Here's a fact we hate to acknowledge: you and I are in love with a minority sport and auto racing will always be fighting for relevancy in America. That's not just because it struggles (successfully, on occasion) to show its green credentials in an era when we're very conscientious about such things. Nor is it just because only a small section of the population equates what most of us do every day – drive – to what happens on a racetrack. No, fundamentally it's because of economics and accessibility. How many family homes do you know of that don't have a basketball, a catcher's mitt or a football somewhere around their house? Now how many do you know that have a kart in their garage? Exactly. We see our beloved NFL, MLB or NBA team on TV, and can then step outside and play a very loose approximation of that game in our backyard or a park…and for zero dollars. Unless you live near a karting facility, you don't have an easy cure for your need for speed. Nor will it be free.
This is by no means a U.S.-only phenomenon. Around the world, motorsports of all types must compete with soccer, golf, boxing, hockey, rugby, tennis, cricket and, every four years, the Olympics and the soccer World Cup. But if racing is a small part of the world's sporting pie, it is therefore vital for each series to grab as much of that slice as possible. Therefore the governors of the IZOD IndyCar Series have a huge task ahead to ensure that U.S. open-wheel racing does not just disappear from the sight of all but its bedrock enthusiasts. Let's consider what it's competing against:
- In 2012, Formula 1 returned to America to huge coverage, and held a thrilling race on a great new track in front of a 117,000-plus raceday crowd. It will return to Circuit of The Americas in 2013, and by 2014 there may be a second U.S. race in New Jersey.
- In 2013, NASCAR – the behemoth that dwarfs other race series in America – has a new generation of cars that look more related to road-going sedans. It has a chirpy, appealing and thankfully pugnacious new champion in Brad Keselowski, and it has great TV coverage across FOX, ESPN, ABC, TNT and ABC.
- In 2014, U.S. sports car racing reunifies with a strong TV package (presumably), dramatic-looking prototypes, multiple manufacturers and a huge pack of cars that look like road-going sports cars. Plus it can rely on this country's long love affair with sports cars that started with the Corvette and European exotics in the 1950s and continues in the 21st century with…well, much the same.
In charge of IndyCar's future, to a lesser or greater extent, are Jeff Belskus, the IMS CEO, interim IndyCar CEO and president of Hulman and Co.; Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman and Co.; and (assuming the SPEED.com report of their imminent promotions is correct) Robby Greene, IndyCar interim COO and Doug Boles, the IMS COO. Whichever of them emerges as the primary “talking head” who gets interviewed on TV and quoted in news stories will have big shoes to fill, because former CEO Randy Bernard was a favorite among IndyCar followers. As an “ideas” man, he listened to everyone, including the fans. He may not have always agreed with all of them, in which case he'd go his own way, nor were all his ideas a success. But he did have a big-picture mentality that went beyond just trying to make/save money for Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the short term. Crucially, he also was perceived as the charismatic guy keeping those big bad team owners in line. Ultimately, of course, that's one of the main things that cost him his job…yet that shouldn't have been his job.
That was Bernard's main mistake, in my opinion – not finding a partner to manage the weekend-to-weekend racing side of IndyCar, the guy who'll lay down the law but also listen to the team owners and then proceed in a manner that he perceives is best for Indy car racing. I hope to see Belskus appoint such a person soon. I believe it does need to be a person with previous experience as a team owner or team manager and it needs to be someone who'll stand up both to and for the team owners and engine manufacturers when liaising with IndyCar. What Bernard oversaw is pretty much in place, racing-wise, for the 2013 season, but there is much to be done now for 2014 and beyond. Present and future potential manufacturers, track owners, sponsors and team owners need to see the rearranged – and in some cases, new – guys at the top of IndyCar racing as being steadfast when necessary, flexible when necessary, decisive, strong and full of ideas on how to progress this branch of the sport.
As people who have a lot of heart and soul invested in the sport, we all need to give the management the chance to prove they possess those qualities, because – without wishing to sound like one of those Sunday morning TV preachers – if we don't go together, we're not going at all. Following Bernard's dismissal last November, many angry fans said they were through with Indy car racing, but I hope much of this was said in the heat of the moment. I don't believe abstaining from attending races or refusing to watch them on TV is the right way to make voices heard, any more than going on strike is the correct method for a downtrodden worker to get his point across to the boss. Generally, that's just a way to get forgotten, solve nothing or increase bad blood.
We must let bygones be bygones – Randy is not coming back. But equally, the new administration must acknowledge why he was popular with fans, why he was unpopular with certain team owners, learn from both and accept that you can't please everyone all the time. The fact is, whatever they do, they're in for a bumpy ride.
That being the case, I hope that IndyCar will rehire Steve Shunck, one of the most conscientious, devoted, inventive, knowledgeable, imaginative, helpful, enthusiastic and switched-on PR men that IndyCar could hope to have. I'm encouraged to hear Mark Miles thinks he will find Steve a role but I wish it were in the PR department. Miles, Belskus, Greene and Boles need trusty lieutenants, and I'm convinced they would benefit from Shunck's presence in much the same way as President Roosevelt discovered Jimmy Doolittle was a useful ally. One of Steve's many qualities is that he's never allowed his appreciation of the sport's history to get in the way of his enthusiasm for the here and now – the sort of enthusiasm that we all must try to display.
Most of us have had practice. That's why I was so aggravated back in 2007 – sorry, but I must get this off my chest – when Champ Car's PR person told all journalists who covered the series full time (both of us) to stop mentioning “the good old days of CART.” This was illogical, given that he was addressing people who had become absolute experts in accepting Champ Car for what it was. Heck, even the series owners – Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerry Forsythe and Dan Pettit – admitted that Champ Car was a pale outline of what CART had been. We all loved the product while acknowledging that a series without the Indy 500 was at a huge disadvantage in the open-wheel war.
Come 2008, most of us resignedly anticipated another year of watching two series hemorrhage money and get propped up by rich men who at any moment could lose interest. In a maudlin mood, I started writing a story with a title robbed from Neil Young's second album – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. A couple of paragraphs in, I got the call from Kalkhoven telling me how he and Tony George were spending the off-season…