One of the notable lowlights of the long, bloody war in Indy-car racing occurred earlier this year when more spectators attended the 29th running of the Long Beach Grand Prix than watched it on television.
Open-wheel-racing enthusiasts already knew the bottom had fallen out of Indy-car TV ratings, whether you chose not to watch the Indy Racing League, or avoided the Champ Car World Series staged by Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). But this news was stunning. Estimated Long Beach race-day attendance: 95,000. Estimated nationwide television audience on Speed: 69,000 households.
It was just the latest indignity in a never-ending debacle. Or then again, maybe it is ending. As this story went to press, CART was still hanging on, but just barely. A takeover bid by Open Wheel Racing Series LLC—headed by car owners Paul Gentilozzi, Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven, and others who offered to buy up CART's stock at 56 cents a share—was still pending. CART stock had been as high as $35.63 in 1999.
Not that Tony George's Indy Racing League had much to gloat about. Its 2003 ratings on national television were consistently less than a point (usually 0.7 or 0.8 on ABC, or about 700,000 to 800,000 viewers). With the defection of CART teams to the IRL, and with most of the original IRL teams gone, the league was looking more like CART than CART. And it faced serious safety issues, both on the track and in the grandstands, in the wake of horrific late-season crashes that killed Tony Renna at Indianapolis and severely injured Kenny Brack at Texas.
This racing war has always been about power and control. Forty years ago, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George was just a little tyke, his grandfather, Tony Hulman, controlled the speedway, the Indy 500, and the sport. Hulman died in 1977, and by 1979, Indy-car owners had wrested control of the sport from the speedway. On March 11, 1994, when he announced the creation of the Indy Racing League, George embarked on his campaign to take it back. It's been almost 10 years now, so we asked some notable participants: Who won the war?
Tony George, 43
President and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Founder of the Indy Racing League.
When we started to form the Indy Racing League, we really weren't thinking in terms of firing the first shot to begin a war in open-wheel racing. We tried to influence some change—positive change in my opinion—in CART and the way it was managing the sport. This was not well received, and really, I felt we were left with no other choice but to go out and start the league.
The distractions that we both faced in responding to questions about the divisiveness of a split—who has the best drivers, who has the best sponsors, who has the best teams—all of that really prevented us from focusing on growing our respective businesses to the extent that we would like. I'm sure all this talk for the past eight years about there being a civil war and a split in open-wheel racing and all that stuff has contributed to some degree to the drop in television ratings, but I also attribute that to more competition and more choice. And I attribute it to not being able to get any traction in broadening our fan base and to not being good marketers. As much as I'd like to see open-wheel racing all together under one series with common goals and business objectives, I believe in fair competition and the opportunity to build a better mousetrap.
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