Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It Is Finished

Back in the early 1990s, American open-wheel racing was in great shape. The CART series, which included (but did not sanction) the Indy 500, was on equal footing with NASCAR when it came to TV ratings and sponsorship dollars. When CART started running at Surfer's Paradise in Australia, it caused a fit with the F1 powers that be, which saw it as competition. It boasted an interesting blend of American and international drivers, including ex-F1 champs. Multiple chassis and engine builders gave the series a deep technical variety, which was matched by the circuit's mix of short ovals, super speedways, road courses, and street circuits. All that came to an end when a rift between Indy owner Tony George and the CART car owners led to the creation of two separate series, the Indy Racing League and (eventually) the Champ Car World Series.

The split has drained the American open wheel scene of almost all of its positive attributes. Drivers, sponsors, and teams have fled Champ Car, which has been reduced to a handful of spec cars running only on street and road courses. The IRL isn't much better, outside of Indy itself and the events it shares with other series. It has branched out to some road racing venues (good ones, too - Watkins Glen, Sears Point, and Mid-Ohio among others), but the oval races are foot-to-the-floor pack racing just waiting for disaster to happen.

For years, lots of open wheel fans have begged the power that be in both series to somehow bury the hatchet and create a single unified series and try to rebuild what's left of the Indy tradition in America. It finally looks like it's going to happen, but it will be more a takeover by the IRL rather than a true meeting of the minds.

And I'm OK with that. Don't get me wrong - Tony George pretty much single handedly ruined things when he took his Indy 500 ball and went home, but the collective mismanagement of the CART/Champ Car guys made it inevitable that they'd run the series into the ground. Any unified series needs to have the Indy 500 as its centerpiece, so that means it will have to involve George. Maybe if he comes out of this as the top dog, it'll be better for everyone in the long run. I certainly hope so.

UPDATE: Perhaps I spoke too soon, but the writing certainly is on the wall.