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Wednesday, May 4, 2011
IndyCar team owners drop the ball

By Eddie Gossage

Running a business is easy. Listen to your customers and they will tell you what they want.

But some people stick their fingers in their ears and just keep talking.

Take IndyCar team owners, for instance. During last weekend’s race in Sao Paulo, Brazil, team owners held a meeting and voted unanimously (with A.J. Foyt abstaining) to delay the planned aero kit packages for the new 2012 spec Dallara chassis until 2013.

Only thing is, two problems exist:

1. Team owners don’t make the rules.
2. The fans have loudly, vociferously, clearly stated that they do not want a spec series. They want to see variety from car to car. And they want it yesterday.

The general manager of the defending Indy 500 winner’s team and defending series’ champion team, Mike Hull of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, was blunt in his assessment: “I told them [the team owners] I think we’re making a big mistake here. I want bodywork kits. I don’t care what it takes, because I’m tired of racing spec cars.”

And then Hull pointed out something team owners seem to fail to realize:

“This isn’t CART, this isn’t an owner’s organization -- we don’t make the rules, the sanctioning body makes the rules,” Hull said.

For decades, IndyCar team owners have fought amongst themselves over a myriad of issues: rules, purse structure, sponsorship, ovals versus road courses, U.S. venues versus international races, rear engine versus front engine, American drivers versus “foreign” drivers, etc. Team owners actually owned the series before allowing these types of issues to drive the once-mighty, high-profile sport into a mere shadow of itself where a .8 TV rating is celebrated as a success. Some critics refer to the sport as simply a rich man’s hobby.

A year ago, IndyCar racing announced plans for the 2012 Dallara chassis with aero kit alternatives, giving cars different looks. The decision was based on the recommendation of the ICONIC Committee, which devised the new rules (for full disclosure, I served as one of seven members of the committee). Team owners were allowed input via representation by the very capable Gil de Ferran. A former Indy 500 winner, de Ferran was chosen by the team owners as their representative. While I am forbidden by confidentiality agreements to divulge what was discussed and by whom, I will tell you that the knowledgeable de Ferran -- often called the “Professor of the Paddock” -- was the most vocal, active member of the committee. Whether it was discussing at length the electronics on the new car or parsing the definition of simple words in the rules, de Ferran left nothing to chance. In fact, he would often produce surveys he kept in file folders from every team in the sport in an effort to properly support his position. The team owners agreed to the process and had a duly elected representative in the group who aggressively carried forth the team owner’s wishes.

I’m not coming at this from a sense of ownership since I served on the committee. Rather, my role as the least technical member of the committee was to represent the single-most important constituent of the sport -- the fans. They matter more than the drivers, team owners, track promoters, sponsors, etc., although you would never know after decades of neglect by the sport.

I conducted surveys, too, with fan forums at IndyCar events in Indianapolis and Texas. By seeking out the counsel of fans via internet chat boards...and by taking those results to the meetings to voice the consensus of the fans.

And the fans were clear that they wanted to see, easily, the difference from car to car. They did not want the cars to all look alike. Anyone attending the forums will tell you that while there was debate on many things, that one issue was beyond debate.

So in the short time following last summer’s announcement, what happened?

Suddenly Chevrolet and Lotus joined long-time engine manufacturer Honda in the sport. As a result, momentum begins to be gaining steam for the series. For the first time in a long time, good news was clearly THE news.

So once again, IndyCar team owners refuse to hear the fans. They continue to tell fans that the sport is for the team owners exclusively and the fans are not to be let in unless they share the team owners’ point of view.

I can tell you this: I do not know how to tune an IndyCar engine…I’ll leave that to the experts. But as the guy who has year-in and year-out sold more IndyCar tickets than anyone in the sport outside of the venerable Indy 500, I can tell you this expert will tell you that cannot continue to sell this to the fans.

So don’t complain about the lack of sponsors, poor TV ratings and certainly don’t complain about a lack of fans. You did it to yourself. Enjoy your elite little country club.

Team owners once again prove they can’t enjoy even a modicum of success.