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Ingram: Racing Potentates Are Going, Going, Gone

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 2 2009
Tony George takes a ride around Indianapolis Motor Speedway with A.J. Foyt.

Tony George takes a ride around Indianapolis Motor Speedway with A.J. Foyt.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent

The first half of the current season has finally cast doom over the once-respected livelihood known as the motor racing dictator.

This week the last solo American racing potentate, Tony George, lost a key seat of power in a sign of the changed times. An internal family boardroom movement separated George from his responsibilities for running the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, leaving him to look after the Indy Racing League full time.

Just one week earlier, in Formula One, the threatened apocolypse and breakaway series of participating manufacturers forced Max Mosley to step aside as commander in chief at the FIA. There, we await a new leader chosen between the competing interests of the F1 teams and Bernie Ecclestone, the FIA’s longtime business manager. The new man in charge will, by this definition, not have the same autocratic powers as the dictatorial Mosley.

The fact the coup against Mosley took place underscores the dimunition of Ecclestone’s power as well.

The late Bill France Jr., formerly the NASCAR chairman and one of the last of the dominant motor racing bosses before his death in 2007, had this figured out years ago. Motor racing had become too big, too sprawling and too commercial for the old ways of doing things with one man in charge, he figured. Not only was new blood needed, but a spreading of the responsibility was required for making things work.

France Jr. established a five-person board of directors for NASCAR. It included a “president of the garage” (Mike Helton) and his daughter Lesa France Kennedy, fully empowered to run the speedway side of the family business. Then he handed son Brian the reins to NASCAR with the Chase for the Championship and the Car of Tomorrow already in place. Bill Jr.’s brother Jim France, meanwhile, helps keep the whole thing from getting out of kilter as the crucial vote on the NASCAR board and chairman of International Speedway Corporation.

The need for a different way of doing things at the top of motorsport was a message received by longtime impressario and former president of the Lowe’s Motor Speedway H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler not long ago. Last year, Wheeler and his boss, race track mogul Bruton Smith, went their separate ways after three decades together because the chairman of Speedway Motorsports wanted a new approach that further spread the power of decision-making.

Smith now has a deep lineup of relatively young promoters in place at his NASCAR venues to oversee the future of Speedway Motorsports, including his son and presumptive heir. In some ways, it’s a knock-off of the transition established by France Jr.

Rule by committee has arrived. But I wonder if this new method, under so many commercial demands, is able to keep up with a fast-moving sport dependent on close competition at high speeds. In F1, for instance, aging Ecclestone seems to have lost his midas touch dependent on compelling TV in the midst of manufacturers making themselves heard.

At NASCAR, there’s enough tinkering with race procedures that it’s difficult for a fan to keep up, assuming the TV ads don’t wipe out most of the race to begin with. Over at the IRL, they’ve figured out how to prevent passing just like in NASCAR and F1. The latter is now home to runaway brides instead of races.

These days, major league motor races are Big Events. Occasionally a race breaks out. Perhaps it was ever thus and it’s only a matter of perception that the races are sagging currently due to the crusty self-importance of the celebrity drivers and the major money always hanging in the balance.

Back in the day, somehow the races that turned out slightly mundane were easier to accept. Racing was perceived as a bona fide effort to accomplish something extraordinary by just getting the dad-gummed car around the track without the driver breaking his neck.

The sport was always full of hokum under any circumstances. The great Nuvolari, who raced for a pittance, wore an outrageous wardrobe in the pre-war Grand Prix days. Tim Flock and his spyder monkey Jocko Flocko sold more than a few tickets to NASCAR races in the 1950’s. (The monkey eventually got fired, said Flock, because “he couldn’t sign his autograph.”)

There remains the creeping uneasiness that the current world-wide problems are more a matter of commerce and too much hokum than perception. Juan Pablo Montoya, the $10 million a year man, personifies this unhappy circumstance. Once a stout charger and a major mixer in CART, F1 and to some extent NASCAR, Montoya now admits to points racing even on the road courses so Chip Ganassi Racing can hit the, um, target. These days, telling your sponsor you made the Chase is more important than winning a race.

We can only hope for less points racing and more overtaking as a result of decisions by the current and future committees in charge. Presumably, they will have more than just a passing interest in sport as well as commerce. 

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 2 2009
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