Editorial

CART gets a taste of tifosi passion in Mexico City

 by Mark Cipolloni
November 19, 2002

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Fans go wild when Jourdain pulls away in lead on Sunday.  How does CART take the passion witnessed in Mexico City and duplicate it elsewhere?
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Sometimes I think this politically correct world we live in has stripped our people of the passion we once knew.  Without passion we are nothing more than a bunch of stuffed shirts and lifeless robots.  If you think about it, it's passion about something that drives you to strive to accomplish great things.  I was reminded of the importance of that passion on Sunday in Mexico.

While Mexican driver Michel Jourdain was leading yesterday's CART race before his countrymen in Mexico City, I could not believe how wildly excited the crowd was and it reminded me very much like the infamous tifosi cheering for Ferrari at Monza.  Monza is special, not only for its history, but more so for its passion.  It permeates your bones.  I have not seen that much excitement at a CART/Indy Car race, since watching AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti, two heroes of American motorsport, do battle week in and week out.  It was a special time for open wheel racing in America.

I have long maintained, that in order for CART to be successful, its drivers are going to have to be heroes.  Only heroes can generate the kind of passion we saw on Sunday.  Many of the Mexican race fans are from the working class, and the Mexican drivers are heroes to those people, having attained something they can only dream of achieving. 

Similarly, many NASCAR drivers are heroes to the NASCAR fans (many of whom are fanatical about it) and Indy Car racing used to have heroes back in the days of Rose, Vukovich, Shaw, Foyt and Andretti....larger than life figures. 

Heroes don't happen over night.  Only the very best athletes in this world become heroes, and that goes for auto racing.  A wanker driver will never become a hero, much like a minor league baseball player will never become a Babe Ruth or a Mickey Mantle. 

As CART brings new blood into the series, eventually a talented superstar will emerge, a driver that can command the passion like we saw on Sunday in Mexico City.  Unfortunately drivers are too specialized today, and they don't race in multiple series like they used to, so it's difficult to determine who really has superstar talents.

That hasn't stopped NASCAR from making superstars out of its drivers.  They recognize that it's not the make of car or the paint job on the car that generates passion in their fans, it's the drivers, many of which have great personalities and who create excitement on the race track, that have become heroes to the fans of NASCAR.  Until CART, F1 or even the IRL recognize that it's the driver stupid they will suffer from mediocre TV ratings.

Sure CART, IRL and F1 can pull in a big crowd on any given race day, they have all proven that.  However, getting those people to become passionate fans of the sport who tune in on TV week in and week out, will require a wholesale change in the emphasis put on marketing their product.  The emphasis must be shifted to the driver, because in the end, that's all that really matters. 

Just give them the tools that allow their skills to shine through on the race track, a rules package that makes for close racing and exciting finishes, TV announcers who know how to convey to the fans when a driver might be doing super human things, some driver coaching on how to be fan friendly, sponsors who weave their drivers into their product line and TV and print ads, and the rest will take care of itself.

You could not go anywhere in Mexico City without seeing large billboards featuring one of the Mexican drivers, and the TV was full of news about the drivers and the race.  Mexico has a passion for its driving heroes.  The "new" CART would be well served to create that sort of passion everywhere, and it starts with a renewed focus on its drivers.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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