Editorial

The rebirth of CART

 by Mark Cipolloni
May 8, 2002

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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 grandstands.

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. 

The IRL 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 million
$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.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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