Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ties that Unwind

In yesterday's roundup, Landis said he wanted to take down the UCI. The obvious question that follows is what to replace it with. To TBV, the nearest comparisons are to racing with motors. The parallels between auto racing, and the perils and rewards are illuminating. Here are some things to start thinking about...

  • The USAC/CART split for Indy car racing in 1979. The teams, fed up with the incompetence of the sanctioning body, formed their own series. USAC lost the series, but kept the Indy 500, the major event. An uneasy truce let CART teams run and win in the 500, but frustration stewed for years.
  • The subsequent CART/IRL split as the premier event set up its own sanctioning body and series. Attempts by CART to compete head on failed, and CART eventually went bust, kept alive by buyouts.
  • The de-jure world championship of the FIA, Formula-1, has been nurtured to the exclusion of other forms of FIA competition, notably Sports Cars (LeMans) and Rallying. When push comes to shove, all decisions by the FIA have been to strenghten F1 at any cost to other series. The series stuggles to keep full fields and their are constant complaints about the cost structure. Organizers get rich, a few teams do well. Others teamscome and go on the whim of sponsorship money that is difficult to come by without results that require huge budgets.
  • In the meantime, a closely run parochial series gains massive popular acceptance with competitive racing, full fields and cost-effective technology. Teams, drivers and the series on a gravy train: NASCAR.
  • And if you want to get wonky, the World of Outlaws split off from USAC dirt track racing as well, because USAC wouldn't allow wings (among other things).
It's easy enough to paint the UCI as the FIA or USAC in the analogy, and the grand tours as events like the Indy 500 or LeMans. Consider mountain biking to be sports cars or rallying -- loved by some, but co-opted by the sanctioning body and marginalized to commercial oblivion.
And you might look at USCF and USACycling as the old USAC.

Looking at the USAC/CART split of '79, there are two important points. One, USAC was toothless, and could do nothing to prevent CART from starting and continuing to run. Two, the breakaway wasn't joined by the big event, and this caused problems later.

This is different than the UCI, which through national federations can discipline riders for participating in things they don't like. The threats made to riders for racing in unsanctioned races against Tyler Hamilton when he was on suspension are a recent example. This is similar to the de-jure power the FIA holds in auto racing. In Europe in particular, the FIA has been very heavy handed and has referred to things as "illegal races" when not under their sanctioning authority. The FIA has been trying to crush LeMans for decades - which sounds a lot like the struggle between the UCI and the Tour. The French parties are similar sounding, but not the same -- the ASO is not related to the ACO that runs LeMans.

Pressure doesn't matter when the drivers and the teams of the independant series don't care to participate in races under the old sanctioning umbrella. It does matter when the breakaway series isn't big enough to keep the teams and drivers fully occupied and they want to do something else, but can't because of pressure from the other body.

What of NASCAR? Drivers and teams that land there stay. It is popular, lucrative, offers good competition, and is "fair enough". There is cheating, but it is managed in a way that is perceived to be effective. To some degree, there is a culture of tolerance of rogues, up to a point, and then a hammer comes down.

If the FIA tried to impose some rule, NASCAR would ignore it. Attempts by the FIA to lean on tracks that run NASCAR events would be met with laughter by the ownership. NASCAR makes everybody money. Running FIA events makes somebody money, but it isn't the promoters or the teams.

The history of Sprint Cars offers some cautionary reading. From time to time the World of Outlaws looked poised for success, but fall back because of politics with the remaining USAC series, and the vaguaries of media ownership changes and interest.

Some Key Lessons of History
  1. A breakaway needs a viable schedule so it doesn't need to be concerned with sanctions and pressure from the entrenched or de-jure organizations.
  2. A breakaway needs good relations with the key events to survive in the long term.
  3. A breakaway needs to happen at a moment when there is weak leadership of the incumbent organization.
  4. A breakaway needs strong leadership to speak with one voice. This involves teams giving up some of their autonomy.
  5. The breakaway gives up some claims of legitimacy, and needs to work as a commercial entity on its own merits. In cycling, that means bailing on the Olympics.
  6. You can't count on media support without the key events, and even then, it's fickle.
What Else?

The main alternative to doing a breakaway organization is to have a coup that replaces the leadership of the original body. I can't think of a good example of where that has happened.

This post scratches the surface of what might happen with a restructuring of cycling as a sport with regard to the UCI. I'm sure readers will have different opinions and additional thought.

Let's hear what you've got to say!



An article with perspective, includes the Dan Gurney whitepaper that led to the formation of CART.

Wikipedia on Champ Car, particularly the history section.

Timeline of CART/USAC/IRL. Note the plane crash in '78 that left USAC leadership-challenged in a key period, with link to raw version of Gurney whitepaper.

Another piece
, from AutoMedia.

Motorsport magazine opinion piece on CART/IRL.

Atlas F1 Rear View Mirror has a broader perspective.

Bending rules ain't exactly cheating in NASCAR, exactly, but it's not like the old days either.