Open Wheel Racing

David Cardey Is Class of the Field at Victorville
All Thrill No Fill
David Cardey Is Class of the Field at Victorville

A sincere thanks to Steve Querico and the fine staff at Victorville Racing Park for an outstanding event this past weekend. Steve is working hard to present a racing venue that embraces all classes, but offers special refuge to both 360 and 410 sprint cars in an open format. I am struck by Steve’s innovative approach and willingness to try new things in an effort to grow car count and attendence. He ran his sprint main before the support classes and I think that played well for the most part. As part of the ongoing dialogue on the message boards about improving the sport, I am running a perspective this week that was sent to me by longtime racing enthusiast Dan Kassik. Although I don’t agree with everything he wrote here, he does make some interesting points for discussion. I am going to punctuate his comments with pictures obtained this past weekend in Victorville.

A Perspective On Open Wheel Racing
By Dan Kassik

The issues existing in sprint car and midget racing today did not occur overnight, they have just been magnified by the recent economic downturn, and thus solving these issues will not occur overnight. I have talked with many racers and promoters and the battle cry is cutting costs, especially within the midget realm by lowering the cost of engines. Well, from my perspective that is the problem and why nothing has changed. Everyone is concentrating on one aspect and that aspect is something that is never going to be solved. Costs may be able to be contained, but never solved. Yet all the while the real issues that have caused the car counts to dwindle have been ignored. For those historians, racing still cost money back in the day and not everyone who wanted to race could afford to do so, thus racing was not as wonderful as you now remember.

Open wheel racers need to understand that the cost to race is only a small part of the issue regarding car counts. Lack of racers is a result of not having a “fresh crop” of racers to “take over” when other racers quit, retire, move on, etc. Open wheel racing is not that much more expensive than other forms of racing, it is just suffering more from pure numbers. It seems the sport is putting all the emphasis on trying to retain current racers/fans rather than put forth a similar effort to gain new racers and fans. Existing fans and racers will be lost for various reasons no matter what is done to keep them. Whether people want to accept it or not, the sport must evolve as our society evolves/changes. No form of racing is exactly the way it was when it started. Open wheel racing can still stick to its “roots” and evolve into a sport that is in demand by racers and fans. Each one of us have made changes in our lives as changes in our society have come about, it is very short sided to think open wheel racing does not need to do the same.

The first step to solving the issues in open wheel racing is to understand it is a multi-dimensional problem and will take multi-dimensional problem solving. The four major elements of the racing equation are track promoters, racers, fans, and sanctioning bodies. If any one of these elements, even in the smallest way, is not in agreement with the others the equation will fail. This is the current state of midget and sprint car racing; each aspect has been looking out for their own good and not the good of the whole.

Steve Querico At Victorville Raceway Park
Steve Querico At Victorville Raceway Park

The following are eight things that I feel need to happen in order for open wheel racing to grow and most importantly sustain itself.

1. Not Everyone Can Afford To Race, Quit Trying To Make It Happen
Promoters and sanctioning bodies are trying to create situations to allow anyone to race. This is s a double-edged sword. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to race. In a perfect world, this would be great. Racing costs money and requires a substantial amount of time and dedication. At some point the money and/or time and dedication may run out for some racers. So what have tracks done to help this? Create more divisions with “less” cost. There in lies the problem. Those divisions rarely stay cost effective and the largest impact is they dilute the open-wheel product. Those who have money will continue to spend it to gain an advantage over the competition, whether an entry-level class or premier class. This has been the case since the first car race in America at the turn of the century. We have to realize that open wheel racing cannot be solved by implementing a socialist program. I know some will right away say this guy must have money because otherwise he would be speaking a different tune. Very much the contrary. We are as low budget as it gets, but I am accepting of the fact that at some point we may be priced out of the sport. Racing is a privilege, not an entitlement. That is why we are racing as much as we can now and enjoying every bit of it because we know it may not last forever. Unfortunately, regardless of what is done to control costs, racing costs money and ultimately some racers will not be able to afford racing. Don’t dwell on it or try to bring down others that can still afford to race.

Bender is Blowing Minds
Bender is Blowing Minds

2. Decrease The Number Of Sprint Car Divisions And Develop Weekly Racing For Midgets
I grew up around racing in the late 70’s and have continued to be around racing to present day. The tracks we raced had three weekly divisions, an entry-level (hobby stock, factory stock), mid-level (street stock, sportsman) and a premier level (late model). The car counts today at most tracks are not that much lower than 10 or 20 years ago, they are just split up into multiple divisions, this includes open wheel racing. So instead of having 3 divisions with 20+ cars in each division, most tracks have 6-8 divisions with 10 or fewer cars in each division. Because of this, many tracks have gone away from qualifying, heat races, and dashes so they can get all divisions into the night’s program.

The one thing that has helped grow sprint cars and sustain them at an acceptable level is weekly racing. Weekly racing does not exist for midgets. There are a few tracks that have tried it, but midget racing has continued to be a traveling series. This makes it very difficult to get the average racer involved in the sport. Many racers could afford to run a midget at a local track on a weekly basis, but most cannot afford to run a midget on a traveling basis. The major traveling series (WOO, ASCS) only have a dozen or so full time racers as the series depend on the weekly racers to make up their fields for all their events. Weekly midget racing in itself would go a long way towards the increase of midget car counts. Even if every midget series had $12,000 engines that could last two or three seasons, the car counts would be negligible because it still costs to travel to all the races. If analysts are correct in that the diesel costs are going to be in the $5 range in the next year or two, this is only to going to further hurt the midget counts.

People say without all these divisions a lot of the racers would not be able to race. That’s correct, but that is also the problem. By having multiple classes of open wheel racing you are diluting the product. Having an entry-level, mid-level, and premier is the most that is needed, I would argue an entry-level and premier level is sufficient. A common rules package for each class is needed at each track in the area. If more tracks where to introduce midgets as a weekly division, the midgets could be on the same schedule as the sprint cars to add some diversity. The Ford Focus, sportsman, and EcoTec are all good platforms to be utilized as an entry-level weekly racing class. By limiting the classes and working on a common rules package and the coordination of schedules, there are enough cars that would necessitate B or C mains on most nights. This concept is a much better product to market week in and week out. It makes no sense to schedule the same class at two or three different tracks on the same weekend or have slightly different rules making it difficult to race at other tracks. Each track is just hurting their own car counts.

The core race fan is/has been declining in attendance and the need to attract new fans is critical. However, a night of racing that features 10 cars or less in multiple divisions/features is not helping make new fans or keeping the existing.

Will Perkins Comes From Solid Racing Stock
Kenny Perkins Comes From Solid Racing Stock

3. Understand The Economics Of Racing From A Promoters/Track Owners Perspective.
Racers need to put aside their misconceptions and understand that promoters are not getting rich with the fees they charge. The cost to operate a track is not cheap and not every promoter is greedy. At the same time, trying to advocate for reversing the trends in racing to what was 15 or 30 years ago is not a solution and just not reality. Higher purses are a result of ALL the elements of the racing equation working, simply expecting the track or sanctioning body to add money to the purse is short sided. Complaining constantly about a track or promoter does nothing and in most cases steers that promoter to quit or sell the property.

The average racer and fan do not go through their lives with 100% accuracy in the decisions they make, yet these same people expect a track promoter and his/her officials to be correct 100% all of the time with every decision they make. Racers should be a little more grateful that they have a place that they can enjoy the sport of racing, rather than cause unnecessary spectacles and internet harassment based on split second decisions they themselves would have a hard time getting any more accurate. It is very easy to find error when you think about a decision for hours and/or review video over and over. As the old saying goes, hindsight is always 20/20.

Kevin Michnowicz Wins Again In Lightning Sprints
Kevin Michnowicz Wins Again In Lightning Sprints

4. Marketing And Television
Marketing and exposure of the sport is paramount for growth. The best medium for this exposure is television. I believe the sanctioning body is the primary lead for all marketing and especially the negotiation of any television contracts. The days of Thursday Night Thunder are gone. A network is not going to come a calling simply because we all think this is a great and exciting sport. Unless you’re the NFL or a few other major league sports, you have no clout to expect a network to televise an event without some type of compensation to the network. For open wheel racing the old adage “you need to spend money to make money” is definitely appropriate. The sports that are on TV, especially a lot of what we all see on SPEED Channel, is not being televised free of charge. All that programming that Lucas Oil has on SPEED is because Lucas Oil pays to have that televised. A good example of what can be done if people put there heads together and take some initiative is what is being done by the Must See Racing group. They where able to put together a television package that is affordable yet done in a very professional manner. There are organizations with much more clout and money, yet nothing is being done. I would even go as far to say that racers would be willing to pay an extra $50 or so in annual license fees if they where guaranteed a television package for their series.

Brandon Thompson Is Ready For Prime Time
Brandon Thomson Is Ready For Prime Time

5. Sanctioning Bodies - Stepping Up And Representing Their Entire Membership
A sanctioning body knows everything there is to know about racing and the particular type of racing they sanction, just ask them. Of course, that was sarcasm, but not far from the truth.

A number of sanctioning bodies have lost touch with the average racer and in part the promoters who promote races for those racers. Now adays I do not know of what worth a sanctioning body serves other than insurance. The sanctioning bodies seem to create more of a bureaucratic mess for racers and promoters than serving any good towards racing. I know this seems harsh criticism, but the amount of politics that results from a sanctioning bodies presence is staggering. I know, even at a local track level, there is going to be politics, but in those instances are racers and promoters paying a sanction fee to be in the bureaucracy?

To many times the sanctioning body makes changes based on the vocal minority of membership, rather than for the benefit of the whole membership. The sanctioning body needs to listen to racers and promoters and get back to basics. Even if changes are going to infuriate high profile teams/owners to the point that they leave, if the changes are for the betterment of the WHOLE membership then I say don’t let the door hit you in the back on your way out. Rules, Rules, and more Rules. Over regulation seems to be the fix all. Rule changes, regardless of the intent, cost EVERYONE money. Something I always found very interesting is that the average racer complains about the Federal government over regulating the average person, yet this is exactly what they are advocating in racing.

So much effort is put into engine rules and oversight of engines. In midget racing especially, only a small percentage of all tracks that are raced benefit from high horsepower (1/2 miles), thus horsepower of the average Gearte type midget engine is sufficient.

I think the sealed engine/crate engine (spec) concept is the worst thing for any type of racing. This concept takes the average racer from being able to build, fix, or maintain their own engine. It makes no sense when in some cases you have to spend $800 in shipping to a “authorized” builder to have a basic head gasket or similar fix done and be without an engine for a couple of weeks. In weekly racing that does not work well. Thus, many teams racing for points have two engines in the event this circumstance occurs. How cost effective is that? Basic rules limiting engine size and certain components is fine, but leave the rest up to the racers. I feel the only reason tracks adopt sealed motor programs was to get out of having to actually enforce engine rules and thus needing competent tech officials. The most money we ever spent on racing was when we where in an entry-level spec sealed motor series. The other area that everyone wants to control is shocks. Why? In today’s sport the technology in shock development offers far better shocks for affordable prices. I still cannot understand how a set of $1,600 fully adjustable canister shocks is less cost effective than needing 15 (or more) non-adjustable shocks costing $2,600+ to do the same thing.

A majority of the successful high profile events/races are unsanctioned and/or have few engine rules or many rules at all for that matter, coincidence?

Happy Father’s Day

6. Fans Need To Get A Better Perspective On Racing In Today’s World
Most people would think that fans have no wrong in the racing equation as they are the ones who pay to see races and theoretically keep a track open. Even though that is not necessarily false, I think fans are as much to blame as the racers and promoters.

How many times have you gone to a race only to hear fans constantly criticizing the officials, screaming about a back marker not being worthy of racing, crying about the high price of admission, high price of concessions, etc. Has anyone been to a movie lately and seen the overpriced concessions? If you where a to go to a race for the first time and hear all of this how likely would you be to return? Because of this, the average core racing fan in my opinion, is a large part of the good or bad feeling a person gets from attending races and their “opinion” of open wheel racing.

Now a days, it is even more of an issue given the internet. To think the internet alone is responsible for the demise of racing would be short sided, but there is no doubt it has an effect on a track, especially when internet chatter is about a specific track promoter and/or track. Just like was stated in the previously, racing is an entertainment privilege, not an entitlement. I know if I where some of these promoters there is no way I would put forth the amount of money and dedication necessary to run a track with the amount of “abuse” you receive from racers and fans.
Another issue is the division of fans within the sport. It always amazes me how sprint car fans are so divided when it comes to non-wing and winged sprint cars. Both types are the same sprint cars, one just happens to have a piece of aluminum on the roll cage and front of car. Nothing else. Yet you listen to fans and you would think either are some plague that will take out society. Sorry, but this does no good to the betterment of sprint car racing. It’s hard to expect other entities to improve sprint car racing when the fans themselves are so divided.

Bluntach Is a Name You Will Be Hearing Often
Bluntach Is a Name You Will Be Hearing Often

7. Embrace Technology
Racers need to embrace technology/innovation and in general have a mindset that can change with the times. This is a sport that was built on innovation however, now a days racers want to stay stagnant and criticize everything new. Not every new technology or innovation maybe worthy however, neither was every innovation years ago. Over time, technology creates efficiencies both in performance and production. Successful businesses still hold to a core product that is their bread and butter, however over time that product still takes on updates that reflect current market trends, otherwise the product and company would eventually fail. Whether the die-hards want to accept it or not, change is necessary for success.

The introduction of the Eco-Tec EFI engine I think is a great thing. This shows what potential there is with new products. Will it ever become a staple on the national level, maybe, maybe not, but it will allow for R&D and at the very least things will be learned from this engine. The engine has already proven that there can be different configurations for performance with the same engine.

Austin Williams (right) Finished Second and Cody Williams Finished Third
Austin Williams (right) Finished Second and Cody Williams Finished Third

8. Racers And Fans Should Not Jump To Conclusions – New Concepts Need To Be Allowed To Succeed Or Fail
Over the last year or two there have been organizations that are implementing new concepts, yet racers and fans right away discount the changes and claim they will never work. How do we know? We don’t. Unless something is actually implemented, there is no sure way of knowing the results. In some cases the results may be successful, in some cases a failure, but unless something is implemented, the results are just speculation.

Almost every race racer will make changes to a setup to try and improve the handling, sometimes these changes work, sometimes they fail miserably, but there is still usable results. Yet, these same racers do not want to use this same concept to better the sport. Recently, USAC implemented RPM limits, whether this move will be effective is yet to be seen, but we all should applaud the fact that sometime is being tried. In the west, the BCRA implemented rule changes related to the asphalt racing. Initially, there was an outcry by the racers and ultimately they relaxed some of the changes, but the effective part was the fact they at least tried something and they now have some proven certainty.

David Cardey Takes Home the Rent
David Cardey Takes Home the Rent

My hope was to show how everyone depends on each other for success and how each element has been responsible for the sports decline. Nothing will succeed, even if one element try’s to move forward, until everyone is at the table and is willing to put their egos and self proclaimed knowledge aside. Of all the issues outlined in this article, not one will cost any entity large sums of money to implement. A simple mindset change would go a long way, believe it or not it could be that easy to make noted changes.

There are a lot of good ideas from all entities, but none of those ideas are shared or accepted as a whole. Promoters talk among promoters, racers talk among racers, and sanctioning bodies talk amongst themselves, resulting in the scattered direction seen today. Unless a unified front is in place, it could be a long time, if ever, that open wheel racing fully recovers. Even with an economic turnaround, the “upswing” of open wheel racing will be marginal. On the flip side, if all elements where to get together there could be immediate gains for the sport as well as long term sustainability regardless of present or future economic downturns.

Once again, the solution is not one or two ideas or one or two entities resolving the issues, it is a collective whole that must solve the problem.