Let’s Keep it Simple

INDIANAPOLIS, December 7, 2004 – It was more than ten years ago that [then] General Motors’ motorsports chief Herb Fishel addressed cost control and relevance in racing, but it took a decade of spiraling budgets and inefficiency for the balance of the racing world to wake up and start to listen.

That truism became apparent at last week’s Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) meeting in Dearborn, MI, home of Ford Motor Co. Ford, one should recall has pulled out of the most expensive racing series in the world – the FIA’s Formula One – and sold its interest in both Jaguar Formula One and engine maker Cosworth Ltd. to separate entities.

Now even the FIA’s president Max Mosley (who was going to step down at the end of his current term but rescinded that choice earlier this year) agrees with Fishel. Motorsports must be relevant to peoples’ lives in order for it to succeed. Or continue to succeed in a shrinking world economy.

Mosley needs first to start working on that premise at home with his bloated top-ranked series, one that generates billions of dollars in order to make one driver first to the checkered flags. Influx of funding has worked for Ferrari over the past few years as Michael Schumacher picked up Championship #7 in 2004 and shows no signs of stopping his records rampage.

In the meantime, everyone else in F1 is having trouble keeping up with the money and talent trail blazed by Schumacher, Ferrari et al. Only Honda has stepped up to the plate to challenge on a regular basis, albeit unsuccessfully thus far in the game. Should Jenson Button and/or Takuma Sato take victory in 2005, does that mean the millions upon millions spent by Japan’s eclectic automaker creates value for them? I think not.

While Honda claims to be a racing company that uses the fruits of its labors to improve road-going vehicles, the trickle-down of technology hasn’t resulted in the most interesting cars of late from them. More and more Honda vehicles have become bland. While the racing engines are exciting in both F1 and American open wheel venues, the cars are not.

Honda put plenty of money in its Indy Racing League IndyCar Series program and received the benefit of a 2004 series title with Tony Kanaan and Andretti Green Racing. It helped bankroll new teams and the company spent amply to develop both the outgoing 3.5-liter engine while simultaneously working on the 3-liter mill that sprang to full-grown life at the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

When Buddy Rice earned MBNA Pole Position and went on to win at the Brickyard, the writing was on the wall. It was no secret that Toyota had put the bulk of its efforts into the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for 2004 nor was it any shock that GM Racing and Chevrolet hadn’t spent their money well enough on either teams or Cosworth-designed 3-liter engines for IndyCar Series competition.

Chevy, in fact boasted only one title this year: best technology center on wheels for its tri-level hauler that goes from race to race. The truck debuted at Indy and created hauler envy throughout the paddock. Now that GM is pulling out of IRL at the end of the year, what happens to this monstrosity?

Sometimes, then, it’s not just how much you spend but how well you spend it, and with both Toyota and Honda, the expenditures went pretty well. That Toyota won in NCTS in its first year wasn’t unexpected; that they didn’t take the championship, as the company had in IRL on the first try was more of a surprise. Honda’s overall victory, winning all but the first and last races of a 16-event campaign was no shock; they were humiliated in 2003 when Toyota came in on fire.

GM’s lax treatment of its IRL program should not be a bombshell to anyone; when Toyota and Honda came into the IndyCar Series in 2003, Chevy approached their arrival with a “so what” attitude. Had not Bernard Ferguson of Cosworth come to a meeting of the minds with John Barnes at Pennzoil Panther Racing during the month of May, no doubt the late-season wins by Sam Hornish Jr. in his final races with Panther would never have occurred.

So yes, Herb Fishel is right that racing – and open wheel racing in particular – needs a shot in the arm that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with attitude.

Even as NASCAR’s Nextel Cup stampedes into 2005 with template racing that blurs the distinction between car marques in all but number and sponsor identification, even that ten-ton elephant should likely take a look inside and see if it, too, is losing relevance.

While Mark Martin, one of the staunchest foes of that 10-race Chase for the Cup before it occurred changed his mind since the beginning of the year – and it helped that he was part of the Chase – the question of importance is still here with NASCAR, no matter what they might profess. Fans by the thousands are turned off by outwardly manipulated competition, something they’ve not been subjected to in the past (or so they think).

With fines and points problems as the 36-race schedule wound to a close and with the most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. earning more than his share of both wrist-slaps, NASCAR turned against its core fans.

Kurt Busch may turn out to be a good champion, but those with longer memories than two seconds might recall the immature Busch throwing his helmet at equally immature Jimmy Spencer not very long ago – and acting the fool in doing so. His actions then were embarrassing to the sport; no doubt NASCAR hopes it won’t happen again.

Now, of course, with Toyota and Honda (likely) to get into “stock car” racing, everything will change here in the USA. The IRL is investigating using stock blocks again after having nothing but trouble with them in the IndyCar Series’ infancy. And NASCAR? Well, it’s looking the other way at potential troubles, sticking its head in the sand.

I don’t have all the answers to bring relevance back to racing but I bet Herb Fishel does and it’s my belief that sanctioning bodies around the world need to look to people like Herb, who have the experience and knowledge to give the racing world a step up.