Auto Racing / Sports

The IndyCar Series' slow march back to relevance

No sport has gone through quite the roller coaster ride during the last 30 years as American open-wheel racing.

In the 1980s, the CART Indy Car World Series was on top of the world. With names like Rahal, Andretti and Unser peppering the field on a weekly basis, sponsorship money and crowds were huge.

Less than a decade later, the bottom fell out when CART split, with Tony George founding the Indy Racing League. During the next several years, crowds diminished to a fraction of what they used to be, while sponsors defected to NASCAR en masse.

Today, with unification once again bringing together the best open-wheel drivers in North America, the Verizon IndyCar Series is showing new life. Gone are the packed crowds on Pole Day or sellouts at places like Nazareth, Elkhart Lake and Michigan, and the television ratings are barely a pinprick to NASCAR's juggernaut, but the arrow is definitely pointing up.

Verizon signed on as the title sponsor for the series in March, and on-track competition is arguably the best of any major racing series in the world.

To take the next step, open-wheel racing must continue to develop in the paddock and with the public. Eddie Cheever, the winner of the 1998 Indianapolis 500 and now a commentator on ABC for its IndyCar Series coverage, has a unique perspective on the state of the series as a former driver and team owner.

The drive behind everything is money, and there is no exception when it comes to auto racing.

"The biggest challenge for any sport competing for sponsorship money is making sure that the return on their investment is the right ratio," Cheever said. "I think a lot of pressure was put on the series four or five years ago to find ways to make it more sustainable, to not allow the expenses to explode exponentially."

The ability to not only retain existing team owners but also to entice others to join the series is the lifeblood of any major racing series.

The IndyCar Series has struggled to do that in recent years. Thirteen full-time teams and four partial teams competed in the series in 2010, compared to just 11 full-time and two partial teams so far in 2014.

Compare that to a total of 33 teams in 1987 and 20 teams as recently as 2004.

The cause of the dwindling of teams is two-fold, rising costs and lack of sponsorship. The IndyCar Series has an exclusive deal with Italian manufacturer Dallara to supply all teams with chassis and replacement parts. The partnership ensures cost equity between teams, but prevents the ingenuity in the garage that was a big part of the sport in its heyday.

The approximate cost for an IndyCar team over an 18-race season is about $15 million. Costly yes, but compare that to over $450 million for a Formula One team.

"They don't allow you to develop crazy things and spend a multitude amount of dollars," Cheever said. "Containing the costs was a big part of (the partnership)."

The deal with Dallara has evened the playing field for smaller teams going up against "The Big Three" of Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport. In 2010, all 17 races were won by those three mega-teams. By 2013, five of the 19 races were won by teams other than that trio.

So far in 2014, two of the four races have been won by smaller teams, with Mike Conway winning at Long Beach for Ed Carpenter Racing and Simon Pagenaud earning a victory at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports.

"I don't begrudge Penske or Ganassi or Andretti for any of their success ... but you cannot have a series with just those three guys," Cheever said. "So you have to create an environment – which they are doing a great job of right now – to entice other people in the racing community to move their focus to (IndyCar)."

The key to continue to grow the sport will rely on a solid business model and eyes on the product. Sunday's Pole Day coverage on ABC drew a 1.2 national rating, not a significant number but the best in quite a while for qualifying and six times better than the 0.2 rating it received a year ago on NBC Sports Network.

Money talks, as Cheever knows. His Cheever Raving team ran out of funding in 2006 after going with an underpowered Toyota engine, which was outclassed by Honda. Now, Chevrolet and Honda have a healthy rivalry going in the series, with Cosworth reportedly interested in joining in the competition if it can team up with an original engine manufacturer in the near future.

Cosworth last supplied an engine in the series in 2006.

Fostering relationships with big sponsors such as Verizon and a potential return of Cosworth shows that the series is moving forward after so many years of dysfunction.

"You can only cut the costs so much and then you have to find a way to lift the actual value of the sponsorships," Cheever said. "Once those two things get in balance then ... there will be a reason for people to (enter the series with teams)."

There is also a trend seeing teams running Indy-only programs. Lazier Partners Racing has competed in the last two Indianapolis 500s as a May-only program. Next year, Jonathan Byrd's Racing will have a one-off Indy program with USAC driver Bryan Clauson.

North American open-wheel racing will likely never be what it once was, but that does not mean it cannot prosper.

"There has to be a good, strong compelling business reason (to invest in IndyCar) and that good, strong business reason is refining itself right now," Cheever said. "I think it is going in the right direction."

(c)2014 The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.)

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