650 HP, 750 HP, 850 HP - it doesn't seem to matter!


 by Mark Cipolloni
May 2, 2001

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It is with great pain that I say what I am about to say. Who can forget the great duel between Michael Andretti and Juan Montoya at Michigan last year, or Scott Pruett and Al Unser Jr.?  What about last years first IRL race at Texas?  Sensational!   Regrettably, the events of this past weekend in Atlanta, Georgia and Ft. Worth, Texas underscore one very simple fact - Indy Cars probably don't belong on high speed ovals, no matter what the horsepower.  It doesn't matter if you're running with the IRL's 650 HP or CART's 850 HP, the danger to the drivers and the danger to the fans is high.

I'm certain track owners such as Bruton Smith won't be happy about the above statement, but he would be even less happy had another fan been killed at his race track in Atlanta, Georgia when yet another tire flew into the grandstands.  The IRL and Bruton Smith should count their lucky stars that someone wasn't killed. It happened to CART at Michigan, it happened to the IRL at Charlotte, one other track last year (I think Texas) and this past weekend in Atlanta. A fan sitting in the top row was even killed at Indy one year when a tire flew into the grandstands. I count at least 5 oval races whereby tires flew into the grandstands and killed, or nearly killed race fans.  There are countless more.

The IRL dodged a bullet in Atlanta last weekend.  Note loose wheels, upside down cars, fire and flying cars.  One tire cleared the catch fencing by 50 feet in this photo and this photo on RacingOne.com

In this photo on Speedvision, by F. Pierce Williams, we count at least 5 loose wheels.  So much for wheel tethers.

Killing race fans isn't the only issue.  What about the drivers?  Did you ever stand by the track and watch the cars zip by on these high speed tracks?  The cars are so fast it's ludicrous, and I say that having watched races for nearly 40 years.  Not only are the drivers reaction times reduced to almost zero, the high g-forces put extra loads on the cars which could result in equipment failure.  And, as we saw in Texas, the cars have reached the limit of a human body to withstand such g-forces.  The IRL is just below the limit.  With a little bit of refinement by the teams, they too will be up at 230 MPH at those tracks.

Sure the IRL, with its 650 HP engines, race below the limit of humans being able to remain conscious and drive the car, but just barely.  The accident in Atlanta was so bad the IRL is VERY lucky none of the drivers were killed.  Winston Cup cars racing in packs such as at Talladega or Daytona are one thing, but open wheel cars running in packs is a disaster about to happen - witness Atlanta.  One little tap between two open wheel cars at those speeds and a melee ensues.  

Everyone marveled about how good last years side-by-side racing at the IRL race in Texas was.  Certainly it was quite entertaining.  But, whereas the Winston Cup car drivers can make slight mistakes (i.e. tap each other all race long) open wheel cars aren't afforded that luxury.  How much longer can the IRL have 'pack racing' at those speeds before it comes up to bite them in the posterior?  Someone is going to die - either a fan or a driver.  

Many people feel 'Indy Cars' don't belong on high banked ovals.  Given events over the last two years, it's not hard to share that view.  Dead drivers.  Crippled drivers.  Dead fans.  It's alarming.

CART HP Dilemma Solved too
CART has been stuck in a quandary trying to figure out what to do about its HP issue - too much HP on high speed ovals, just enough everywhere else.  How do you build an engine to satisfy both?  You can't, hence CART has procrastinated with the issue for quite some time.

Given that even with 650 HP, the IRL (Charlotte, Atlanta, and another track in 2000) is sending tires into the grandstands, CART is going to have to ask itself whether it really should be racing on high speed ovals. Even if you take the HP way down to the IRL level, look how serious of an accident can result on these tracks.  How low do you have to take the HP before it becomes safe?  550?  450?  350?

Given that the grandstands look empty at those big tracks (which ruin CART's image), given the danger to the drivers, and given the danger to the fans, are they really a place for CART....or the IRL for that matter?  

Which leads me to a key conclusion - if CART eliminates the high speed ovals for the above reasons, their HP dilemma goes away. CART can then have an engine with 750+ HP and race safely on all the remaining circuits - streets, road courses, and flat ovals. As many CART drivers have said on numerous occasions - it's nice having all that HP.......except on the high speed ovals.

By trying to race on such a wide range of circuits, CART has painted itself in a corner.  If it drops the dangerous high-speed ovals, it can still race on natural terrain road courses, street circuits and flat ovals.  That's still more diverse than any other open wheel racing league.

The fact of the matter is that CART's most successful venues have been the street and road circuits.  The majority of its oval races are poorly attended (as are the IRL's).  Given the apparent lack of interest of the fans in open wheel racing on oval tracks, given the inherent danger as evidenced by fans being killed in the grandstands (Charlotte and Michigan) and drivers being killed, maimed or paralyzed (both in open wheel and stock cars), and given the high cost of replacing a car every time one is pulverized against the concrete retaining walls, one has to question why CART thinks it needs to race on the high speed ovals.

CART Must Decide What It Wants To Be
CART appears stuck in another quandary, it doesn't know if it wants to be an American racing series, an American racing series that races occasionally overseas, or true international series.  Does it want to go head-to-head with NASCAR and the IRL and try to grab a few of few of the crumbs that are left in a severely over saturated USA motorsports marketplace, or does it want play in Formula One's sandbox and go after the markets F1 can't satisfy.  

NASCAR is successful because it has defined its product, defined its market, and focused all of its efforts to excel at one thing - stock car racing on ovals.  IRL, although still experiencing severe growing pains, defined its mission in life and has stuck by it. Ditto for F1, they defined their series as the premier road racing series in the world.  In all three cases there is no mistaking what their series is, and if you are a sponsor or a manufacturer, you know what you are getting yourself into before you dive in.  If it makes good business sense to be in one of those particular racing series, you enter it knowing who your market is.

Such is not the case with CART.  Is it a 'national' championship series, or a 'world' championship series?

By being mostly an American series, CART has attracted mostly American sponsors, or American arms of Global companies.  Phillip Morris USA sponsors the Penske team.  Toyota USA foots 100% of the Toyota CART program.  Pioneer USA is sponsoring Alex Zanardi.  While about 50% of CART's sponsors, such as Texaco, would love for CART to be more international because they sell products globally, the other 50% want CART to focus on the USA because that is where they derive most of their sales.  

CART either has to decide to be a true global company that attracts global companies, or pull back, merge with the IRL and become a stronger all-American Indy Car series.  However, that means bucking the likes of NASCAR, NHRA, Baseball, Football, Hockey, Basketball, etc.  In the USA there are too many races, too many racing series, and not enough fans nor sponsor money to go around.  Although CART would lose a good number of its current sponsors by becoming a true international series, it would pick up just as many new ones, or even more.  A company that sells product worldwide is typically larger and has a larger marketing budget for things such as racing.

F1 can't satisfy the world's demand for state-of-the-art open wheel racing.  There is a market just waiting for CART to snatch it.  But does CART have the know-how and stomach to become a true 'world' championship series?

If it were me, I would position CART as a true 'world' championship series, that races on ovals (relatively flat ones), street circuits and road courses worldwide.  Whereas F1 is positioned as purely a road racing world championship, I would position CART to be a bit more diverse and market that diversity.  I would shift some of CART's USA races (weaker ones) over to Europe and Asia and add a 2nd race in Mexico City.

As can be seen from the table below, it would not be difficult to position CART as a true world championship:

Existing Formula One Geographic Breakdown Proposed CART Geographic Breakdown
Europe  11 64% Europe 4 19%
Asia/Australia 3 18% Asia/Australia 3 14%
South America 1 6% South America 1 4%
USA 1 6% USA 9 41%
Canada 1 6% Canada 3 14%
Mexico 0 0 Mexico 2 9%


17 races 100%


22 races 100%

F1 holds 11 of its 17 races in Europe, which is smaller than the USA.  Yet it calls itself a world championship series.  Looking at it from purely a geographic perspective, CART could be a more diverse world championship series than F1.  Since Europe is a hot-bed of open wheel racing, I would add two more races to the existing two European races for a total of four.  I would add a 2nd race in Mexico in Mexico City and one race in China.

It's time for CART to define its place in motorsports and stop trying to be everything to everybody. 

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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