Franchitti’s Jump To NASCAR Cup Racing The Latest Nail In Indy/Champ Car Coffin

09-10-2007 | Charlotte, NC – Big time open wheel racing in America has been on life support for three decades, its impending demise being reported time and again by countless writers and publications. Now, with a mass defection of current and former stars to the NASCAR ranks, that time might finally be here.

The news that current Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti is about to jump to the Nextel Cup Series, courtesy of team owner Chip Ganassi, is the latest blow to the open wheelers. Franchitti is said to have a five-year deal on the table that would put him in the 40 car as a teammate to Juan Pablo Montoya in Cup next season. He is expected to compete in several ARCA and NASCAR Busch Series throughout the remainder of this season before ascending to the Cup ranks next year.

Along with the defections of Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick Carpentier and Jacques Villeneuve from open wheel racing to Cup in 2008, the Franchitti move underscores the power of NASCAR and the flagging fortunes of top tier open wheel racing in this country.

The latest incarnation of the fight for supremacy in the open wheel ranks ? Indy Car (formerly IRL) versus Champ Car – has led to the divisions becoming an afterthought on the American racing scene. A fractured form of motorsports since the split between USAC and CART in the 1970s, big time open wheel racing has never recovered from the schism.

Open wheel racing’s own greed, arrogance and ignorance has lost footing with American race fans while top drivers such as Tim Richmond, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Robby Gordon, J.J. Yelley, Mike Bliss and Jason Leffler ? all candidates for big time open wheel stardom ? have taken the NASCAR route over the years.

Once the most powerful form of motorsports in America, today?s big time open wheel races feature limited fields of less than 20 cars, poor on site attendance, and all but non-existent television ratings. In the case of Champ Car, this has led to several event cancellations over the past few seasons.

Multiple efforts to reunite open wheel racing under one banner have failed over the years. The most recent effort, championed by former driving great Mario Andretti, fell apart a couple of months ago.

Meanwhile, NASCAR – thanks to savvy marketing, solid on-track action, and frankly, the stubborn management of open wheel car series executives and team owners to find a common ground to reunite their sport, has established itself as the pre-eminent form of auto racing the United States today.

Recent forays into Mexico and Canada have begun the extension of the NASCAR brand throughout the Americas. The addition of Toyota as a manufacturer participating in NASCAR events has further positioned it as a global marketer.

Now, with top current open wheel stars Franchitti, Hornish, Carpentier and Villeneuve (can Danica Patrick be far behind?) following the recent lead of Montoya in making the jump to the NASCAR ranks, it could finally be time to start reading the last rites for Indy Car and Champ Car.

Courting Disaster

There are two reasons to make an out of court settlement. The first is, no matter how strong your position may be, you may lose the case. The second is litigation is a costly process, both in terms of dollars and negative public reaction.

Those factors forced NASCAR and Sprint/Nextel to come to an out of court agreement with AT&T this weekend allowing the AT&T communications giant to resume its sponsorship of Jeff Burton and the number 31 Richard Childress Racing Nextel Cup entry.

AT&T, NASCAR and Sprint/Nextel settled the lawsuit involving primary sponsorship on the car throughout the remainder of this year and in 2008. After 2008, AT&T will leave the series.

The agreement ends a possible messy legal entanglement for NASCAR, which guaranteed Sprint/Nextel exclusivity in the communications marketing segment when it signed on as the title sponsor of NASCAR?s top division in 2004. Communications companies such as Cingular and alltel, already team sponsors in the division on Burton?s and Ryan Newman?s cars respectively, were grandfathered in under the agreement.

Per that agreement, when those team sponsorships ran their course, the exclusivity provisions guaranteed Sprint/Nextel by NASCAR would kick in. When AT&T absorbed the Cingular earlier this year and changed the logos on Burton?s Chevy, Sprint/Nextel cried foul leading to several lawsuits.

Last week?s out of court agreement between all sides put an end to the legal wrangling. It also preserved the estimated $50 million AT&T spends annually in NASCAR related promotion for at least one more year – a sum in addition to the $20-plus million it pays to Childress for sponsorship of Burton’s Chevy each season.

While none of the participants in the action ultimately got what they wanted, they all played nicey nice for the media.

?This agreement represents compromise from all sides that ultimately serves the sport well,? said NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France. ?No one likes litigation, most of all the NASCAR fans, and it was time to find a mutually agreeable resolution. We?re now happy to move forward with the exciting conclusion of the season as we approach the Chase for the Nextel Cup.?

?This is a great solution for NASCAR, the fans, Richard Childress Racing and Sprint Nextel,? stated Tim Kelly, chief marketing officer for Sprint. ?We accomplished our ultimate goal of protecting our unique position with NASCAR while giving the #31 team ample time to transition to a new sponsor. We will continue to focus on bringing new and unique innovations to NASCAR fans for the betterment of the sport.?

?This agreement is the right step taken at the right time. It provides a clear path forward for the sport and its fans, for Richard Childress Racing and Jeff Burton, and for AT&T, which can use its brand on the #31 Car,? said Dave Garver, executive director of business development and wireless sponsorships for AT&T?s wireless unit.

While all is apparrently well for the three major marketers in the litigation mix, the agreement still leaves Childress in the lurch as he will now have to find another $20-$30 million sponsor for the 31 machine for the 2009 season and beyond.

Yates Retires ?

Iconic NASCAR team owner and engine innovator Robert Yates announced his intention to retire as President of Robert Yates Racing at Richmond this weekend.

Yates, a NASCAR fixture for decades, will transfer ownership of Robert Yates Racing to his son, Doug Yates. The new company, titled Yates Racing, will go into effect on December 1, 2007, and will field two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams in 2008 with drivers David Gilliland (38) and Travis Kvapil (88).

?The more I thought about it the more I realized instead this was the perfect opportunity for me to pass the torch to the next generation,? Robert Yates stated. ?I’m closing this chapter of my life, and I cannot wait to see what is in store for me next.?

A product of the famed Holman Moody race shops in the 1960s, Robert Yates fueled the efforts of several top racers before acquiring the then Harry Ranier owned No. 28 Ford team at the start of the 1989 season.

Included in the deal was a young driver named Davey Allison. The pair won two events their first year together and scored 15 total victories before Allison met an untimely, tragic end in a helicopter accident midway through the 1993 NASCAR campaign.

Additional success with replacement driver Ernie Irvan followed before a 1994 Michigan crash short-circuited his career.

Yates? greatest accomplishments as a team owner came with driver Dale Jarrett – the pair winning 29 times and capturing the 1999 Cup championship.

To date, Yates cars have participated in 1,023 Cup events winning 57 times. They have also posted 269 Top-5 and 427 Top-10 finishes winning more than $110 million dollars in prize money in the process.

An engine innovator without equal, Yates? engines are the basis for all Ford powerplants currently run today in all three top NASCAR divisions ? Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck. More importantly, Yates? demeanor and character made him a giant in the garage area – respected by all.

Enjoy the retirement, Robert. You?ve earned it.

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