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NASCAR will use sports cars to fight IndyCar, F1

Published October 17, 2012

If you are in the ketchup business, you are in it to dominate the market. If need be, you will do just about anything and everything to put your competition out of business.

Same with beer, soft drinks or politics: if you’re a winner, your attitude is that this town ain’t big enough for the two (or more) of us.

Like it or not, this is also the way it is in big-league auto racing.

I’m not talking about the drivers, who obviously are out there to beat each other.

I’m talking about sanctioning bodies and I think this is the thinking behind NASCAR’s purchase recently of the American Le Mans Series.

There’s more to this than a simple buyout. Much more.

The competition for auto racing sponsorship mega-dollars, primarily, and bums-in-the-seats is heating up in the United States.

For years, NASCAR has had the No. 1 position all to itself but the ground is shifting.

Formula One is returning to the U.S., with a vengeance. After a promising start, F1 racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stumbled badly: people really didn’t take to race cars going the wrong way at the fabled facility and the tire fiasco in 2005, when only six cars “raced,” and Michael Schumacher’s dumb attempt to “tie” with teammate Rubens Barrichello in 2002 turned the event into a joke.

After the 2007 race, F1 left the U.S. again — this time with its tail between its legs.

Next month, F1 returns to the States for a race at a purpose-built circuit outside Austin, Tex., and you can almost feel the excitement in the air all the way up here. There are only a few tickets left for the inaugural event. It is going to look fabulous on television. The Circuit of the Americas will rank right up there with Abu Dhabi and some of the other, newer, GP venues in the world.

And in about seven months, a second U.S. Grand Prix will be held, this one through the streets of several picturesque towns in New Jersey with the New York City skyline in the background.

This will be a powerful one-two punch.

Talking about television — there was a reference several paragraphs ago — Formula One has just signed a new deal with NBC to take race, qualifying and practice coverage away from the Fox-owned Speed Channel, starting in 2013. Bernie Ecclestone is delighted, and said he expects NBC to “promote Formula One to a level not seen before in the United States” across three platforms: over-the-air, cable and digital.

Although it has had its ups and downs, NBC is the most powerful and influential television network in the U.S., followed by its two old-time rivals ABC and CBS. Fox and its subsidiaries are way off in the distance.

Meantime, after years of struggle because of a civil war and coupled with bad management, the IZOD IndyCar Series has regained its sea legs and is embarking on an expansion program in 2013 that will see double-header races promoted in three of North America’s largest markets: Detroit, Toronto and Houston. Led by CEO Randy Bernard, IndyCar is making serious waves again.

The return of Formula One with not one but two races in a little more than half a year and a rejuvenated IndyCar series spells bad news for NASCAR.

It’s not that it won’t hold its traditional audience but the potential for NASCAR to grow is substantially limited in the face of increased competition, particularly in the boardrooms of Madison Avenue.

And anybody who knows anything about business is aware that it’s not good enough to just make a profit any longer; it’s the rate of growth and ability to attract new business that counts.

Now, NASCAR has the oval track crowd in its pocket. But the road-racing audience — that’s another kettle of fish.

NASCAR created the Grand American Road Racing Series in 1999 and took the Rolex Sports Cars Series under its wing in 2000 when the U.S. Road Racing Championship went out of business. Much like it’s handled its Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World truck series championships, NASCAR concentrated on cost-effective sports car racing rather than high-tech. The result was club racing. The people doing the racing had a fine time but the product was not particularly spectator-friendly. This year’s Daytona 24 was a fine example: a good race with zero people there to watch it.

The Grand Am has been in competition with the much more exotic and high-tech American Le Mans Series, which puts on good races in front of sizable crowds. But much like the Indy car war, sports car racing was stymied when it came to growth because of two series instead of just one. As IndyCar has benefitted from unification, so could sports car racing — if some one or some thing wanted to make it happen.

Don Panoz, who started the ALMS, told me once that he had talked to NASCAR about unification but had balked “because they wanted to run everything.” NASCAR finally made Panoz an offer he couldn’t refuse and unification will happen in 2014 under the Grand Am banner.

Since the announcement, many people have speculated about the makeup and direction of the new series and there has been an underlying suggestion that NASCAR will “dumb it down” so it’s much like the present Grand Am Series.

I thought so initially too. I’ve since changed my mind — and here’s why.

NASCAR bought the ALMS in order to be in control of what will eventually be a very high-tech sports car racing series to compete directly against the IndyCar Series and to blunt any inroads Formula One might have designs on making into the boardrooms of corporate America.

To do otherwise would be folly. And NASCAR has already indicated it will be going in that direction by meeting in Paris with officials of the Le Mans-centric Automobile Club of the West, which organizes and makes the rules for the annual 24-hour race.

NASCAR can revert to being a growth-oriented corporation by being as upscale and as high tech as it can in sports car racing.

And by so doing, it can cut IndyCar and F1 off at the pass.

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