Much has been ballyhooed on fan forums about the rise of one side of the American formula car war and the demise of its opponent, or whispered about in paddocks and bars amongst worried racers concerned for their jobs. The media has touted its opinions as facts about the state of both sides, and everyone speculates wildly.
But consider that the IRL has a confirmed 2007 car count of only 16. They have become the CART of the 1980s, with Roger Penske, foreign engine manufacturers and the few remaining big sponsors pulling the strings that orchestrate every race up to and including â€œthe greatest spectacle.â€ Seats at Indy go unfilled, unsold. The biggest â€œnamesâ€ in the game are a young Andretti and a pouty exhibitionist who has seen more success in the pages of menâ€™s magazines than on the race track. Even Sam Hornish, poster boy for the IRLâ€™s original â€œvision,â€ has succumbed to the lure of NASCAR.
Champ Car, formerly known as CART, hasnâ€™t fared much better. With a weak car count hovering around 18 and a weaker list of mostly unknown drivers, the once diverse and challenging series has become a taunting shadow of itself with a shallow pool of talent. Gone are all ovals and super speedways and most of the natural terrain road courses, leaving the circus shows of urban temporary circuits to draw the party crowd. Gone is the technology, as the new Panoz package and rules in effect make Champ Car a spec series: no development. Apparently, the â€œthree amigosâ€ (of whom only two seem to be left with any decision-making authority) have determined that the whole world has accepted the NASCAR game of the â€œshowâ€ regardless of its content: racing is no longer a sport; itâ€™s entertainment.
Certain pie-eyed, optimistic â€œsuper fansâ€ who see the Champ Car world only through the rosiest of tinted lenses proclaim 2006 the best year ever, and sing the praises of the owners whose they desperately court as they anticipate beholding a dazzling future. But just what does it say about a series when one of the series co-owners, after years of freezing wages and eliminating the crewâ€™s prize money has gone on an even more extensive economy â€œdown-sizingâ€ by firing one-third of the crew? And more firings are in the works as this owner has decided to cut his Atlantic program from 4 to 2 cars for 2007.
One prominent racing rumors web site announced that the drastic action was an effort to launch a championship-winning effort in 2007 and consistently in the future. No offense to Mark, but he doesn’t get it. At first I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking he simply didnâ€™t know the truth behind the scenes, but after he was made aware of what was really going on, he continued to promote his PR theory that “PT good, crew bad, this is necessary” when a team has â€œlacklusterâ€ results. This is the same crew that won five of eight races once AJ Allmendinger walked through the door this year. This is the same crew that has won numerous races and a championship. This crew knows how to do it. But letâ€™s face it: Lavin, Dominguez, Tagliani, Carpentier and Gidley were not championship contenders â€¦ and several weren’t even race winners. Even Paul Tracy barely won the title in 2003, despite all the effort of Playerâ€™s behind him and a couple competitors busily throwing away every opportunity to steal the points lead.
No, sorry: Iâ€™m not buying Markâ€™s explanation. I happen to know that Gerry Forsythe has demanded terminations at the end of every season. This year, he got them. And they began with the most experienced â€“ and most expensive, no coincidence there â€“ crew members. The entire gearbox department was let go. Do you suppose itâ€™s mere coincidence that at a recent test in Houston after the entire gearbox department had been sacked, they had gearbox trouble? Of the two guys left on PTâ€™s car, one has exactly one year of experience at this level: again, no coincidence â€“ heâ€™s cheaper.
Much of the slash and burn at FCR is due to PTâ€™s insistence. Never one to shoulder any responsibility for his actions, PT immediately points the finger in every direction. Signed to a five-year contract, he has job security. Never mind that PT has been in the Indy race shop exactly one time in three years, refusing even to take the time to go have a new seat made. Never mind that the reason PT not only didnâ€™t win but didnâ€™t even finish many races this year was due directly to his own mistakes on track and the persistent red mist he seems enveloped in. PT has a temper; anyone whoâ€™s listened to the teamâ€™s radios can vouch for that. Sadly, the fanatics at Crapwagon revel in PTâ€™s embarrassing antics, like the ridiculous mask and cape he wore in Toronto. With Gerry contractually bound to pay PTâ€™s fines for on- and off-track skirmishes, what incentive does he have to behave?
Unfortunately, Gerry is an absentee owner who is more of a businessman than a real racer, apparently more concerned about the bottom dollar than running a winning team. Take a look at the â€œwinningestâ€ team in the series: Newman-Haas. One of the keys to their success is consistency. Some of the crewmembers have been there 20 years. There is very little turnover. The guys are experienced, talented and work well together. Itâ€™s logical to expect that a team owner/series owner like Gerry would know that and apply it to his own team. He had a winning crew, but he blamed them for failures because of the lame excuses and temper tantrum of an overweight, overblown driver with a mouth as big as his attitude is bad.
PTâ€™s comment in the Toronto paper about how Gerry rewards loyalty is pure rubbish. While Iâ€™ve seen Gerry turn on anyone who doesnâ€™t obligingly tow his line, he has not demonstrated reciprocal loyalty, as evidenced by the immediate discharge of long-time, talented employees. His judgment relies on Neil Mickelwright, vice president of operations, and Phil LePan, team manager â€“ two of the most highly paid team members, by the way, who might just be more concerned about saving their own jobs than standing up to Gerry by pointing out that championships are not won with a reduced crew of inexperienced men. After all, Tony Brunetti was shuttled off to Mexico when he dared criticize Greg Moore, whose father went to Playerâ€™s, who complained to Gerry, who got rid of Bruno for telling the emperor he had no clothes. FCR is a dangerous place to be honest.
Some objective people within the industry have commented that it doesnâ€™t bode well for the series if one of the owners is in economy mode, especially if he’s filthy rich. We’re not talking about Derrick Walker having to pinch pennies. We’re talking about a multi-millionaire successful businessman who throws away money on hats for a potential sponsor (that never came to anything) but doesn’t want to pay his guys a fair wage or any prize money.
If loyal, dependable, talented, race- and championship-winning crewmen who have been employed by the team and series owner for 6, 10 or 15 years arenâ€™t safe, there is absolutely no security in Champ Car. If Gerry makes decisions about race venues, chassis, engines, gearboxes and rules the way he does about his team â€“ from a distance, without accurate information and always with his eye on the budget rather than on whatâ€™s best for the racing â€“ then Champ Car doesnâ€™t stand a chance of hell in being anything more than an open wheel spec circus running parades around cities around the globe.
Just as the IRL has become the old CART, so, too, has Champ Car become the old IRL, with two obscenely rich megalomaniacs calling the shots, destroying the racing through spec equipment and bad officiating, screwing up the schedule and the TV package, and teasing us with big promises for future greatness if only we wait and continue to believe in their â€œvision.â€
Rusports also recently let some crewmembers go. When he hired them, Carl Russo assured them he would be around long after they were gone, and that moving their families to Denver posed no risk. Now theyâ€™re out there without a job, but with a mortgage and a family to feed. Weâ€™ve returned to the old days of motor racing, when teams laid off the team for the winter to save money â€“ and because there wasnâ€™t any work to be done on the cars. With these spec Panoz cars, thereâ€™s little work to do year-round, but when team owners are firing the most experienced crewmen due to costs, it sets a treacherous precedent and begins the brain drain. Look for the talented guys to turn up in ALMS. Thereâ€™s nothing for them to do in American formula car racing.
Just as I reluctantly turned away from the Indy 500 once Tony George ruined it, after years of working in and covering CART/Champ Car, Iâ€™m turning my attention to Formula One and World Rally, and pinning my hopes for the future of â€œrealâ€ racing on ALMS.