years, it seemed, there was a new sheriff in town. The Indy cars were losing popularity and market share and young up-and-comers started thinking about racing in NASCAR instead of the open-wheelers and the alarming thing is that nobody involved in the sport at the time seemed to notice. The arrogance was remarkable.
Like him or hate him, Tony George saw what was happening and tried to do something about it. I never agreed with the route he chose but he made an effort. It didn’t work, but he tried. Everybody laughed at his vision, but at least he had one. Not like today.
Indy car racing, at this moment, is in terrible shape. As was the case previously, the people inside the sport don’t seem to realize it.
There is no direction. There is no game plan. Yet another Whiz Kid has been hired who knows nothing about auto racing. And the guy in charge of operations and competition makes a major public statement about marketing?
Does anybody know who's in charge and what’s going on?
The Indianapolis 500 champion – the guy who should be the face of the series – doesn’t have a ride for next season because the team he drives for might be out of business. And the brightest, smartest, talented and media savvy young driver who's won the most races this year (and who happens to be a Canadian) is in danger of being out of the series next season because if he wants to stay he has to buy his ride.
The inmates are in charge of the asylum. After running the previous chief steward out of town, the drivers are out to get the new one with one racer, in particular, publicly calling for the man’s head and saying that he doesn’t care if he gets fined for saying it. And a TV announcer who embarrassed the series on live international television two weeks ago still has a job?
One of these days, somebody in a position of influence and responsibility is going to come to his or her senses and ask the obvious question: what are these cars and drivers doing racing on city streets? Why are they in Baltimore and not at Road America? Why are they in Toronto and not at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park? NASCAR is the most successful racing organization in North America and they race at speedways and on road courses and doesn’t that tell you something?
Is it any wonder that the title sponsor is bowing out after this season?
As was illustrated at Old Mosport last weekend, with the biggest crowd at that place in years, there is no comparison between the organization, and professionalism, and marketing power, and - yes - sophistication of NASCAR racing and the embarrassment that the IndyCar series has become.
I frankly don’t think there’s any saving it.
- NORRIS McDONALD