Of Michigan and other ovals...

Until the race itself, a spectacular, three-hour battle that made it seem all the more ridiculous to walk away from the place, CART's farewell to the Michigan Speedway where Champ cars have raced since the track was opened in 1968, was a sad and dispiriting affair, a true barometer of CART's dislocation and struggle for identity and leadership, both technically and in the bigger picture.

Of Michigan and other ovals...

Over the past three or four years the crowds at Michigan have declined in inverse proportion to the unbelievably fierce racing on the track. The better and more exciting the race it seemed, the smaller the crowd the following year.

Everyone scratched their heads over how and why this trend occured. The last two years something like 40,000 fans have shown up on raceday, resulting in CART's decision to quit the high-banked superspeedway after this year's race, to be replaced next year by the Indy Racing League.

There was considerable public argument last weekend between CART boss Joe Heitzler and Michigan track president Brett Shelton about how and why CART and the International Speedway Corporation (ISC) weren't able to make a deal for CART to continue at Michigan, but in the end it was all about the sadly dramatic decline in attendance in recent years.

Why did the fans turn their backs on Champ cars at Michigan? Are they bored with CART's ongoing political wars and the deeply divisive split with the IRL? Have American oval track fans forsaken Indy or Champ car racing for NASCAR? Do the majority of American race fans no longer appreciate or understand Champ car racing? Or is something more insidious afoot?

Roger Penske sold Michigan and his other tracks - Homestead-Miami, Nazareth and California - to ISC almost three years ago and since then it's been sadly embarassing to go to these races, California excepted. ISC is an offshoot of NASCAR and the Daytona-based France family of course, and the publicly-traded company is the world's largest racetrack business, owning thirteen venues across the United States.

You would expect major races at tracks owned by such a company to be energetically promoted, but at Homestead, Nazareth and Michigan in recent years your trip from airport to hotel to racetrack yielded little if any sense or evidence that you were heading towards a major race or sporting event. Usually, there wasn't a single billboard, nor did you hear or see any TV or radio ads, or hear much talk about the race among the locals. ISC claim they spent US$250,000 promoting this year's Michigan 500, but it was difficult to see much evidence of it.

A NASCAR truck race ran as a support race at Michigan for two years and the trucks were promoted more than CART, almost as if they were the feature the race and CART was the back-up show. This year, there was an ARCA stock car race on Saturday and at my hotel the ARCA race was promoted much more heavily than the CART race. An ad on the hotel's events-around-town TV channel urged us to come on out to see the future stars of NASCAR. You'd get to see the big names of the future on their way to the top and see plenty of fender to fender racing - and once that was over, why not camp out for the weekend and stay for the CART race on Sunday?

Last year, I stopped briefly at a drinking establishment in the little town of Brooklyn, two miles north of the track, and the man behind the bar was startled to hear there was a race taking place that weekend.

"They got a race going on down there this weekend?" he asked. "What kinda cars they runnin'? Haven't heard anything about it."

Strange business, indeed. But the facts are that CART is left with just three domestic oval races - California, Milwaukee and Chicago - with the IRL picking up the pieces as CART vacates the premises. Roger Penske made the point last weekend that CART likes to promote the wide variety of tracks on which its cars and drivers race, something CART's current CEO Joe Heitzler calls 'differentiation', yet is slowly losing any oval racing content.

"I think it's a huge mistake for CART not to return (to Michigan)," said Penske. "I think they just opened the door for the IRL. CART talks about all these temporary circuits and all these international races and they talk about continuity, but those tracks can come and go. Permanent tracks have the infrastructure and capital to spend the money on safety and other things.

"Obviously the (CART-IRL) split has created the problem at Michigan. CART's decision not to renew its contract with Nazareth and not to go back to Homestead certainly sent a message to ISC management, and they determined their longterm strategy was going to be the IRL on their ovals, and not CART.

"I understand ISC's position," Penske added. "What I don't understand is CART's. One minute we're talking about strategy that has differentiation, meaning road courses and ovals, and to walk away from what I consider one of the biggest tracks in the country in regard to potential, I don't understand it."

With ISC controlling most of America's major ovals and CART having also fallen out of bed with ISC's only rival Bruton Smith in the wake of abandoning the Texas Motor Speedway race in April, the future for CART appears to lay more and more, as Penske says, in street races and international venues. The IRL, weaker in depth as it may be, has solidified itself in partnership with ISC as an oval racing series, filling the void when CART moves on.

The obvious irony in all this is that CART's last show at Michigan was as good as anything anyone has ever seen. It's doubtful in fact if the track ever will see its like again. There was so much passing, so much wheel-to-wheel racing, so many times that cars were not merely two abreast but also three and even four abreast at 220 mph that mere words cannot possibly convey the excitement.

From start to finish there was more passing and wheel-to-wheel racing than you'll see in a decade of Formula 1, with 60 official lead changes at the start-finish line and a total of 167 passes for the lead at all points around the high-banked superspeedway. Indeed, the final 10 lap sprint to the chequered flag was absolutely fantastic.

A further irony is that this type of passing and drafting is the product of CART's latest Handford Wing, which is essentially a restrictor plate which limits the performance of the cars so they are substantially faster running in the draft than on their own and it's all but impossible for any driver or car to get away from the draft. It's a neat trick that creates a magnificent show, but also increases the danger by keeping the cars so closely packed.

The original intention of the Handford Wing, of course, was to reduce speeds by cutting downforce and adding drag. This battle against progress has been raging for thirty years in Indy or Champ car racing since before CART's creation. The rulesmakers have been trying to find ways of slowing-down the cars since the first 200 mph laps were turned back in 1972 by Jerry Grant and Bobby Unser in All-American Racers' Eagles on now defunct superspeedways like the Ontario Motor Speedway and the original Texas Motor Speedway.

When Michigan Int'l Speedway was opened in 1968, no less a pair of tough customers than Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser said the place was too fast for Indy cars and in order to race on these tracks today we have severe limits on turbo boost, aerodynamics and every other facet of car design with reduced speeds and increased safety in mind.

Daytona was the first of the modern, high-banked superspeedways to open in 1959. Bill France Sr originally intended to run USAC Champ car races at his new track as well as NASCAR stockers, but after two drivers were killed in testing and the first USAC race at the track, Champ cars never returned to Daytona.

The point is that high-banked superspeedways have always been too fast for Indy or Champ cars. These tracks were designed to make stock cars run as fast as possible, and of course over the last twenty years NASCAR has also struggled with the conundrum of how to slow-down the cars on superspeedways.

Nevertheless, the last decade has seen a boom in the construction of superspeedways across America. Most of these tracks have been built by ISC and Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports, also a publicly-traded company. So we now have plenty of tracks for NASCAR to jam in the crowds and to worry also about where and where not to use restrictor plates and to find other ways to make their cars safer if not slower. And we have plenty of tracks for the IRL to take to as Tony George progressively expands his exclusively oval track series.

Yet as the IRL has graphically demonstrated at so many of these tracks, open wheel cars can be very dangerous projectiles. We've seen too many wild IRL crashes at superspeedways, including last weekend's debut run for the IRL at the new Nashville track. The result of all this carnage has been the rapid demise of open wheel racing at Charlotte and Atlanta and questions about its future at places like Texas.

The fact is open-wheel accidents on this kind of tracks are usually very large and costly and can also result in debris being thrown into the grandstand. Indeed, let's not forget Adrian Fernandez's crash at Michigan in 1998 when a front wheel flew off his car and into the grandstands, killing three spectators. This too had an effect on the crowds at Michigan in recent years.

Will CART ever return to Michigan and will the IRL pull any kind of a crowd in the years ahead? On both counts, I'm extremely doubtful. Like so many other ovals, Michigan has become a NASCAR track.

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