Headless open wheel racing appears doomed
by Mark Cipolloni

 January 7, 2006

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While open wheel racing thrives elsewhere in the world, in the USA it faces possible extinction, not only because of stock car racing's popularity, but because open wheel racing is its own worst enemy.  The entire sport is in disarray and one has to question whether there will be any open wheel racing in the USA ten years from now. 

How can a sport that dates back to the early 1900s (first Indy 500 in 1911) and has a much longer history than stock car racing, which essentially started in 1950 when NASCAR was formed, all of a sudden be faced with possible extinction?

The headless body of open wheel racing leaves open wheel riding dead into the sunset

The sport is self-destructing on all fronts and it all started on that fateful day in 1994 when Tony George set the wheels in motion for his Indy Racing League.  In what can only be described as the stupidest move in the history of the sport, George drove a stake through the heart of open wheel racing.  In essence he cut off the head (the top rung of open wheel racing) and now the body is dying.

The divide and be conquered disease has now hit the World of Outlaws Winged Sprint Car (with the formation of the National Sprintcar League and then the National Sprint Tour) and USAC's non-Winged Sprint Car Series with the rumored breakaway dirt track series.  Because USAC is hell bent on the Superspeedway Sprintcar idea, and because most team owners can't afford the new cars, or detest moving away from the sports dirt track roots, a new breakaway dirt track series is supposedly in the works.

Open Wheel Racing is dividing and dying

Before Now
CART IRL and Champ Car
Atlantic Atlantic and IPS
WoO WoO and National Sprint Tour
USAC Sprint Cars USAC and rumored new dirt track league

Because Tony George destroyed the top-rung of open wheel racing, the sponsors and manufacturers have slowly left the sport of Indy Car Racing.  Sponsors are smart enough to avoid getting involved in the open wheel civil war when they can move to a much more harmonious environment in NASCAR where everyone is rowing in the same direction.

Even the fans of open wheel racing despise each other.  Numerous fan discussion forums on the internet are fraught with hatred for 'the other side' and are continually trying to tear down the so-called opponent.  Open wheel racing has become its own worst enemy with the various factions caused by the split rejoicing each time something bad happens to the other half. 

Infighting over bragging rights, sponsors, tracks, teams and even drivers is like a cancer that is slowly killing the sport.

What would happen to the sport of stock car racing if all of a sudden NASCAR was broken up, and what is now such a strong focus at the top of the sport became a tit-for-tat battle for supremacy?  The same cancer we see destroying open wheel racing would begin to permeate throughout stock car racing.  

Racing, while a much bigger sport today than it was 20 years ago, simply isn't big enough to be able to survive a breakup.  Racing by its very nature is an expensive sport.  There simply is not enough sponsorship money to go around to ensure a multifaceted effort.

Behind the scenes the France family was smart enough to head off a possible breakaway league a couple of years ago.  The TRAC league was announced and it even had NASCAR legend Cale Yarborough as one of its key figures.  Mysteriously TRAC quickly faded away and everyone suspects that the France family did whatever it had to behind the scenes to see that the league never saw the light of day.


There must be a merger of the IRL and Champ Car, or one must soon die, for the sake of the sport's future

Unless the key principals in open wheel racing step back, realize that their sport is under attack (both from outside competition as well as its own internal divide-and-be-conquered cancer) and unite, I simply don't see America's oldest form of motorsport being around at all 10 or so years from now unless the head of open wheel racing is put back on its body by reuniting the IRL and Champ Car.  The longer the two stay divided, the better the chance open wheel racing will eventually become extinct in the USA.

And the history books will point to that fateful day in 1994 when one Anton George sliced off its head.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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