that the month of May is over, and CART didn't take the shellacking it did
last May when the IRL dropped one bombshell after another, it's time
to get down to the business of CART's future. For
all of CART's fans, this seems to be the 11th hour for the sport they love.
Whether or not CART has a future beyond next year is going to be determined within
the next two or three months. For many observers, unless a major deep pocket
benefactor comes to the rescue, or at least two to three engine manufacturers join
the series, CART's ability to survive beyond 2004 will be in serious jeopardy.
It's no secret that CART is depleting its cash
reserves at an alarming rate to produce its current 19-car grid. After the
loss of its two biggest engine manufacturers, and the majority of its sponsors to
the IRL, the CART paddock is a mere shadow of its former self.
Since September 2002, rumors of Bernie Ecclestone
buying CART have been running hot and cold. It's now almost a year later and
nothing substantive has materialized. We're beginning to wonder if it isn't
a diversionary smoke screen by CART stakeholders to hide the real picture.
Certainly any commercial intervention by Ecclestone
would be a landmark event. Perhaps the motorsports story of the decade.
Stamping Bernie's name on the series would help attract major sponsors and
manufacturers, something CART's management has been unable to do in the last 18
For the sake of argument, let's assume the Bernie
rumors have no substance and that CART is awaiting its last rights. Many are
predicting CART's ultimate demise when its cash reserves are depleted, and without
accomplishing the majority of the following initiatives, we too, may soon be
joining that chorus.
First, CART must buy air time on CBS for all of its races in 2004 and beyond.
Not 90%, but 100%, even if that means tape delaying some of them. As we have
seen, a tape delayed broadcast on CBS dwarfs CART's live ratings on SPEED Channel.
It's not good enough to say that some of NASCAR's and the IRL's races are on cable
TV. CART is in a precarious position. Too many people in the industry
and media are seriously questioning CART's future. Sure, while the majority
of CART's events are box-office successes, without a network TV package that goes
above and beyond its competition, its "code 5" (i.e. life threatening).
Network TV reaches far more viewers than race day attendees.
The reason CART must have all its races on network
TV is threefold;
1) If CART wants to attract new engine
manufacturers, it must enter into negotiations with a solid USA TV package.
In the absence thereof, the engine manufacturers will not be willing to invest the
necessary millions in order to reach the American car-buying public who represent
the world's largest consumer marketplace.
2) If CART intends to enhance the ability of its
teams to sell sponsorship, thereby becoming self sufficient, they need a viable
network TV package with which to negotiate team sponsorship. As we see from
this year's grid, a weak TV package yields empty sidepods.
3) Business-to-Consumer sponsors need a good
network TV package. If CART believes that it can remain in business by
relying merely on the business-to-business deals between sponsors, it's deluding
itself. Sponsors don't need the CART platform to negotiate mutually
beneficial business deals; what they need is a TV package from which to launch
their business to consumer marketing and advertising objectives. CART needs
sponsors who sell goods to the consumer. It's the consumer oriented sponsors
that will buy TV advertising time for CART's races (much needed revenue to pay for
the TV time buys) and perhaps feature its drivers in those ads so that someday
they become household names.
If CART's current management team can't produce a
100% network TV package, CART's Board of Directors should find one that can, and
fast. Sure it costs twice as much to buy a time slot on CBS than SPEED, but
the return on CBS is far greater (on a cost per viewer basis by over 10 to 1).
CART's future is at stake here. If CART is going to deplete its cash, it's
better to do so on a solid TV package than propping up teams. Give the teams
a great TV package to work with and they will find their own money.
The next key component of CART's survival is multiple engine manufacturer
involvement. It's great that the current Ford Cosworth engines are
economical and equal, but Ford isn't spending the requisite amount of resources,
financial and otherwise, necessary to properly promote the series. CART
needs to attract engine manufacturers that view CART as a marketing platform in
which to sell their passenger vehicles. And in that mutually beneficial
process, in which the manufacturers use CART as a marketing platform, the series
will flourish and the manufacturers will realize a return on their investment.
If it was up to me, I would suggest to Cosworth and
Ford that they either agree to selling the rights to use those engines to other
manufacturers (for a badging tolling fee of course), or I'd be on the telephone to John
Judd or Zytek who would be more than happy to oblige.
Perhaps the best scenario would be for CART to have
a Cosworth, Judd, or Zytek produce a standard, relatively high-tech "CART" engine.
CART would sell the naming rights to that engine to as many as six automobile
manufacturers. They would then pay a tolling fee to CART for the right to
put their name on it. CART could either have Cosworth, Judd or Zytek do all
the engine rebuilds for all the companies (so all engines are equal), or produce
blueprints of the standard engine and provide them to each engine manufacturer
from which they would build their own.
Each would have to build the engines to those
blueprints, meaning all would be nearly equal. Because each manufacturer
would have to find ways to improve the engine's performance without changing its
dimensions or material in any way, they would be competitively challenged to find
5 or 10 more HP out of the engine. They should be spending their money on
advertising, not R&D anyway. If it was up to me, I would let each company
design the look of their cam covers, nothing more. CART should supply a
standard Engine Control Management (ECM) system as well - to prevent any cheating
with regard to traction control and the like.
If CART does not want to go the "standard" engine
formula, than it must be prepared to announce its new engines specifications and a
minimum of two major automobile manufacturers by July or August of this year.
If this announcement is not made by then, we fear the sun may never rise on the
2005 CART season. Manufacturers must begin their engine designs now, to be
race-ready by 2005.
2005 is the critical year, because CART's cash
reserves can't make it past 2004 with the current engines, like Cosworth might
like them to. CART needs manufacturer involvement, and the investment that brings,
as soon as possible. If CART can't produce new manufactures by late
summer, then any talk of a 2005 season is mute.
Clearly CART is not going to stay a public company much longer. Gerald
Forsythe wants to buy CART, but even he admits he's not the right guy to go it
Bernie Ecclestone is the right guy, but those
rumors have gone very cold lately. If I were Bernie, I'd buy CART just to
have it in my back pocket should the GPWC negotiations not go well. Bernie
could do wonders with CART if he devoted his attention to it like he does F1.
If the current manufacturers want to join the GPWC and split from the FIA, Bernie
would find new manufacturers (GM, Hyundai, Kia, Audi, etc.) who would want to come
onboard with his new CART series if the price of entry was reasonable.
The Rupert Murdoch/News Corp. buying CART rumor is
perhaps the most intriguing (see rumors page for all the details).
Then there's the Kevin Kalkhoven and Roger Penske
rumors, but Roger is surgically conjoined at the hip with ISC and the France
family to get involved with CART. Insiders suggest they would just as soon
see CART dead. A combination of a Forsythe, Kalkhoven and Jon Vannini owning
CART would be an interesting mix. Forsythe and Kalkhoven have the money, but
it's Jon Vannini who has the take the bull by the horns and take no prisoners
panache that can turn the company around. With Chris Pook retiring soon,
throw current COO and former Bernie Ecclestone right-hand man David Clare into the
mix, and CART might just have the right combination at the top, finally.
Merging CART with the IRL has been suggested by
many for years, most recently by Mario Andretti and Roger Penske. However, insiders say
Tony George has been, and remains on, a personal vendetta to destroy CART, and
this notion is purely fanciful. If he puts his hammer away, than
perhaps it's possible. In fact, with the IRL concept not connecting
with the ticket buying public, CART might be best served by distancing itself as
far as possible from the flawed IRL all-oval concept. NASCAR is "king of the
ovals," and it will be a cold day in hell before the France family allows any open
wheel series to even minimally erode its stranglehold on that market. To
think otherwise is simply delusional.
Whether it's Bernie, Rupert, or the
Forsythe/Kalkhoven/Vannini/Clare team, CART had better go private by the end of
this summer. If not, the vultures will be circling overhead come 2004,
waiting for CART's final death knell, Tony George's final nail in their coffin.
Without some major blockbuster announcements from
CART in the next two or three months, as outlined above, the reappearance in the
media of CART's impending death is an absolute certainty.
Time is of the essence, for they are in the 11th
hour, rapidly approaching midnight. For CART, it's now or never.
The author can be contacted at
to discuss this article