We mostly learn in history class that a dictatorship is a bad thing. Stalin, Castro, Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, Ecclestone. Wait, I got ahead of myself on that last one. Anyway, we’re taught that dictators are evil and they bring nothing but ruin to their realms. Unless that realm happens to be NASCAR, in which case, if your name is Big Bill France, you built an empire that was strong and good and you passed it along to your son Bill, Jr. who continued to grow and strengthen it, so much so in fact that even your idiot grandson hasn’t been able to destroy it completely in the nine years he’s been in charge … but again, I digress.
What does this have to do with the IZOD IndyCar Series? After all, this is supposed to be Open Wheel Wednesday, not MPM2nite or Voices. Bashing Brian France, while tempting, is not really what we do here. Simply this: IndyCar would have benefited from having a Bill France-style dictator somewhere in its history.
That history is long, convoluted at times, contentious at times and the bottom line is that open wheel racing in America over the last 35 years in particular has done its absolute best to seat itself firmly on top of a grenade. It’s not so much that NASCAR made itself better as it is that open wheel racing shrank itself, often in the name of addressing the very issues fans, owners, and drivers felt most strongly needed to be fixed. Perhaps the biggest irony is that those issues are the very same ones that fans, owners, and drivers still complain about today.
No, I don’t want to dwell on dirty laundry any more than you do, but I think a brief history lesson is in order to bring everyone up to speed. I’ll try to make it the CliffsNotes version. The American Automobile Association was the first sanctioning body of Indy car racing. Yes, the same AAA that comes to your rescue when you lock your keys in the car. They got out of the auto racing business in the 1950s, at which time Tony Hulman (dad of Mari, the woman who gives the command at the start of the Indy 500), president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, formed USAC.
USAC was in charge until 1978, when disgruntled team owners, unhappy with series management, broke away and formed the CART Series. The main issues then were poor promotion and small race purses. CART and its board of directors were the boss until rumblings of discontent began again in the late 1980s. Tony George, grandson of Tony Hulman and now president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ended up leading the charge this time.
His complaints were about technical rules that seemed to benefit only wealthy team owners; escalating costs; the lack of American drivers on the circuit and lack of opportunities for young American drivers; and the ever-increasing number of road courses on the schedule. George broke away and formed the Indy Racing League in 1994. I am not going to dwell on this. It causes people to groan any time “the split” is brought up. Long story short, in the end George’s side won, CART is dead, and we have the IZOD IndyCar Series today.
Everyone lives happily ever after and the biggest lingering effect is that it’s really difficult to figure out how to talk about driver stats and series history because it’s all one but it’s not one, right? What I mean is IndyCar already laid claim to the AAA / USAC / IRL history and they bought (yes, bought) CART’s history in the merger so it’s now AAA / USAC / CART / IRL history so does Justin Wilson have three IndyCar and four CART / CCWS wins or does he just have seven wins? Anyone else getting a headache?
See, this problem does not exist in NASCAR. Well, it does, but not in the same way. Richard Petty has Grand National and Winston Cup Championships. Tony Stewart has won the Winston Cup, Nextel Cup, and Sprint Cup. They have Grand National, Winston Cup, Nextel Cup and Sprint Cup Series wins. And yet they’ve all won the same thing. Because they are all wins in the highest series created and ruled under the iron grip of the France family since 1949.
Didn’t fans, owners, or drivers ever complain about issues in NASCAR? Sure, probably just as much as they did in Indy cars. The thing is, in NASCAR, instead of a board of directors, there was Big Bill France and his answer was pretty much the same one still heard today. You need NASCAR a whole lot more than NASCAR needs you (someone might want to remind Kurt Busch of this but again, I digress). If you don’t like the way things are done, you can find somewhere else to race.
Why did this approach work for NASCAR? It worked because the dictator ultimately had a vision for where he was trying to lead his organization and no one was going to sway him from it. He ruled with a heavy fist. Yet even though there were things they were unhappy about along the way, they also knew that his vision was the best way for them all to get where they wanted to go, which was to the top of the auto racing world. There was a leader, he was strong, and–this is the key to any dictatorship–everyone believed in where he was taking them, at least long enough to build the power it took to stay in control.
So NASCAR grew and thrived because they had strong leadership and stayed on course. Fans, for as much as they complain about things not being the way they used to be (and really, where on earth in anything are things the way they used to be?), have had a stable place to settle in and get comfortable.
Open wheel fans, on the other hand, have had to endure squabbles between series management, team owners and track owners, something still going on today. Fans have drifted away over the years as a result and there is still no one with a clear concept of how to win them back. There have been boards of directors for USAC, for CART, and for IndyCar, but there has never been that one person to bring it all together. Lest you think that it was Tony George, while his ideas may have been good, he lacked the believers that France had. Not one of the big team owners followed him at the start. It took years until they came on board and even then it was only because it was becoming clear CART was dying.
And here we are today, still talking about the need for better promotion, escalating costs, and the growing number of road courses that make up the series schedule. Incidentally, join me for my next Open Wheel Wednesday column in two weeks for more on that last issue and why it’s a case of your lips say one thing but your butt says another.