Technology and Media & Marketing and Sports Business

SPORTS: Keep F1 and its cash coming back to Speedway

June 27, 2005

I enjoy auto racing but must admit Formula One is not my cup of motor oil. On assignment for the local daily, I was at the initial U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wrote a less-than-positive column about it, and haven't been back since.

I liked the technology and the spectacle of the passionate, flag-waving fans, but everything else I viewed with disdain.

Particularly distasteful was/is the smugness that permeates the F1 atmosphere. It emanates from the series' leader, Bernie Ecclestone, a nasty, egomaniacal twit.

I also thought the racing was boring, with far too little dicing for position and far too much dominance by Ferrari and its driver, Michael Schumacher, who is badly in need of a personality transplant.

Thus, given the events that transpired at IMS June 19 at the USGP, you might think I'd join the chorus telling F1 to hit the road, Jack-and Bernie-and don't you come back no more, no more.

On the contrary, I'm hopeful it remains.

There is no question Speedway CEO Tony George made a deal with the devil when he lured F1 back to the United States. The financial pact with Ecclestone is incredibly one-sided and the Speedway-as we discovered-has no control or say whatsoever in the staging of the USGP.

But it was George's vision to make IMS unique in the world of motorsports by offering the three highest forms of competition: Indy cars, NASCAR and F1.

The first two were easy. But F1 forced a major alteration, starting with building the 2.6-mile road course and including constructing the F1 garages. George used it as the catalyst to modernize.

The price tag, I'm told, was $75 million.

In the ensuing years since the initial USGP in 2000, George and the IMS folks essentially have jumped through every hoop Ecclestone and the Euros have demanded, including the move to June from September, which has necessitated a labor-intensive, three-week turnaround of IMS from an oval track to the road configuration.

Man, talk about no good deed going unpunished.

Then Ecclestone has the gall to roll into town before this year's race and complain about the lack of promotion, even though the USGP is the second-best-attended F1 race.

And then came the Michelin mess that turned the race into a farce. So, yes, the easy response would be to tell the inconsiderate ingrates to pack their bags. Only that view is far too narrow and that reaction far too hasty.

There is, of course, the economic impact, an estimated $170 million arriving from around the nation and world and being dumped into the pockets of Hoosiers. There is the invaluable international exposure the USGP generates, both to our foreign guests and via the worldwide telecast. There is the prestige of the Speedway, and its status as the undisputed motor racing capital of the world. There is George's investment in updating the facility to accommodate Formula One.

Could George and his group replace F1? Some have suggested the Indy Racing League stage a second race on the road course. Intriguing, but it would diminish the stature of the Indy 500. And the Speedway would be tapping into the same audience.

Champ Car? On the day you can ice skate in hell.

Motorcycles? I could be wrong, but I don't think they could draw enough to justify opening the facility.

Which brings us back to F1. Certainly, many fans walked away saying they'd never come back, and who can blame them? The only way to get some of them to return will be to offer incentives, and for Ecclestone and the dolts who run F1 to change the culture and stop treating fans and media so rudely.

For starters, there should be refunds, and it should be F1 (or Michelin) that picks up the tab, not the Speedway. And next year, for at least one year, there ought to be a reduction in ticket prices, again, with the difference being made up by F1, not the Speedway.

Over the longer haul, F1 has to get its fractious house in order and never be in a position that would allow what happened here to repeat itself. This, however, is a much trickier proposition because many believe F1 is heading for an IRL/CARTstyle power struggle and potential split after 2007.

What is it with these open-wheel folks, anyway?

But for the short term, the USGP at the Speedway is worth saving, if for no other reason than to separate wealthy Euros from some of their cash.



Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send email to bbenner@ibj.com.
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