CART detractors have predicted its demise every year for the
last seven years. Ever since Tony George split Indy Car racing in half
by creating the IRL, those detractors said CART would never survive without
the Indy 500 in its fold. And every year CART has survived.
However, at the end of 2001, after Joe Heitzler's 'reign of error'
decimated many of CART's business/media/supplier/promoter/sponsor
relationships, the cries became even louder. '2002 is CART's last year,' came the predictions. But in stepped Chris
Pook, and with him the rebirth of CART began.
Until that time, it certainly would be fair to say that CART
was arrogant, greedy, self-centered, and riddled with conflicts of interest. Through the years, CART managed to damage a lot of
relationships and paint themselves into a corner. It had gotten to the
point that CART had no friends left in racing. They managed to
alienate Bernie Ecclestone (F1), the France Family (NASCAR/ISC), Tony George
(IRL), Don Panoz (ALMS), and more.
Despite all this, CART continues to be one of the hardest fought,
most challenging and competitive forms of motorsport in the world.
While the on-track product isn't perfect, it certainly has been the shining
light of this struggling series. However, what the Pook regime found when
they took office were numerous damaged relationships with sponsors,
manufacturers, team owners and track promoters. Amazingly, they found
that previous CART leaders had not even taken the time to introduce
themselves to many of these important and indispensable constituents.
One-by-one Chris Pook is rebuilding these broken
bridges, and is working nearly round the clock to repair the damage.
Chris and his team have racked up more frequent flyer miles in the last five
months than one can imagine. Their days sometimes start at 3:00 AM and
don't end until well after midnight.
It obvious that the IRL is aware of Pook's organizational
and leadership abilities, as well as his commanding intellectual and
charismatic presence, and they are worried. They were certain CART
would fold at the end of this season. Now however, they have stepped
up the attack, worried that Chris Pook and CART are gaining momentum.
Of course corporate sponsors are starting to wise up
to the IRL rhetoric. They see the empty grandstands, and have
realized the IRL's open-wheel oval racing may be a flawed concept. The
fans are just not buying tickets and these companies are not so sure they want to have
their corporate logos associated with the negative implications of empty
Some people predicted IRL attendance would increase when the
mighty Marlboro Team Penske joined their ranks. Not so, however, and
if anything, it has dropped. Penske badmouthed CART for dropping his
ovals at Homestead, Nazareth and Michigan, giving that as one of the primary
reasons he was moving to the IRL. The IRL would race on his ISC owned
tracks (Penske's tracks were bought out by ISC and Penske sits on the ISC
board). But lo and behold, attendance has been a disaster.
even did a $1 million marketing campaign in Southern California and they
still only drew about 12,000 fans at Fontana. I hear the look on the face of Marlboro's
Ina Broeman that day in Fontana was not a happy one. One would think
they must be asking themselves if they might be better served back in CART
where the grandstands are full and the races span the globe.
So worried are the IRL folks, that they even decided to
visit Motegi the same weekend as CART's race there to steal some of CART's
thunder. Right away the rumors started that Honda would replace CART
with the IRL at Motegi. It had just the effect the IRL was hoping for.
Yet we now find out that the IRL probably won't race in Motegi for the
foreseeable future. It was a smokescreen, and the media fell for it.
The most recent attempt by the IRL to cut the legs out from
under CART came with the chassis situation. Starting in 2003, CART was
going to attempt to use the same tub as the IRL in an effort to bring the
two series closer together. But once again, the IRL put
pressure on its manufacturers to not participate in the CART series, or risk not being approved to
participate in their series. It's a heavy handed unilateral
dictatorship, much like the
France family does in NASCAR. 'It's our way or the highway.'
Regardless of the IRL efforts to destroy
CART, CART is gaining strength and moving forward with its own agenda.
#1 on the agenda is cutting costs to enable teams to run more cars, or
reduce the cost of sponsorship. We spoke with CART's John Lopes and he
provided us with the cost savings a team can expect in 2003. Keep in
mind that a team spends anywhere from $11 million to $20 million today for a
1-car effort. Also keep in mind that some teams pay for engines, while
others do not. It's the teams that have to purchase their engines that
will see the biggest gains.
Anticipated 2003 cost savings
$0.5 million - Update to existing Chassis, no new car required
$2.0 million - Existing engines $4.5 million per year, 2003 just $2.5
$0.5 million - Reduced testing
$0.5 million - Schedule changes to improve travel logistics
$0.5 million - Development freeze
$4.5 million savings, or about 40%
In addition, CART is giving serious consideration to a
one-engine per weekend rule starting in 2003, plus adding a contingency fund
that could see significantly more dollars flowing their teams way.
This means a team can field a competitive Champ Car for
as little as $6+ million in 2003, a significant cost reduction. CART
will have narrowed the gap between cost and return. In fact it very
well may be cheaper to run in CART in 2003 than the IRL. The IRL
allows a lot more testing, and their oval wall crashes wipe out a lot of
equipment and bankrupt many a team.
We asked John how he felt the 2002 season has gone so far?
"We still need to improve the way we run some of our races, I didn't feel we
did as good a job at Motegi, Japan as we could have," stated Lopes.
"However, our first three races drew huge crowds, and over 1/2 million
people can't be wrong."
"We are working hard to rebuild relationships that were
damaged in the past. CART is now a very different company with
different objectives. We have had some very positive talks with
American Honda, Honda in Japan, Toyota of Japan, Toyota Motor Sales
and Ford, and we are trying to rebuild their
confidence in CART. We think we're making progress," stated Lopes.
"We're now a kinder, gentler, more professional organization, but that
doesn't mean we can be pushed around, Chris Pook is too savvy for that."
As it stands right now, it looks like CART may very well
have as many as 4 or 5 engine manufacturers for 2003. Toyota, MG/Judd,
Cosworth and Ilmor/Chrysler....and if rumors are to be believed, Honda just
might pull a surprise move and be back in 2003 so they don't lose all their
good teams. Ilmor representatives are going around telling people in
the CART paddock that they will be back in CART in 2003, but we wonder since
Roger Penske owns a portion of Ilmor, as does Norbert Haug/Mercedes, and
neither one is a friend of CART these days. I'll believe it when I see
it. But racing can make strange bedfellows.
From my perspective, I believe we are looking at the rebirth
of CART, a new beginning. But as with any new baby, it takes time to
grow it, mold it and for it to mature into an adult. It's going to
take a couple of years to get CART back where it needs to be, but so far
CART is making all the right moves.
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