Is Racing In China Right Or Wrong?

When INDYCAR officials announced last week that China would host an IZOD IndyCar Series race in 2012, many groans were heard from all corners of the IndyCar community. Regular and long-time poster “Bent Wickerbill”, who I had the pleasure of meeting at Barber and Indianapolis last year, posted his displeasure with the race in the comments section here last Friday. On many fronts, I’m inclined to agree with him – but I’ll probably disappoint a few of you by saying that overall, I don’t really have a problem with it.

On one hand, I was glad to see the string of races at Twin Ring Motegi come to an end. Even when CART raced there, I always found it to be a boring race at a remote location that was very hard to get to – even if you lived in Japan. The fact that the series went to the trouble to load up two 747’s with cars, tires, tools and parts and fly everything halfway across the globe and using three weekends in the calendar for one race seemed just a little absurd – especially when we got the privilege of tuning in close to midnight to see a dull race.

When the series announced last year that 2011 would be the last visit to Motegi, my initial reaction was “Thank God!” Then, when they announced that earthquake damage would force the race to be run on the road course at Motegi, I was none too happy (as most of you know). The race turned out to be a dud and would have been completely forgettable had it not been for Helio’s outburst at Brian Barnhart afterward.

I guess that’s why everyone assumed I would be staunchly against another race in Asia. To paraphrase AJ Foyt; that’s really not quite true.

Let’s get two things straight right now. I know very little about the Chinese economy and even less about Chinese geography. Just so you’ll know; when I say that this race will take place in Qingdao, which is located in the Shandong province – you may rest assured that I got that from the press release. Prior to the announcement, I had never heard of Qingdao nor did I have any idea where Shandong was located.

I will also not be pretentious and spout off a bunch of boring facts and figures to explain why the Chinese economy is flourishing – but I know that it is. Apparently, INDYCAR held a sponsorship summit last year and from what they learned, China was the No.1 desired destination outside the United States for current sponsors.

I have nothing to back this up, other than I’ve heard this from more than one source – but word has it that that the IZOD IndyCar Series stands to make a ton of money by running this race. For a series that has bled millions over the years and finally has some discerning eyes paying attention to the bottom line – this seems like the proverbial no-brainer. If this alleviates a lot or most of the red ink for 2012, then I’m all for it.

Financially, the series has to do something to make up for mostly empty grandstands in the U.S. With Chevy and (presumably) Lotus joining Honda in the series next season, the stakes are getting higher. Those two new partners will bring more promotional dollars along with what the series currently enjoys from IZOD, but for the long-term – the series cannot keep losing the money it has really since its inception in 1996.

Tony George kept propping up the series and its teams for years until his siblings decided they had seen enough of their fortune dwindling away. Since his ouster in 2009, it has been up to Jeff Belskus and Randy Bernard to make prudent decisions regarding IMS and INDYCAR. That means doing whatever it takes to eventually get the series into the black. If that means taking the series around the globe for a large sum, then so be it. The series is beyond the point of trying to satisfy only the taste of the racing purist. That mentality helped get them where they are today. Some will say the series has become a prostitute going to the highest bidder. Again I say – so be it.

This race will take place on a 3.87 mile street circuit, which is a little long for any road course – especially a street course. If there are any slow-speed hairpins, it could take quite a while to get around just once. Road America is 4.0 miles and it is considered fairly high speed. When CART ran the majestic course at Elkhart Lake, their races were generally fifty laps and they started pitting around Lap 18. Have a flat tire shortly after passing the pits and you’re done. I imagine the same will apply in China.

Does this mean I’ve changed my tune on ovals? No, not in the least. I desperately want more than four ovals on the 2012 schedule. I don’t want to have to wait a few years. I want as many as possible, but at least six. I keep holding out hope that the reason for the delay of announcing the schedule is that Randy Bernard is doing his best to strike a few more deals with places like Kentucky, Phoenix and Chicago. It sounds more and more like Las Vegas may be a street race next year, so that only leaves Indianapolis, Texas, Iowa and Fontana for next season. If running a race in China gives INDYCAR the financial freedom to bargain with domestic oval tracks – well, that’s fine with me.

I’m not in favor of the same issues that were dealt with by going to Japan, which includes crossing the globe and racing across the international dateline, giving us a race at God knows what hour. Plus, three weekends will be used for this one race – pretty much eating up the entire month of August, when the points battle is really heating up just before football takes over. I would prefer this race take place in the spring when we’re happy to see any type of racing, but what do I know?

But one thing I do know is that I trust the judgment of Randy Bernard. At the risk of sounding like a Randy Bernard apologist, he has given me no reason to think he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Although the stands looked empty at Las Vegas, my understanding is that he sold practically all of the corporate suites at Vegas and the race actually turned a profit. After what happened, no one was really in the mood to examine the balance sheet of Las Vegas, but the event was a financial success.

Unless he starts making a series of inexplicable, boneheaded decisions – I will continue to trust the job that Randy Bernard has done for this series. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I shudder to think where this series would be with the previous administration still running things. He has made huge strides in the two seasons he has been on board. I fully believe he will have things on much better footing and even more momentum than the series had just before Las Vegas, after three more years at the helm. Oh, and for the record – I don’t always agree with everything Randy Bernard has done.

But I do agree with this move to race in China. If it will bring money to the series, let’s get Firestone to develop a snow tire and run in Alaska. The race may be a bust – both aesthetically and financially – but at least the powers that be are trying something different. If it doesn’t work, stop going – but give it a shot. If you keep doing the same thing, you’re standing still. In racing, standing still is never a good thing.

George Phillips

28 Responses to “Is Racing In China Right Or Wrong?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    All good points George, from a purely business perspective I am all for it. However, for a variety of personal / viseral reasons (political, fiscal and human rights wise) that I need not go into, this decision does not pass the smell test.
    I enjoy open wheel racing, F1 included, but, this idea is falling in line with several races held by F1 in both the far and middle east and this one too grabs me by my gag reflex….

    • I agree with you completely. I can’t understand why F1 holds 3 races in the Middle East (where 90% of the spectators, other than the oil sheiks, look very European) where there is little or no racing interest, no history, and no drivers. Ditto for China. Below-average GP2 driver Ho-Pin Tung will only be a token for the IndyCar race. I hate the idea of our series racing in a communist country, but I might be OK with it if we (IndyCar) profit off the Marxists.

  2. So just for the record, you don’t like the Chinese either, but you hate them less than the Japanese?

    (I’m KIDDING!)

    I agree with you George. It’s not what I would have chosen, but if it helps the sport survive and grow, so be it.

    I really think taking 3 weeks off in August is a huge mistake. I’d prefer they put these overseas races early in the season. Motegi was a huge momentum killer this year.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I don’t have a serious problem with a race in China, especially since the course at least sounds it could be interesting.

    Still, it seems a bit silly to give the time difference and the three week layoff as reasons for dropping the Motegi race only to schedule another event that faces the same problems. Of course, I also thought it was a bit silly to change the IndyCar logo to include a roll hoop and move the mirrors to the sidepods only to adopt a new car that has neither of those features.

  4. I don’t have a problem with INDYCAR staging a race in China at all. For those who have a problem with China’s human rights and political stances, remember some of the philosophies that THIS country has held in the past. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

    Second, China is a growing economy and one of the world’s most populous nations. As long as the sponsors want to be there, I have no issue with that. Third, they want to host an INDYCAR race. For those who complain about the lack of ovals, perhaps you might want to address your issues to those who can actually do something about it.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      Dear ES…

      Here is some light reading for you (only 145 pages)…. It was compiled by our state dept. and published in April of 2011…

      This link above is just the human right stuff, I was going to get into the whole corporate espionage, stolen patented designs etc., these mooks have reverse engineered every machine, computer and piece of software in the free world and continue to threaten Taiwan at every opportunity. We have a huge trade deficit with them and they hold a huge amount of our national debt. They, the politburo (commies to you) running that country also have a fine record of industrial “accidents” and nothing but the cleanest air and water (see Bejing for the last Olympics)… Yeah, hey what the heck, why not take the whole family there for a few weeks of racing fun…. While your there try doing a little proselytizing for your favorite theological bent and see where that lands you and the fam… BTW, I happen to think that the Chinese people are perhaps some of the hardest working, toughest most enduring peoples in the world. It’s just a shame that inasmuch as they have finally broken free to a certain degree economically, their central govt. still holds a mighty tight rein on it’s people and their personal freedoms…

      • Timnothhelfer Says:

        The arrangements to “share” technology with the Chinese “partners” the auto companies are forced to make to sell cars in China is risky.
        BTW does anyone think the teams would have confidence in any chassis or assemblies Made in China. Not yet, not even close.

  5. You gotta be Randy Benards brother in law or something. What a butt kisser. Racing in China is a big snowjob their making us all swallow and oil pressure just sings right along like a good little sheep.

    • Actually I believe calling George a butt-kisser is way out of line. I hope you were joking, but if in fact you were not, I actually was sitting right there when George interviewed RB last spring and I saw nothing but cordial respect between the two. If treating people as respected professionals is butt-kissing, well there was a lot of that going on. RB is a very earnest person who wants to see (and will do anything in his power) to see IndyCar succeed. I think it is high time IndyCar had someone in their corner like him.

      As to China: China has a very vibrant economy. The company I work for does a lot of business in China. It is not the sweat-shop-leaden culture that the media portrays it to be. People there actually can CHOOSE where they want to work. In fact, many of the workers in the US could take lessons from China in work ethic, as the Chinese I have worked with are a very hard-working group of people.

  6. China is an awful decision. While some sponsors may like it I have a feeling it could be a problem for a lot of other ones, including National Guard. Especially National Guard. Other more American based sponsors too may be driven out. Plus 2 Am racing equal 0.2 ratings. The whole point of getting out of Japan was to end the snoozefests, not make it worse. Oh and racing in China also brings a lot of issues involving working with the local government. Other racing series have tried and have had many issues so considering how well run Indycar is I’m sure there will be no problems. No internet either, which means the always reliable T&S will probably be worse than usual

    • Thinking that sponsors will be driven out ignores the point George made in this very page: The sponsorship summit **demonstrated** that China was the #1 destination they wanted to expand their reach to. The sponsors *told* Indycar that China was the market they wanted to be in.

      I fully understand the National Guard being uncomfortable with this, but name one other sponsor who would be. Then, balance that out with the ones who’ll want to expand their marketing efforts due to the penetration of the Chinese market.

      • Target, Fuzzies, Go-Daddy, Dollar General to name four, I’m sure there are more

        • One of those is no longer a sponsor in IndyCar. “I’m sure there are more,” you say. Please do name some more, then. And those ones that you do name? I think they’ll probably get their sponsor dollar value out of the rest of the schedule (their deals for next year are already signed and paid for, after all, so it’s not like Ganassi, Carpenter and Andretti are going to suddenly gouge those sponsors for an extra $1 million), so I also think they’ll get over “having” to go to China just fine.

          IndyCar didn’t just make up the whole “our sponsors want to be in China” thing. Nor did they probably get a request to go to China from one sponsor and say “all right! Get on Expedia and look for cheap tickets to Qingdao!” This is at the behest of MANY of the Series’ sponsors. The ones that IndyCar is trying to keep happy and keep in the Series long term.

          Also, could you (and the other critics of the China race, for that matter) explain where else IndyCar can score $5-10 million (the rumored sanction fee, since Curt Cavin says it’s rumored to be in the region of 10 times higher than it is for a normal race) in one fell swoop? God forbid you HAVE to sit through a 2:00 AM race (to which I’ll again say, nobody is holding a gun to your head and making you IV drip Red Bull to stay awake) so that IndyCar can attempt to stay financially soluble for a whole season on the back of one single race. You don’t want to watch this race? Fine, there will be 16 others that you can watch.

          • Service Central Tires? ABC Warehouse? Also think there might be a reason why DG isn’t in anymore? The National Guard and Go Daddy both will be especially sensitive things in China… It does nothing for the fans to run a race no one want’s to watch on another street course.

          • Since you want to get picky, Nuclear Clean Air Energy as well as Telemundo.

          • “It does nothing”? Did you miss the part where I said $5 to 10 million?

            You do put forth an interesting list of sponsors there, but then are you saying that Randy and IndyCar a lying when they say stuff like “our sponsors want this race”? With the history of team owner led hissy fits from the last 12 months, I can assure you that if Randy is making this up, we will hear about it, loud and often (likely in the form of a Robin Miller column on SpeedTV, which would be posting just about any second now). Have you actually talked to anybody connected with any of IndyCar’s or any of the teams’ sponsors, or are you just guessing here? And again, I ask you, if the local government and/or local businesses (like the major local brewery there, which is hosting a beer festival that same weekend) are going to pay everybody’s way over there, give IndyCar as a whole a giant pallet of cash, make it as painless as possible for all the teams, financially, and allow the sanctioning body some leway when it comes to wheeling and dealing sanctioning fees at other tracks (including, possibly, some of the tracks that you bang on endlessly about wanting on the schedule, maybe?) who is IndyCar to turn down the money? And I’ll ask you one more time, where is IndyCar going to find a payday one half as lucrative as the one in China? If you can replace that check that is liable to sit in the high 7-figure range, then you have a valid argument. I’m all ears.

          • By does nothing I meant does nothing for fans. it may do something for the series however it’s going to do nothing to pick up more fans or grow the series in America, either. It will get ZERO media coverage. It wastes the month of August. Americans have never embraced an international sports series. I don’t see how turning Indycar into that will be a good idea. There are already too many street courses; another one just adds onto the boredom. It may be good for Indycar as a series, but it’s not good for the fans. And what would be really good for Indycar is to have more than .3 TV ratings. Then they and the tracks could make more money off of sponsorships of races the way NASCAR does, which works out well for everyone instead of running random pay races no one want’s to watch

          • You are correct in most of what you say. However, you addressed basically zero of what I had to say.

            Yes, it would be better to not use up most of August going to China. However, oval tracks (the ones that you and many, many other fans, myself somewhat included, are screaming need to be kept on the schedule) are requesting lower sanctioning fees. This is one avenue toward making that work. Yes, it will get little media coverage. Um, like 15 of the other 16 races on the schedule (seriously, ESPN only lowered itself to put anything about the Vegas race by Sunday morning of the race…IndyCar was freaking invisible there for thw whole week leading up, and the race was even on its parent network). Yes, street courses are boring. However, they routinely outdraw and outrate the ovals on the schedule (hey, I don’t get it either). Yes, we need better TV ratings. However, like I’ve tried to explain to you about 15 times in the last two years, there is no magic wand to make that happen. Not going to China isn’t going to result in instant 1.2s and 1.4s. However, the money earned by going over there could be put toward extra promotion, extra ads that feature the drivers, extra just about everything that could bring in more fans down the road. One more time: you tell me another way that IndyCar can pull in a payday like this is looking like it’s going to be in 2012. Not 2014, when hopefully better TV ratings are the rising tide floating all the IndyCar boats, not 2016, when the next car comes around (hopefully, again), 2012. The Series needs cash now. This is the best way to get it.

  7. More proof Indycar wants to be F1 Lite, and here is some more international flavor.

    The races should be reserved for North America. Outside of that area does nothing for generating fans in the one country that matters.

    The wreck of CART III is just a matter of time now.

  8. Savage Henry Says:

    First, where is Roy Hobbson to make the obligatory shanDONG joke? He probably would have tied it in with Chip Ganassi and the Deltawang. [weeping gently]

    Anyway, the old saying goes that racing cars run on money. George, I think that you are right in saying that racing series run on money too. If going to China brings in a giant check and it makes sponsors (and their big checks) happy, then I’m for it. In particular I’m for it if those big checks turn into races at good oval venues 2012 or 2013. I suspect that’s what RB is hoping for.

  9. If it helps the bottom line of the series and allows us to be able to make tracks such as Phoenix work, I’m for it. That said, I think a handful of races outside NA each year are ok—if it comes to dominate the schedule, that’s an issue. I don’t like the virtual gap it creates in the schedule, but that’s about it.

  10. I see this race as a winner. Why not international and as much as the sponsers want to be there I would think they have some buisness interests that would like to be here. Good

  11. The Lapper Says:

    It’s not like the series doesn’t have the room on the calendar. I like it.

  12. 如果您来到中国我把您带到省的最佳的中国餐馆。 地道,也是!

  13. I love it as long as the track makes for a good race. I have been unable to locate a map of the track layout. Just dont ler Hermann Tilke near the project. I love a having a reace in a new country, but then I am the guy who would love an NFL team and the Super Bowl in London. Yay diversity!

  14. I get the China thing, other than the fact that it will televised at odd hours. Can’t they at least time it so it’s on Sunday morning like F1 or something?

    But if they’re racing in China, why not stay at Motegi while they’re over there? I mean, the Japanese audience is very enthusiastic about Indycar, don’t they have an economy too? And Honda?

    • The Japanese love the heck out of racing; while Motegi really bored me as a race, I’m actually sorry to be leaving that market due to the fact that it’ll be letting down an awfully enthusiastic fanbase. I wish there was some way to not let them down.

      But I held that wish about the Australia race too, and for the same reasons. When there’s nothing to be done about a cancellation, what can you do?

  15. “That means doing whatever it takes to eventually get the series into the black. If that means taking the series around the globe for a large sum, then so be it. The series is beyond the point of trying to satisfy only the taste of the racing purist. That mentality helped get them where they are today.”

    Amen! That’s something that just needs to be said. And it’s something that too many “purists” are ignoring.

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