Editorial

What Bernie brings to CART

 

 by Mark Cipolloni
March 26, 2003

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Bernie Ecclestone speaks softly, but carries a big stick

A lot of people have questioned why Bernie would be buying CART.  They can't understand what's in it for him.  Why would he purchase CART when he has F1 they ask, especially given the weakened state CART is currently in?  And what can he possibly do for CART?  He's powerful in Europe, but what about the USA where F1 hasn't exactly been a major success story?  We have mentioned many possibilities on these pages over the past six months, now let's put all those thoughts together and make some sense out of it.

Leverage 2 for 1  First and foremost, Bernie recognizes the potential threat to road racing that the oval track cartel potentially presents.  By buying CART he shores up road racing worldwide by getting two top-level series under his umbrella.  This gives him more to leverage with TV broadcasters, sponsors and manufacturers.  He can offer them more options and a combined marketing effort.  By adopting the exact same engine for both series, he brings more value to a BMW or a Mercedes who can now leverage their engine investment worldwide, including a strong presence in North America instead of just two races per year in the biggest market in the world (NAFTA).

Media Exposure  CART needs media exposure, and it needs it quickly.  Bernie has a vast worldwide media network for F1.  We are already seeing CART news beginning to go out to those outlets.  If Bernie buys 50% of CART, you can expect that effort to be ratcheted up significantly.  Bernie does not buy a business to lose money.  He will make sure his new investment gets plenty of media exposure, which is crucial to its growth.

Cash Infusion  CART needs a major infusion of cash to really kick start it.  People in the USA talk about the wealth of the Hulman George family.  Well Bernie is worth some five times what the Hulman George family is worth.  If he wants to, he can outspend them into oblivion if Tony George decides to try and hammer any more nails.  We suspect Tony George will be forced to put his hammer away and focus on trying to grow his oval track business, something I don't think is possible because NASCAR has monopolized the oval track market.  Oval track fans are completely tapped out and if Tony thinks the France family is going to allow another series to erode their coveted oval track market, he's more naive then even I thought.

Marketing  Bernie is a marketing maven. Because of lack of sponsors and manufacturers in the series, and because of CART's cash position, its current marketing effort is pretty much non-existent, a mere blip on the screen compared to F1 and NASCAR.  Once Bernie buys into CART, he's going to make use of his massive marketing machine and turn the Champ Car series into something people know and talk about.  Hopefully he calls it F1A (for Formula 1 Americas) and leverages the branded "F1" name.  Instantly people around the world will know that CART isn't a go-kart or a shopping cart, but a F1 series with a slight twist.  The CART and Champ Car names are not branded (i.e. something the average guy on the street instantly recognizes), never were, never will be.  CART lost the use of the IndyCar moniker, and that was a branded term - everyone knows what "indy" car is.......though judging by the steep slide of the Indy 500 since Tony George decided to create the IRL, Indy Cars are becoming less widely known.

Alternating Weekends  I have long maintained that Bernie can't meet the worldwide demand for F1 races.  He could use the F1A /CART series in those markets that can't afford a F1 race or who can't find an open slot on the F1 calendar.  What I expect to happen, and something Chris Pook alluded to Monday night in Long Beach, he can feed F1 fans a race almost every weekend, just like NASCAR does.  I think you will see CART and F1 racing on alternating weekends, with very few race date conflicts.  He can use his marketing and advertising machine to focus on F1 one week and CART/F1A the next.  His large Army of journalists that follow F1 can shift from F1 one week and F1A the next.

Weekly Magazine  Ever read Bernie's Formula 1 magazine?  A first class publication.  What about Autosport?  Ever see all the coverage F1 gets in Autosport?  Amazing, simply amazing.  Haymarket owns Racer in the USA and Autosport in the UK.  Bernie can afford to fund a weekly Autosport-like magazine in the USA put out by their Racer group in California.  Autosport covers every minutia of F1.  F1A/CART needs that sort of weekly coverage in the USA in a large-format magazine like Autosport.  Bernie can provide the money necessary to get such a weekly magazine off the ground.

Engaging the fans  All that sounds good, but can Bernie work his magic on the USA racing fans who are enthralled with everything NASCAR?  That may be his biggest challenge.  We have seen that CART can pack them in on race day in the grandstands, but its TV ratings are abysmal.  How will Bernie get them interested enough to tune into TV on a weekly basis?  Fans of any sport worship their athletes, their heroes.  Bernie is smart enough to understand this.  NASCAR drivers are heroes to its allegiance of fans'. On Sunday afternoon, they are doing one thing, and one thing only - watching their heroes bumping and banging around the high bank ovals of the USA.  Ditto for F1 fans worldwide, but because F1 races on only 16 weekends per year, whereas NASCAR races on 37 weekends, its hard to keep the fans interest and continuity.  That's where CART/F1A comes in.  Add F1A's 20 races and F1's 16 on alternating weekends, and all of a sudden F1/F1A is racing on 36 weekends per year, just one shy of NASCAR.

Merchandising  CART's merchandising is pretty much non-existent, at least compared to NASCAR.  NASCAR merchandise is everywhere in the USA.  We expect that Bernie will put a lot of focus in this area going forward.  I doubt it will ever reach the level of NASCAR, but certainly CART/F1A merchandise will become more readily available.

Common Platforms  Don't be surprised if CART's ladder series has a F3 and F3000 rung before long.  I have stated this is what needs to be done to bring CART/F1A in line with the rest of the world.  I doubt Bernie would have it any other way.  Chris Pook alluded to that Monday night in Long Beach.  If Toyota does not want to supply the engines, they will use the Nissan engines from the Dallara Nissan Telefonica F3000 series, a series recognized as less expensive than the FIA F3000 series, and just as competitive.  Because of how the rules are structured, it costs far less to field a Dallara Nissan Telefonica F3000 team than a current Toyota Atlantic team, and they produce twice as much horsepower.

More Manufacturers and More Sponsors  I am sure that Bernie talks to a lot of sponsors who can't quite afford F1.  He can push them to his "other" series at perhaps half the amount.  As for the engine manufacturers, I hear he and Pook have them already lined up for CART/F1A and you will see them announced in the coming months for the 2005 season.

Standing Starts  I haven't been able to convince CART to adopt standing starts for three years now, even though they are far more exciting than CART's rolling starts.  With gasoline normally aspirated engines coming in 2005, I am willing to bet we will see onboard starters and the ability to do standing starts at venues wide enough to allow it.  Bernie will see to it.

A Stronger USA Presence  One reason F1 has struggled in the USA is because 1) Bernie does not have staff in the USA looking after his interests.  Now he will.  2) The USA public thinks NASCAR is racing.  Road Racing isn't as well known as oval racing because of NASCAR's tremendous marketing effort.  Bernie will raise the awareness of road racing in the USA through his CART/F1A series, one would think in a big way.  Will CART race overseas more under Bernie?  I think so, but I don't expect a major overseas shift.  Just some strategic additions such as Italy or France, and Beijing, China or Seoul, South Korea.

Investment in Circuits  Compared to the rest of the world, the USA's road courses are pitiful.  While a lot of money has been spent building new oval racing facilities in the USA, not much has been done to build new road courses.  Road America desperately needs garages with corporate suites built on top.  The track needs to be able to entertain corporate guests.  Mid-Ohio needs a major widening so drivers can pass, and Laguna Seca needs a major reconfiguration because passing is nearly impossible.  Portland's Main Straight Grandstands are old and dilapidated and the circuit needs garages and corporate suites.  All road courses need Jumbotron screens so fans can see the action all around the track.  If CART wants to be the premier road racing series in North America, it had better see to it that its road courses are fan friendly, team friendly and sponsor guest friendly.  Bernie has been known to see to it that sort of stuff is done in Europe, sometimes investing his own money. 

As you can see, there are many possibilities.  As I wrote back in September, CART, Like the Phoenix, about to rise from the ashes.  I think it's a matter of weeks now.  If Bernie buys CART, it may be the biggest motorsports news in the USA in a decade, and it certainly will get the attention of the oval track cartel (NASCAR and the IRL), a topic of a future article.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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