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Russell's Ramblings
by Russell Jaslow

IndyCar's Death Knell?

Rochester, N.Y.Last weekend, all the attention for the IZOD IndyCar Series was focused on Edmonton. There was a controversial ending where Helio Castroneves was black flagged for blocking. There were many who believed it was the ICS's biggest bogus call amongst a litany of bogus calls ever since the IRL was created. There was Castroneves outdoing Danica with an emotional outburst to beat all emotional outbursts, physically handling series officials. All this focused the talk of IndyCar onto Edmonton.

However, the doings at Edmonton overshadowed the most significant news concerning IndyCar. More specifically, a particular quote from NASCAR's Brian France which came, ironically, from Indianapolis.

When I was flipping through the TV channels last Saturday, I stumbled upon the Brickyard 400. I watched a few laps and was stunned at the number of empty seats. It's been common knowledge NASCAR's attendance has declined in recent years, some places worse than others. But, for Indianapolis to have that many empty seats was shocking.

Thus, when France said, "It's no secret Kentucky is talking about having a Sprint Cup event and it's not that far away and it has implications to Michigan (Speedway) and here [IMS] from a geographic standpoint," it should have sent cataclysmic shock waves throughout the IndyCar Series.

By most sane estimates, the Brickyard 400 crowd was around 100,000. Now, 100,000 is still a darn good attendance mark. Most other tracks can get 100,000. But therein lies the rub -- most other tracks can get 100,000.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is no longer a special stop on the NASCAR circuit if it gets the same number of people to show up as a Michigan, Las Vegas, Pocono, or a new event in Kentucky or Kansas. It is no longer a special place if the most famous racetrack in America has over half its seats empty.

Despite the Indianapolis 500's downfall, the track still has cachet. Certainly more so than the aforementioned Michigan, Las Vegas, Pocono, or possibly Kentucky or Kansas. But therein again lies the rub -- that cachet comes with a price.

Tony George brought NASCAR to IMS due to two key motivations -- to stick it to the CART owners who had just rebuffed his efforts to buyout CART and to raise the money necessary to start the IRL. Even the NASCAR establishment understood the ramifications of such a move. Kyle Petty openly admitted at the time "we don't belong here" and implied it could bring major issues to the Indy car world.

It quickly became no secret the profits made on the Brickyard 400 funded the Indy Racing League. Even with Tony George removed (because he was still spending way too much of his sisters' money to their liking on a venture that never once turned a profit) and the Board providing Randy Bernard's marching orders to make the IRL profitable (or at least break even), it still (at least for the time being) requires infusion of cash from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A recent article in the Indianapolis Business Journal focused on the lesser profits of the Brickyard 400 and how that may affect the Indy Racing League. The article focused on how the estimated IRL expenses ($15 million) will for the first time outpace the estimated Brickyard 400 profits ($10-13 million).

The article, just like those focusing on the events in Edmonton, misses the key point. This is NASCAR's opportunity to once and for all eliminate Indy car racing. The IRL-CART split in 1996 was not an open wheel civil war. It was a battle for the control of America's racing market with NASCAR on one side, CART/IRL on the other, and sports car racing caught in the crossfire. NASCAR was just smart enough to get those who were political and business illiterates to do their fighting in proxy.

As long as IMS was drawing a quarter of a million fans, NASCAR could never justify pulling the event. Now, with attendance no different than the series average (current 2010 average is 99,853 according to the IBJ), they can ring IndyCar's death knell. If they pull the event, all the money that funds ICS is gone. Poof.

Mari Hulman, out of fear her son will go down in history as the person who eradicated an entire sport, may dig deep to find the money to keep it going. However, I doubt the sisters, who never had any interest in the sport or the Speedway, will put up with their mother's need to protect Tony any longer.

So, which of the lesser two evils will happen? Will the Speedway's money well dry up, putting the series into bankruptcy, with the hope that at least 33 cars will show up every year to run the Indianapolis 500 as the rest of the series goes into extinction? Or, will the Board realize they have no other way out, and sell the Speedway, most likely to NASCAR (well, ISC) who will either take over open wheel racing (whereupon, they will apply their version of what the sport should be which will be an abomination worse than what we see now) or simply move the Brickyard 400 to May, call it the Indianapolis 500, and be done with this whole competitive market concept?

If this scenario plays out, there very well may be a group of people who will attempt to start up a new open wheel series. However, despite what some staunch CART and road racing supporters believe, without IMS in their fold, I just don't see it being successful enough to make any dent in the racing world. Just take a look at the history of the Formula 5000 series and their attendance numbers compared to other motor racing of the day.

Perhaps Brian France was simply pulling a Bernie Ecclestone -- use the media to apply pressure to venues to get what he really wants. In this case, to get IMS to install lights, so the Brickyard 400 can be run in prime time.

Or, perhaps not.

Perhaps, NASCAR finally has open wheel racing's neck under their boot, and all they need to do is press down harder to suffocate the sport forever.

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