Is NASCAR ready to weather storm?

7/25/2009 - NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Folklore has it that former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. influenced Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Tony George into forming another open-wheel series in 1994, the same year George invited the good ol' boys in stock cars to compete at his famed track.

Folklore also has it that France influenced it so that George's Indy Racing League would split from CART in 1996 and thus tear apart what had become arguably the best racing in the world.

In doing so, according to folklore, France would pick up IRL races on NASCAR ovals in need of more events and fans disenchanted by the split to catapult the Sprint Cup Series to the unquestioned No. 1 in American motorsports.

It sounds good in theory and is very believable knowing the sledgehammer way in which France ruled, although many close to him are skeptical it happened that way.

But because France no longer is with us and George was too busy to discuss it, we'll have to file this away with conspiracy theories such as whether President Kennedy was assassinated in an organized crime and/or the CIA conspiracy, or whether the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were planned by the U.S. government.

What we do know is that the split, coupled with NASCAR's arrival on the hallowed grounds known simply as the Speedway, indeed helped make the Cup series king.

"It was a sign that NASCAR had arrived," said former Lowe's Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler.

It was like landing on the moon, a historic event. It expanded a sport born of Southern roots to a place where racers and fans seemingly were more sophisticated.

"That was a huge move to expand NASCAR's popularity," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president for corporate communication and resident historian. "When we took the stock car to Indianapolis, that heightened the awareness and it gave true Indy fans a look at what NASCAR was all about, and that helped in the big picture."

One could argue that NASCAR has come full circle, that it is treading dangerously close to the pitfalls that many believe doomed open-wheel racing even before the split.

Just like CART in the early 1990s, NASCAR is dominated by three or four super teams. Fewer people also are identifying with Cup drivers today, just as CART drivers became almost faceless with so many foreign drivers.

Manufacturer support also is changing and dwindling, and the sport is becoming too expensive for those without Fortune 500 backing to compete.

"The door is wide-open for them to head down that road, but I don't see [NASCAR] heading there yet," said ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace, who became the first to take a stock car around Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the famed 1993 tire test. "One of the things that scares me is the new car -- the exact same car for everybody.

"It is in my mind not what we need to be having now."

Despite being safer than ever and cost-effective, the new car has taken away some of what made NASCAR unique when open-wheel racing was losing popularity. The sameness of the machine is almost as vanilla as the personality of many of the drivers.

Some call it boring.

"I don't like it at all, the cars being the same," Wallace said. "It's hard to pass, and a lot of teams in Indy cars complain about that, too. I always thought NASCAR had a little fudge factor with templates. It gave teams a chance to put our own personalization on the car.

"I'm sure not going to say, 'The racing's bad, don't come see us.' It's not bad. It's OK at the moment. But this equal-car thing makes me very, very nervous."

NASCAR has studied what went wrong with the IRL and CART in hopes of avoiding the same pitfalls. From holding town hall-type meetings with drivers and owners to implementing double-file restarts at midseason because fans like them, the governing body is doing all it can to stay ahead of problems.

Still, some of those who lived through the open-wheel split believe that the potential to fall into the same traps exists in Cup. They also are no more willing to talk about them on the record than they are any manipulation of George by France.

Walt Czarnecki, the executive vice president of Penske Racing Inc., understands. He watched with great pain the constant battles between the handfuls of owners who ripped apart open-wheel racing by trying to have their own way.

In terms of comparing the two stories, if you were to compare NASCAR today to CART in that day, NASCAR is much, much, better off.

-- Walt Czarnecki

Czarnecki also believes that France's primary concern was adding events for NASCAR tracks, not tearing apart a series.

"Bill France had a vision, and he worked very hard to make sure that vision was secured," Czarnecki said.

Because of what France did, NASCAR is much less likely to follow in the footsteps of the IRL and CART, although conversation about how some owners could split into another series comes up occasionally.

"NASCAR has a much broader national reach than CART did," Czarnecki said. "NASCAR, even today, has a much sounder sponsor base than CART had in those days.

"In terms of comparing the two stories, if you were to compare NASCAR today to CART in that day, NASCAR is much, much, better off."

Hunter knew France as well as anyone. He can't say for sure whether his former boss had any influence on the split, "but I do know that we've always felt like we needed more racing, more different kinds of racing, to support the tracks."

"I never heard Bill was involved, other than maybe Tony asking for advice from time to time," Hunter said. "The thing that sealed it was when Tony agreed to run stock cars at Indy."

There are no mystery bullets here. It is all fact that NASCAR's popularity reached new heights between 1994 and '96. From the downfall of open-wheel racing to the rise of a Dale Earnhardt, the working man's driver, it was a perfect storm for growth.

It paved the way for NASCAR to move into areas such as Chicago and Kansas City. It also alienated the fans NASCAR is trying to recapture now, because the opening of new tracks meant the closing of traditional tracks at places such as North Wilkesboro and Rockingham in North Carolina.

But there's no denying that everything that happened around Indianapolis was instrumental in what we see in NASCAR today.

"It was huge, huge," Czarnecki said.

Those who attended the tire test in 1993 realized the significance immediately. Czarnecki has a T-shirt autographed by the participants that day framed and hanging on his wall.

"That's how much in my mind how important I thought it was," he said. "And I'm not a collector."

Wallace understood the historical significance enough to ask for permission to be the first Cup driver on the track.

"I'll never forget when we fired those cars up," he said. "When I was the first guy to pull on that track and come down that back straightaway I was, 'Holy s---! Look at how narrow this place is, look at how long the straightaway is.' I went, 'Wow!'"

Then Wallace heard a rumble from behind that he'll never forget.

"Here I am lollygagging down the back straightaway and taking in the sights like a tourist, and here comes damn Earnhardt flying past me," Wallace said. "I jumped on the throttle and raced that sucker into Turn 3 and to the short shoot off of Turn 4.

"We pull off the track and he said, 'Well, Wallace, you were the first guy on the track, and I was the first guy to lead a lap.'"

As much as that moment meant to Wallace and Earnhardt, it meant more to NASCAR.

"It literally put them in a league they'd never been," Wallace said.

Jeff Gordon, who won the inaugural Brickyard, said it was huge for Indianapolis, "but more so for NASCAR and the Cup series."

People questioned whether NASCAR belonged then. Some were offended that what was perceived as a Southern redneck sport had entered the sacred grounds.

Some were rude, disrespectful.

It's not that way today. The Brickyard has become almost as much a part of NASCAR lore as the Indy 500 has of open-wheel lore. It's easily the second-most-anticipated event of the season behind the Daytona 500.

One could argue that IMS now needs NASCAR more than NASCAR needs it, which wasn't the case 16 years ago.

It likely kept George, who was publicly criticized for all the money he funneled from IMS into the money-losing IRL when recently ousted as the track's CEO, in his job a bit longer.

According to Wheeler, a typical NASCAR race nets between $10 million and $12 million. Indianapolis, he said, made around $20 million for the Brickyard.

Wheeler isn't among those who believe that France manipulated George to form his own league and split for the betterment of NASCAR. If anything, he argues just the opposite and makes solid points.

"At the time, he was trying to broaden his bases and he always said we needed something else, meaning that NASCAR needed some competition," Wheeler said. "Obviously, Indy car racing was the something else.

"So a split was devastating. You don't split something when it's going downhill. You split something when it's at the apex."

But the France theory makes for a better, if not believable, story. It's as sound as any other explanation anybody has provided for why the split had to happen.

And it's a good warning to NASCAR that even the strongest of series are vulnerable.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.