Ingram's Flat Spot On: Same orbit for NASCAR, F1?

Ingram's Flat Spot On: Same orbit for NASCAR, F1?

Ingram's Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram Same Orbit For NASCAR, F1? The subjects of NASCAR's Sprint Cup and Formula One have been coming up in the same sentence regularly these days. F1 drivers have been testing Sprint Cup cars, Marcos...


Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram


Same Orbit For NASCAR, F1?

The subjects of NASCAR's Sprint Cup and Formula One have been coming up in the same sentence regularly these days. F1 drivers have been testing Sprint Cup cars, Marcos Ambrose received the Sir Jack Brabham Award, named for Australia's three-time F1 champion, and there's regular talk about Juan Pablo Montoya's successful transition from F1 to the Sprint Cup.

Monte Carlo fans watching the Grand Prix on the hillside.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Although there's not much in common between Talladega or Darlington and Monaco, there's more to the story these days when it comes to the links between NASCAR and F1.

Each series, for example, played to nearly empty houses at one point during the past season, which is a bit shocking given that both are six decades old and regarded as the pinnacle of either stock car racing or road racing. Interestingly, a poor turnout in Atlanta and a far worse debacle at F1's round in Turkey each occurred at the same time frame in the calendar -- in the spring when the economy was looking very shaky all over the world.

One source of the problem both series share: ticket prices remain out of this world, despite the fact the demand is slowing in many locations. Even in Italy at Monza, where fans used to cut holes in billboards and hang from the limbs of nearby trees, the signs of enthusiasm are waning.

There's an interesting twist to an ongoing slowdown in ticket sales, which also translates into lower TV numbers. The Sprint Cup and F1 simultaneously have a problem with the demand for race dates that often exceeds the calendar's capacity. When it comes to race dates, both series have undergone a radical change in the past few years in search of new markets, as well, which has contributed to the alienation of many of the longstanding fans.

The Sprint Cup has sought more exposure in the West and Midwest at the expense of long established speedways and short tracks in the Southeast. F1 has openly courted the governments of the Middle East and Far East at the expense of hallowed grounds in France, Italy and Germany. Meanwhile, there are rumblings of a return to a street circuit in the U.S., which once hosted two Grand Prixs each year and now has none.

Start of Talladega Fall race.
Photo by Action Sports Photography.

Changes in technology have brought dramatic and parallel changes to both the Sprint Cup and F1. NASCAR fans believe the new COT chassis bears little resemblance to either cars on the street or the heroic steeds once driven by Petty and Pearson or Roberts and Lorenzen. But fans in F1 have seen an even greater sea change between the fat-tired, ultra-winged, turbocharged warriors of old and the current cars and their relatively tame razzle dazzle bodywork.

For both series, the greatest need to change resulted from the dramatic and sad deaths of driving greats. The owners of the Sprint Cup and the officials of the FIA, which administers F1, each realized they could not continue as a sport or a business if their most cherished drivers were subject to hazardous or deadly cars and tracks.

Fans used to be able to witness drivers literally cheat death, which gave these sports a macabre glamour. As much as one would like to hope otherwise, the increase in safety may also have had its effect on ticket sales.

With the old cars, the danger was easily eye-balled, whether they were on the track or standing still.

Any fan peering into a car in what was then the Winston Cup could see that a driver sat in little more than a cage of steel with a steering wheel, a vehicle capable of more than 200 mph on many straightaways. Eventually, the combination of the stiffness of that steel cage due to technical innovation and the lack of driver protection from the transfer of energy in crashes led to a succession of fatal accidents.

In the case of F1, the driver was exposed from the chest up while sitting behind open wheels and in front of a high-revving engine prior to the changes brought on by Senna's fatal accident, which resulted from front suspension debris entering the cockpit after a crash.

Felipe Massa, Scuderia Ferrari, prior to qualifying crash after being hit by flying debris in the Hungarian GP@@ .
Photo by xpb.cc.

In both NASCAR and F1, once exposed the issue of safety hit hard and fast. Four drivers were killed in major touring series within less than a year in NASCAR. Seven years earlier, one driver was killed the day before Senna's accident and another suffered a near-fatal head injury the following month.

Ironically, both sports' popularity jumped suddenly with the death of a major star, and each then experienced some falling off as casual fans brought in by the ghastly effects of post-accident publicity began to dwindle away. A sadder aspect to this story: Earnhardt and Senna were heroic in a manner that only their dangerous, rough-riding eras could have produced. There will never be others quite like them.

In the Sprint Cup and F1 there's been an almost simultaneous struggle with the escalating cost of racing. In this arena, NASCAR has been a step ahead. The sanctioning body has long since been dedicated to keeping its cost down to sustain fields twice the size of those in F1 and a schedule double in the number of events.

NASCAR's three-year-old COT chassis is dedicated to keeping the teams at the back of the pack on relatively even footing with those at the front, in addition to its safety aspects. In F1, the issue of cost is now on the front burner, with officials proposing ways to bring in new teams such as US F1 while holding down the expenditures of the manufacturer-backed entrants such as McLaren Mercedes, Ferrari and now Brawn Mercedes.

F1's budget cap initiatives will likely be watched closely by NASCAR officials, because legislating a way to prevent teams from spending money is a radical departure for a major racing series and a daunting administrative challenge. As it stands currently, NASCAR continues to bank on the idea that the COT will bring less return per dollar spent on development, helping to keep budgets relatively in check.

There's more to this same story in both NASCAR and F1 from the point of view of competition. In NASCAR, there's been an effort to cut down on the number of entries by any one team, which has been roundly undermined by team owners selling chassis and engines to rivals while working hand-in-glove.

FIA and F1 Flags.
Photo by xpb.cc.

In F1, there have always been questions regarding rival "independent" teams using engines from manufacturers who have been dominating the sport. The introduction of new, independent teams to F1 powered by Cosworth engines is related to an effort to prevent the largest teams from dominating. In either series, the dominance by one or two teams tends to discourage investment in the sport, by manufacturers as well as sponsors.

Finally, fans in both NASCAR and F1 complain about the lack of lead changes and the reduced amount of passing. Each series in its own way has addressed this issue, which has been brought on by aerodynamics. NASCAR has introduced the double-file restart. In a similar type move by F1, at the beginning of the year it was proposed that the championship be determined strictly by race victories, an idea aimed squarely at forcing more overtaking.

Interestingly, the FIA has recently convened a technical committee to study the issue of aerodynamics and overtaking that hosted representatives from all branches of motor sports, including NASCAR.

These are just some of the major issues that both the Sprint Cup and F1 have in common. They indicate that the challenges in the business of running major motor racing series are not only similar. They often come from circumstances that are complicated, difficult to anticipate and not easily avoided.

Quote of the Week: The news that Britain, one of the cradles of F1, has retained its place on next year's calendar is a welcome nod toward tradition. Taking up the position vacated by Donington, the British facility that failed to come up with enough financing for a makeover suitable to F1 standards, Silverstone is now in the hot seat when it comes to facility improvements.

This reminds us of the comments of Bernie Ecclestone, manager of the commercial rights of F1, after the debacle at Turkey earlier this year, where the grandstands were virtually empty at what is regarded as an excellent facility.

"Maybe," he said, "they could move the whole thing to Britain."

Team Peugeot at Road Atlanta Petit Le Mans.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

A Tribute: The announcement of Road Atlanta's inclusion in the new Le Mans Intercontinental Cup championship came shortly after the death of Dave Sloyer, the founder and designer of the internationally respected Georgia circuit, which opened in 1970.

US F1 update: The issue of who will drive for US F1 in 2010 remains cloaked in secrecy.

But it has been learned that the rate of activity has picked up noticeably in the team's Huntersville, N.C. facility. New hires have gone to work on building the parts and pieces of the team's first car, expected to break cover in late January or early February. Dan Passe, a public relations representative with the team, says US F1 has yet to reach full capacity and continues with its hiring process as employment contracts come to an end elsewhere, particularly after layoffs by some F1 teams such as Toyota.

As for the team's web site, it remains under construction. Like the car, we're told, the goal is to produce state-of-the-art technology and there's a lot of work when in start-up mode.

See ya! ...At the races.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at Jonathan@jingrambooks.com.

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Series GENERAL , F1 , LEMANS , NASCAR