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…
And after five years of unity…you, me, everybody involved has a pretty firm grasp on how Indy car racing was hurt by The Split. It ain't what it was: we must stop lamenting this. It is what it is: we must accept this. But we must also believe in what it could be and strive toward that. Actually, we know what it could be because of our appreciation of the sport's history. Compare the core product with the core product 20 years ago. The cars are less spectacular, yes – and the objectives I believe must be met will go into in the next “Here's hoping” column on Friday. But I'm convinced the racing and the driver talent pool are at least as strong, even if the names involved are no longer high-profile…because the series isn't. The title “IndyCar” still is recognizable to the man in the street. The Mazda Road to Indy is a logical structure that is the envy of Europe, as John Surtees pointed out just last week. And the dearth of places in F1 for the emerging European-bred talents should be a godsend to IndyCar.
You see, there are positives. Fall into the trap of grumbling that it's all broken, and we become part of the problem, when what's needed are solutions for the areas that genuinely are broken. Can Belskus, Miles and Co. provide those solutions? We have to give them that chance, because the essence of this sport is still present and is bigger than any individual or any governing body…although I confess it's hard to contemplate U.S. open-wheel racing's path had Tony Hulman not rescued the Speedway in 1945.
My point is, we never fell in love with IndyCar because of the board members on AAA, USAC or CART, or because we adored Tony George, Andrew Craig, Kalkhoven or Bernard. What drew us was the wail of a Novi engine, a Mario Andretti opening lap, the way Indy's Turn 1 apparently exits into 220mph oblivion, the lines of a Penske PC22, a silky super-quick pole lap by Rick Mears around Phoenix, the thick black lines left by a car getting sideways through the final turns at Toronto, the unbridled enthusiasm of a Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti's statesmanship, the elegance of a Chaparral 2K, the eloquence of a Gil de Ferran, the indomitable spirit of an A.J. Foyt.
Pick your era, pick your drivers, pick your cars – all choices are understandable. But remember too, that today, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Scott Dixon and yes, even the car-that-only-its-designer-could-love Dallara DW12 are what could draw your child or grandchild into IndyCar fandom.
In turn, the series must acknowledge that it is in charge of something precious and though chances are given, respect is earned. We can't have anyone at IndyCar or the IMS going into work each day wondering if they might get fired because of a power struggle within the ranks; that breeds an atmosphere in which people try to cover their own backsides and try to make their wage, and lose sight of their primary purpose – making IndyCar successful.
Also, potential investors want to see a clear route forward, continuity, a coherent mission statement, a governing body populated by smart business people and enthusiasts…and a sport that is able to not only capture the imagination of the grandstand spectator but also transmit the excitement to the TV viewer. When I first saw the footage of Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears dueling for the 1982 Indy 500 and heard that crowd roar, I got goosebumps and a dry throat (despite knowing the outcome!) and I wanted nothing more than to be there in the throng that day. And I'd bet many people watching on TV felt the same way as Takuma Sato battled the Ganassi cars in the closing stages of last year's 500, or as the late Dan Wheldon streaked past the wrecking JR Hildebrand the year before. There, too, is something that IndyCar and particularly the Indy 500 has not lost and which must be safeguarded forever.
The media has a responsibility too. Since Randy Bernard's departure, many fake tears of anguish have been shed by media members whose self-serving determination to be first with “news” provided ammo for RB's opponents and struck increasing levels of doubt into the minds of even his so-called allies who seemed to take this drivel for real. But how seriously can you take a hunter who pretends to sympathize with the animal he's stalking? With monotonous regularity from midseason on, there were stories that contained no attributed quotes, stories that dredged up past squabbles but were made to look like recent developments, tweets that spread idle gossip while assuming the stance of outrage…. And all for what? Well, I think we know the answer to that: self-glorification. They came from people ambivalent about Indy car racing but deeply in love with themselves and their self-proclaimed status.
I'm sometimes annoyed by documentaries and movies that almost by default portray journalists as jackals and jackasses, but then I see the quality of some race reporters' work and wonder if allowing them to have laptops and a platform is as irresponsible as allowing a baby to play with razor blades and a bottle of bleach. The difference is that these so-called writers don't just hurt themselves. I'm not saying they should bury bad news nor that they shouldn't dig up dirt: journalists on a leash aren't journalists. And if an opinion piece is written well, I can enjoy it whether the author's bias agrees or disagrees with my own. But writers need to have some self-awareness and judgment in order to avoid being used as the mouthpiece of the bitter and deluded whose vested interests discolor the top categories of motorsports. For everyone's sake, all media members have to make sure that the message they're conveying is truthful, newsworthy and that airing it truly is for the common good. Woodward and Bernstein weren't looking for more Twitter followers.
Later this week, I'll express our hopes for the future development and technical direction of IndyCar, whereas I'm aware this op-ed piece comes across more as a rallying cry. There's optimism in my opinions (an op-op-ed?) because, although there are parts to IndyCar that have been broken, I believe they're fixable if given urgent attention and if acted upon decisively and correctly. Sadly, the TV deal can't be remedied in the short term, so let's just be grateful that the NBC Sports Network's coverage is far stronger than its reach – the direct opposite of the ABC deal, in fact.
Miles, Belskus, Greene and Boles do not dwell in an ivory tower: they'll be aware that their new/expanded positions of prominence mean there will be a period of caution, even suspicion, from those who regarded Bernard as having the potential to be IndyCar's white knight. There were many of us. Thanks to the internet and social media, managerial errors will be gossiped about by fans who care about Indy car racing, the vindictive ones will come up with the smug “I told you so” lines, while rival series – and let's face it, they're all rival series! – will try to take advantage of any flaws, real or merely perceived. 'Twas ever thus. But the suits in charge must not allow this to scare them into doing nothing. Belskus and Miles, in particular, will need to be accountable for the bad as well as the good in the IZOD IndyCar Series and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But they should also take heart from the fact that they aren't confronted by ruins or wasteland. Whatever their opinions of Randy B., he shaped a 2013 season that holds much promise, so that now his replacements have over 100 years of history and a good core product as foundations for 2014 and beyond. It's the new management's duty and privilege to build on it a highly durable, highly efficient yet also highly ambitious structure. And if we want IndyCar to thrive, it's our obligation as fans to not tear it down before it has even taken shape.