The Declaration of Independence begins with a grand sweeping statement that one group must cut and dissolve times with another group. That such a dissolving of relationship is supported by human history and, as the document goes on, ordained by God above due to numerous crimes committed. In 1978 Dan Gurney, in the now infamous ‘White Paper’, called for one group to demand certain changes to an organizational structure. Sure “over the past 3 or 4 years” doesn’t have the same ring as “when in the course of Human events”, but both documents had long-reaching effects. Some may argue that neither document has completely fulfilled what it set out to do, I won’t speak to the Declaration of Independence, but there are some unresolved issues within the White Paper.
Gurney’s main focus for the White Paper and formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (“CART”) is in one simple sentence “[o]ur sport has the potential to be financially rewarding and healthy from a business standpoint for all participants”. Gurney is writing from a moment where the cost of racing skyrocketed and the reward of racing was stagnant. His ideas, generally, were to create a collation of racing teams to negotiate with USAC on behalf of teams and drivers. The collation, CART, is tasked: work with USAC as their sanctioning body, hold track promoters to a high standard of promotion which brings in revenue, promote on behalf of teams and drivers, renegotiate TV contracts, have rewards increased, and see the accounting ledgers of all tracks.
What happened after the White Paper? The ideas contained within were brought to USAC who said “no”, and CART was formed as it’s own sanctioning body. Then came years of splits and reunions within American Open Wheel racing which are the subject of numerous published books, podcast episodes we’ve discussed (hear them HERE and HERE) and even a recent write up on this blog (you can read that HERE). These splits and reunions are, in many peoples opinion including my own, the reason why INDYCAR is still lagging in viewership and fans when compared to NASCAR. Was it worth it?
The giant that CART faced with USAC. USAC refused to work with CART, and as referenced, that refusal led to the first American Open-Wheel split. In the forty years after the split, USAC has been replaced by INDYCAR as the sanctioning body. INDYCAR is ran by the Hulman Family who split from CART and stayed with USAC during the second American Open Wheel split. So the sport still has an all-encompassing sanctioning body with roots in USAC. However, after some growing pains, INDYCAR is a very team and driver friendly body. You must remember that while this is a sport, teams and the sanctioning body are businesses and in the end, they have to answer to owners and governing boards. INDYCAR is team/driver friendly, but they answer to the bottom line.
Promotion both from tracks and the teams and drivers has increased. It’s taken on a completely different life. I would wager Gurney couldn’t, at the time of the White Paper, have known about social media and how it has transformed promotion of the sport. Most tracks are doing a fantastic job of promoting and embracing both new and old forms of media. Teams and drivers also are using their reach to promote events. In general, viewership and attendance at events are on a rise. One of Gurney’s main point of promotion is promotion creates excitement which then reaches to potential sponsors and television, in his words “thereby upgrading the entire sport business”. This is happening, but sponsorship continues to be an issue of teams and drivers (you can read about Sponsorship HERE). There were some unintended setbacks with that. The tobacco money was a huge blow to INDYCAR team and driver finances.
Gurney was adamant that what everyone needed to focus on in trying to change the system, was that it was going to be easier to increase the amount of money going in instead of lowering the cost of racing. As he put it “it is far more important to make money more readily available by increasing the popularity and prestige of the sport with the general public.” The cost of racing is still high (you can read about that HERE), but there have been steps taken to help alleviate the costs. Some examples include very nice tax breaks for teams who buy parts, cooperation with manufacturers and INDYCAR to provide necessary items at lower cost, and of course sponsorship.
While there have been steps taken to help alleviate the overall cost of racing, that cost is still high. Many drivers get cut after one season because they cannot bring in the sponsorship monies needed, and many drivers have received rides not because of talent but because of funding. The struggle to get seats highlights the continuing issue that the rewards have still not grown. Television rights were not renegotiated to provide support to teams and drivers. That’s still done by the sanctioning body. As one article put it, a lot of racecar drivers live within extremely modest means.
While most tracks do promote, there are some that don’t have the same zealousness as others do. Gurney called for such tracks to be leased to the driver organization and that organization does the promotion. Instead, tracks who don’t promote face a slow decline of attendance until their contract is over and not renewed. It’s a slow and painful death, and all INDYCAR fans can tick off tracks that have disappeared from the schedule due to bad attendance. Gurney also wanted to see the books of the tracks. I don’t believe that is happening at all, and honestly, I don’t believe that will ever happen (fun fact: the IMS does not release the total attendance for the Indianapolis 500).
What To Do
It is funding that is the sticking point for everything. Drivers who can’t afford rides can have their seats given to drivers of lesser talent but more funding. Perhaps this is the anti-establishment part of my brain thinking, but Gurney was very mindful about such a potential of pitting people against each other. He writes “divide and conquer” still works, after indicating that team owners are very successful businessmen in their own lives. I remind many people to ask “who has my best interest in mind” in any type of business or other deals. I write that having talked with numerous team owners, they are great people, but they have a bottom line to answer to.
I’m a big fan of openness. It’s from being ten-years now as a government employee. You can look my name up and see how much I make. You can send in a request and get every email I have written. Gurney’s call for the accounting of tracks to be open to drivers and teams is something that should happen. Gurney notes that without the knowledge of what is in the accounting books, teams and drivers are coming from a position of ignorance, and he’s completely right. It will not be a quick and easy fix and requires a lot of work on the part of drivers.
To make big changes that directly help the drivers is the dread U word. Unionization. Or if you prefer “association”. Team Owners now have a much louder voice in decisions — Drivers still have to whisper and ask for permission to speak. The uniting of drivers is Gurney’s silver-bullet and he champions Formula 1’s association. “They did it by uniting and making that ‘no turning back’ commitment. They speak with one voice (that of the Chief negotiator) and that voice has gained authority by leaps and bounds.”
During the most recent Rolex 24 Hours, a few INDYCAR fans were talking about all sorts of things (as we do), and the topic of the Hulman Company came up. In some years, there will be a change in leadership that may help the drivers. But for now, and what needs to be done, is the drivers associating. That’s what CART, as described by Gurney, was. A united voice of those who are on the track.
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