These are tough times to be an Open Wheel fan.
There is no light at the end of the Champ Car/Indy Racing League reunification tunnel, and many of the sport’s top stars suddenly seem to be gravitating toward the bright lights and burgeoning bank accounts of NASCAR.
Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya will drive a Nextel Cup Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing next season. Champ Car’s A.J. Allmendinger turned heads in his maiden NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series start two weeks ago, and is making no secret of his interest in a possible NASCAR career.
IRL champion Sam Hornish says he wants to compete in some NASCAR races next season, and that stock car racing is something he is going to do. "I want to try it out and see if I'm capable of doing that,” said Hornish this week. “We’ll have to wait and see when the right time is.”
Max Papis has been mouthing similar sentiments for more than a year.
Paul Tracy continues to dabble in stock cars – with limited success – as do Adrian Fernandez and Michel Jourdain, Jr. Even Danica Patick played the stock-card (with questionable sincerity) in her effort to ply a heftier contract out of Michael Andretti.
It’s not exactly a case of rats jumping off a sinking ship, but it is certainly a trend worth watching.
It is easy for our friends in the Open Wheel community to attribute this recent exodus to nothing more than cold-blooded greed. In their eyes, Tracy, Jourdain, Hornish and company are little more than mercenaries, trading the purity and tradition of Indianapolis or Long Beach for greener pastures -- the old “green pictures of dead Presidents” -- in NASCAR-land. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Yes, money is part of it. Tracy recently lamented that Nextel Cup rookie Denny Hamlin purchased his own jet recently; something PT has been unable to do in more than a dozen years of Champ Car war. Is Tracy starving to death? Certainly not. But compared to even a first-year NASCAR Nextel Cup driver, he’s working pretty cheap. Everyone wants to be fairly compensated at the end of their workday, especially if that day includes the distinct possibility of being critically injured, or even killed. I love my job, but make no mistake about it. I punch that time clock every day for one reason, and one reason only.
Because it pays the bills.
Beyond the financial reality, though, there is another reason for this sudden interest in NASCAR racing. It’s called ego. Elite athletes want to perform on the largest possible stage. They want to race in front of capacity crowds, and be seen and appreciated by millions of fans around the world. NASCAR allows them to do that, to a degree that Champ Car and the IRL can presently only dream of.
Tony Kanaan stepped into the media center at Daytona International Speedway yesterday, and commented on the number of reporters waiting there. “I have never seen this many reporters at a test,” said the IRL star. “It looks like race day in here.” Actually, the media mob was less than half what it will be when Nextel Cup testing begins at DIS in January, and a small fraction what it is each week on the traveling Nextel Cup circuit.
Apparently, the Open Wheel guys aren’t used to getting that kind of attention. And you know what? I think they kinda like it.
They also like the idea that you can land a ride in NASCAR on talent alone, without schlepping a $5-million sponsor along with you. There are quality rides available at every level of NASCAR right now, if you’ve got the talent to earn one. And if things go well, a kid like A.J. Allmendinger can parlay that talent into fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams.
Don’t believe it? Just ask Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Casey Mears, or either of the Nextel Cup drivers named Gordon. All of them grew up dreaming of a career driving Open Wheel racers, but changed course when greeted by the harsh realities of the sport. CART and IRL had nothing to offer them when they came of age, just as it has nothing to offer the vast majority of talented young drivers today.
The money and the rides are all on NASCAR’s side of the fence -- no matter how much the open-wheel elitists wish it weren’t so – and it doesn’t appear that anything’s going to change in the foreseeable future. Kevin Kalkhoven and Tony George continue to fiddle while Rome burns, and the France Family thanks them for it, every weekend from February through November.