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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ The sad results of a rare nexus of hubris, provincial thinking and amateurism

by Gordon Kirby
Last Friday night in Elkhart Lake I strolled across to Siebkens to meet old friends James King, John Ward and Jutta Fausel for a drink in Siebkens beer garden. King is a veteran racer who competed for many years in Formula Atlantic and also in F3 in the UK. Today, James is a mainstay of the Historic F1 series aboard his Beta March 751. Ward and Fausel are married. John is one of America's most experienced race car designers and engineer and Jutta has photographed racing for more than thirty years around the world and across the United States.

We had a great time reminiscing and enjoying the fact that we were in Elkhart Lake at the USA's finest road course. But as James said under the stars in Siebkens beer garden, "What's going on? Where is everybody?"

For indeed, the place was all but deserted. Siebkens bar and beer garden has gone down in legend as a crowded, semi-rowdy place where you would bump into racers of all kinds and trade war stories all night. But last Friday night, with both the ALMS and Champ Car in town and a very nice Friday crowd out at the track the place was quiet and largely uninhabited. Less than an hour after meeting in the beer garden, James, John, Jutta and I toddled off to our nearby hotels for an early night.

The following day the crowd at the track again looked pretty healthy, although there was no comparison to the packed paddock of years past. That evening I decided to take a peek at Siebkens restaurant on the off-chance that I might find an open table. Lo and behold, the place was deserted. There's was no problem finding a table.

"Pretty quiet tonight, isn't it," I said to my waitress. "Yeah, has been all weekend," she replied. "We can't figure out what's going on. I guess there's a pretty good crowd out at the track, but none of them seem to be coming here."

I shook my head and asked how business had been during last month's historic race weekend. "Oh, it was great," she said. "The place was packed all weekend."

The theory was the crowd was back at the track, camped out for the evening. Camping was allowed in Road America's infield this year and campers had to be back inside the track by ten in the evening or be locked-out for the night. So the theory was the campers had decided to stay in their tents for the evening's meal and libations rather than venturing down to Siebkens. A nice theory...

The fact of the matter is the crowd was down substantially on Sunday following Saturday evening's ALMS race. Sadly, most of the Friday and Saturday crowd was there for the ALMS race, departing before Sunday's Champ Car race. Still, the nice turnout for Friday and Saturday showed once again that the sports car/open-wheel mix is a good one and that there is a substantial, largely untapped fan base for road racing. If there were some professional organizations involved in promoting road racing there's no doubt there would be many successful races on North America's great road circuits.

Saturday evening's ALMS race at Road America was won by the Penske/Porsche team which scored its sixth win of the season, once again beating the pair of factory Audi R10s. In this space on Thursday we'll take a close look at the Penske/Porsche team's winning season.

The ALMS teams were given pride of place on the front row of Road America's paddock, demoting the Champ Car teams to the paddock's back rows. And as one technical representative said: "Boy, the ALMS timing stands are way ahead of ours. They make ours look old hat."

As I've frequently written most racing people--competitors and fans alike--turn their noses up at spec cars. The fans want to see different, interesting cars, not identical cars from the front to the back of the grid. And as I've also written, Champ Car's move this year to a spec car has left the organization parked while many other sanctioning bodies--most notably F1, the ACO/ALMS and IRL--are looking to the future and new technology for 2011.

But Champ Car is not part of this discussion and lacks both the internal motivation, brainpower and commercial base to support any such move. Champ Car's move to a spec car formula has diminished the series' standing in the sport even further so that it lacks any technical panache and is entirely absent any vision about adopting new technology.

And of course, Champ Car now leaves the United States for three months before concluding the season with a new street race in downtown Phoenix. The series will vanish from the American media during this time when the championship will be determined as Champ Car goes off-shore for the rest of its incredibly poorly-planned season.

In fact, it would be impossible to conceive of and plan a more inept season as far establishing any kind of platform in the United States for exposure and identifiability. To survive as a professional, commercial entity Champ Car must produce an '08 schedule with a strong series of races in the United States, but that looks highly unlikely. In fact, there may well be more foreign races next year.

Again, as reported many times over many years, the off-shore races are losers for the teams but one of the few ways for Champ Car to generate any serious revenue stream. For the teams to attract international sponsors, the overseas races must be big successes and they must also take root on a longterm basis because it would take five or ten years of stability to generate serious global sponsors.

But there's never been any consistency or continuity to CART or Champ Car's overseas ambitions. Look at the organization's history of failed races in Brazil, the UK and Europe, and the ridiculously changing schedule from year to year. CART or Champ Car never took on board the fact that date equity is what it's all about.

Building on established race dates is one of the things that made NASCAR so successful. Look back at the seventies through the nineties and you'll see that NASCAR's schedule was darn near unchanged for twenty-five years! Champ Car needs to wake up and follow NASCAR's lead in this regard, but I can't see it happening.

Then of course, there's the matter of Champ Car's complete lack of credibility with the American media. I've reported a number of times about the tiny and dwindling press corps covering Champ Car and sadly, this little group is only getting smaller. At Elkhart last weekend quite a few fans asked me if it was true that Robin Miller's hard card had been revoked by Champ Car.

I told them it was true and added that the result of Champ Car's heavy-handed move is that Speed TV's coverage of Champ Car will be token at best. This was the inevitable result of the contempt Champ Car showed for Miller and the fact that Champ Car didn't understand what they were doing shows they are an amateur organization that is doomed to life at the margins of the media.

I also confirmed to those fans who asked that it was true that I have been chased away from doing any writing on Champ Car's content-free website. Champ Car told me they have a very limited budget for their website and can't afford experienced writers with a track record. Nor is Champ Car interested in full and complete works of journalism. They are only interested in soundbites totalling a few hundred words and as I've told Champ Car I have no interest in that type of work. So if you want to continue reading my work you'll have to come to this site because neither Robin nor I have the inclination or interest to work for such an apparently cash-strapped, narrow-minded organization.

And of course, there are no thriving racing magazines in the United States covering anything other than NASCAR. Racer magazine, for example, sells fewer than half the number of copies it sold ten years ago and fans everywhere have complained to me over the past five years about the lack of any knowledgeable, in-depth coverage of the sport.

One of the world's top racing writers, Michael Schmidt of Auto Motor und Sport, was at Elkhart Lake to write a story about Sebastien Bourdais's move to F1. Auto Motor und Sport sells half a million copies every two weeks and is a fine example of the many European magazines which provide detailed, long stories about racing. "If you don't have any serious magazines catering to the fans, how can you keep their interest and develop them?" Schmidt asked. "You need a real magazine or two with serious reporting, but you don't have any here."

As I've written many times, if Champ Car and/or the IRL are to re-establish themselves as front-rank forms of racing a real leader must emerge and take control of American open-wheel racing. But after years and years of squabbling and a long line of weak or incompetent leaders I can't imagine any such person emerging from the ether.

Again, Tony Cotman is a good man and a can-do individual, but I believe Champ Car has Peter principled Cotman by moving him into his current position. Cotman cannot bear fools and in his new role he's going to have to spend plenty of time working with bureaucrats and smoke-blowing pseudo marketeers. In fact, more than a few crew chiefs said to me at Elkhart that they reckoned the Champ Car management had elevated Cotman to a job in which he is sure to fail so that they can then point fingers at him and fire him.

For some time there's been talk of a giant shakeup and mass firings at Champ Car. That most assuredly needs to happen, but I have to ask why any talented, motivated people would risk their careers by joining an organization which has such a terrible reputation as well as a constant turnover of personnel.

As Champ Car drifts off-shore over the next few months its 'leadership' best apply their minds to the serious problems confronting their stumbling business. Clearly, a major shake-up is required, but I can't see it happening. Like most people in the Champ Car paddock and thousands of fans, I worry that hubris, provincialism and deep-seated amateurism will destroy our sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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