Hmm, gee. It seems that, after a summer of rabid rumors and grandiose pronouncements, we have two Indy car racing series after all. How about that.
I don't know how many people were surprised by the recent announcement by Tony George, issued during the running of the Vegas.com 500, and since repeated by many sources, that the IRL has broken off talks with CART and is no longer interested in pursuing a merger. I will admit to having been a little surprised myself, but it was a very pleasant surprise. People who have read my words here or on IRList know that I am no fan of CART, and so I am perfectly happy to see the two entities going their separate ways. Even so, that wasn't the most important issue. I didn't realize this until I sat down to write a column about it, and the end result came out quite a bit different from what I intended to write. I feel a bit like the proverbial guy who set out to buy a bicycle and came home with a Dallara... or something like that.
Somebody stopped the madness
The most important issue was making a plan and sticking to it, and not letting oneself get drawn aside by temptations. I'm sure the opportunity to pull the glamorous, sponsor-laden CART circus back into the fold must have been more than a bit of a temptation to the IRL office. And who is to say that, at a different time and under different circumstances, it might not have worked. But at this time and under these circumstances, it isn't going to work, and I think this has been obvious for a while now. So, dragging it out further was only prolonging the agony: It was agony for the teams, who were left in limbo about what equipment they were going to be using next year, where they were going to be running, and whether or not they were going to be able to afford it; all of which has greatly hurt in pursuing sponsors. It was agony for the fans, some of which (and this includes some of the hard-core fans that have been around since 1996) responded by tuning the series out. (I'll have to admit that it somewhat spoiled my own enjoyment of some truly fine IRL racing this summer.) And it must have been agony for the people on the spot in Indy who seemingly were unable to explain what they were doing or why they were doing it, in an attempt to prevent a runaway situation in the press. (Which, however, happened anyway, just to demonstrate once again the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished.)
But the worst part was having the IRL's leadership kidnapped all summer. Going into this year, most prognosticators said this would be a make-or-break year for the IRL. It hasn't really turned out to be either, but there were many opportunities that have been missed this year. While the leadership was off pursuing the merger talks, there seems to have been no one minding the store, and as a result several things that should have been good (or least neutral) turned out bad instead. The much-ballyhooed TV deal with Fox went sour for the fans because of the SportsNet (making its first attempt at national broadcast) failing to hang together, a situation which the IRL could have strong-armed had anyone been available to take care of it. Asleep-at-the-switch leadership blundered into a sucker punch with the Cleveland deal; it still isn't clear if what happened was a result of all of the politics not being worked in advance or if the whole thing was a setup from the start, but in any event the people who needed to be there to either make it work or to walk away at the beginning weren't there, and as a result the League got PR egg on its face. And the extent to which the situation with Speedway Motorsports fell was, well, we won't even get into that.
Hey IRL office: we need you here, working with us the teams and us the drivers and us the promoters and us the fans. Not off gallivanting around the world trying to strike a deal which stood at least an even chance of being to the IRL's detriment anyway. Yes, we give you an A+ for effort; the extent to which you tried to repair the "split" (I don't accept that it was any such thing, but that's an issue for another column), bearing the insults being flung at you with grace and offering as many compromises as you dared while trying to watch out for the interests of your own, is to be commended. But few people today consider Don Quixote a hero; at some point results have to matter, and I think it became been obvious at least a month ago that nothing good was going to come of this. While you were away, we ran into a few problems, and now we need your help.
Our backs, relieving them of the weight of several monkeys
The best thing to happen in a while has happened. The uncertainty is over. A decision has been made. We have a direction; it might not be the shortest possible path, but it is a path we chose for ourselves and it's probably a good one. We have a committment; specifics can change but our ethics and values are intact, and let's make sure we keep them that way. We have a plan; we don't have to be slaves to the plan, but we have to have one. And we have an opportunity; across the land there is much unhappiness building among racing fans, and we just might have what they're looking for. Let CART go their own way; may they live long and prosper, but we're not going to worry about them anymore. Any further whining from certain corners let be cheerfully and in good humor ignored. We don't have time for that. We have brushed the wall and have some damage that needs to be repaired. Sponsors and suppliers are nervous; attendance is stagnant, and our mid-season TV switch (just when the Fox team was getting into a groove) has left ratings all over the map. We need to spend some time in the garage replacing the bent parts and getting the chassis setup back to the baseline. So welcome back Tony George, Leo Mehl, Fred Nation, et al. Now let's get to work.
One further thought: The IRL and the media
The breakoff announcement has generated some surprisingly favorable press, and even more surprisingly, an outright apology from at least one journalist for the way the IRL has been reported in the past. (Note: I don't know how long the links below will remain good; apologies in advance if you are reading this for the first time and they are already stale.) Dave Argabright, writing for Speedvision on August 29, said "We have, for the most part, chosen the direction of the news, rather than simply reported it." The general consensus outside of the Star-News cloister is that the IRL needed to make a decision and it did, and even those who think it was the wrong decision say it was better than not deciding. As Jeff Olsen said in a column for Racer magazine, anyone who thinks they are smarter than the IRL brain trust can "Build a car. Win the damn race." I think it's becoming apparent to at least some in the mainstream media that the IRL has handled all of this summer's gyrations with class and dignity, and that most of the sniping often attributed to the IRL is actually coming from other quarters. (I think it's also beginning to dawn on some of them that they have been spun, and perhaps they are getting just a wee bit sick and tired of having to answer for publishing information that turns out to be from unreliable sources.) Maybe this announcement will signal not only a return to committment for the IRL, but also a thaw in relations with the racing press.