Winning hearts and minds

   by Cássio Côrtes
September 27, 2004

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Snatching a slice of NASCAR's gigantic pie is certainly high on Champ Car's to-do list. But an anthropologic field research at Las Vegas Motor Speedway suggests that order to be taller than W’s on the Middle East.  Right now the USA may just be a NASCAR-only country.  Champ Car has a steep hill to climb.

Formula Truck in Brazil is akin to NASCAR in the USA

"Why would you line up half a dozen of sumo wrestlers to run the 100-meter dash?"

"I don't know, dad. But look at all those packed stands."

I handed my father another plastic cup of red wine (everybody else around us was drinking beer, even though it was a typical 40-degree morning in the Brazilian South). He stopped his whining for a bit to focus back on the race starting in front of him - a Formula Truck race.

Every country has the NASCAR it deserves, and in Brazil's case, the racing series that puts the largest number of beer-swilling butts in the stands consists of 4.5-ton trucks - "truck" here meaning "truck-truck", as in "semi" instead of "pickup" - with over 1000hp dicing it up on the country's never-designed-for-this-type-of-thing road courses.

We never again went to a Formula Truck event. But 70,000 other people did a couple of weeks later, at the championship's following round. My father's still unable to figure out why.

Two words, dad: entertainment value. Images like this hardly qualify as good racing, but dammit, they're cool to watch. In Brazil, F-Truck shares the same network and is called by the same announcer as one of earth's most sophisticated forms of motorsport: the Champ Car World Series. F-Truck's ratings are higher.

To the northern hemisphere, then, in a way, Champ Car's stance on the domestic racing scene resembles the American occupation in Iraq: a small army who's being kept in action thanks to stubborn folks at high levels, while surrounded by a sea of people who don't really think much of them.

In that scenario, Kalkhoven, Forsythe and Gentilozzi replace Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld; stubbornness is a virtue rather than a vice, and the hostile people cheering at Baghdad's squares are the friendly people cheering at NASCAR's grandstands.

Thus, the "Double Down in the Desert" - Champ Car World Series (CCWS) doubleheader with the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series at Las Vegas Motor Speedway - was an opportunity for Champ Car to stick flowers inside AK-47s on the streets of Fallujah.

In this unique event, Champ Car's Fan Forum happens only a few hours before NASCAR Trucks' green flag. The turnout is big, much bigger than usual: a large portion of the audience is comprised of NASCAR followers venturing into their first open-wheel experience. The very first question comes from a Marine like-built, buzz-cut gentleman. As is de rigueur on Champ Car's forums, he begins by introducing himself.

"Hi, I'm Dan," he says, "and I'm stationed at Nellis Air Force Base." (Big cheer from the crowd. No further proof necessary of the NASCAR demographics strong presence here). "My question is..." He pauses, trying to pick the adequate words, and then shoots: "What is this 'Champ Car' thing? How does it compare to a Cup car or Craftsman Truck in terms of speed?"

Of course, the concept that there are individuals who regard themselves as "race fans" and yet perceive a Craftsman Truck (a truck! A racing truck, for Jim Caviezel's sake) as something more prominent than a state-of-the-art, carbon-fiber Champ Car should be defined by the Geneva convention as a Crime Against Motorsports, and a disrespect to the heritage of names such as Andretti, Fittipaldi and Unser. But what are you gonna do? This is the current State of the Union in the USA.

Thus, Champ Car's Executive VP of Operations John Lopes demonstrates he's not only tuned to today's reality, he's also a patient man: "Quite simply," he lectures, "these are the fastest cars on the planet, when allowed to be."   Sgt. Dan's eyes open up - that's news to me!   He looks impressed.

How hard can it be to educate these masses? Lopes seems confident it can be done as he addresses the crowd: "Stick around for our race, and you'll be blown away by the Champ Cars' speed."

There's little doubt this will be a sail into uncharted waters for Champ Car. Any longer walk below the grandstands reveals that NASCAR owns the majority of the attendants - they're hard to miss in their characteristic walking-billboard outfits.

Admittedly, it is late when the green flag for the Bridgestone 400 drops at 10:15pm. Still, the crowd looks significantly smaller already - maybe 80% of the estimated 70,000 people at the start of NCTS's Las Vegas 350. Figuring out 3/4 of these to be NASCAR fans, Champ Car might just walk out of Sin City with 40,000 potentially new followers, in case it's able to put on a great show.

If not for all the right reasons - the cars do run side-by-side, but mostly thanks to an 'artificial' high-drag aero package - that's exactly what the Champ Car drivers do. The race's finish could fit an IRL "Wheel-to-wheel Excitement!" TV spot, as Sebastien Bourdais nips teammate Bruno Junqueira at the line by 0.066 seconds.

And yet only some 8,000 souls have endured the night to witness it.


Scott Babb tries to understand the Champ Cars.  Notice his hat and the shirt of the lady in front - NASCAR, all NASCAR

Don't we know why already? Meet Scott Babb, 43 years old, Vegas small business owner, married. Slightly overweight body covered by an "If you go out-of-bounds, chances are you're not coming back" t-shirt. Racing Electronics headphones. Head tucked in a Home Depot/Tony Stewart cap. In short, a good specimen of the AARF - the Average American Race Fan.

Although he attends some "15-20" races a year, this is Scott's first live Champ Car experience. Is he enjoying it?

"The cars are nice to watch, but there's nobody to root for," complains Babb. "What do you mean?," I retort. "What about guys like Jimmy Vasser? He even lives in Vegas."

"Yeah," Scott reckons. "But I haven't seen him or any of this guys go up through the ranks, know what I mean? I took my wife to see the Copper World at Phoenix many years ago, and I remember telling her, 'Watch out for this kid Tony Stewart, he's damn fast'. I can't see...what's it called..."

"Toyota Atlantic?," I guess.

"Yes! I can't see Toyota Atlantic on my local track."

Babb comes across as a knowledgeable and well-spoken race fan. Yet his next commentary would make anyone who regards F1 as the pinnacle of motorsport shiver: "I also can't tell who's who! The numbers are too small, and lots of cars have the same sponsor!" (Can you imagine a Ferrari fan pissed because both cars are red?)

"I followed the IRL for a while," continues Scott. "I liked it when they had Tony and all the other USAC guys over there, but they don't do that anymore either. All their drivers are from foreign countries now!," he exclaims. To the AARF, being a good ol' boy still matters more than being...well, fast.

"So what should Champ Car do to become interesting to guys like you?," I ask him.

His answer is as logical as it is predictable: "Let me put it this way: if Kurt Busch were racing here, this'd be extreme."

But unless Jimmy Spencer kicks some Kurt butt all the way to an open-wheel paddock one of these days, Busch won't leave NASCAR anytime soon. And Champ Car domestic oval races will continue to have high school arena-sized crowds at their checkered flags.

CCWS co-owner Paul Gentilozzi was rumored to have tried to put together a street race deal around the Mandalay Bay casino. Gentilozzi considers the Vegas market "crucial", deeming the city "a bastion of motorsports." But that bastion no longer holds itself for open-wheel oval racing. Not Las Vegas, NV, nor Anytown, USA.

Even the drivers don't like it anymore. Quizzed on whether he liked Vegas's pack-like racing, former Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Bruno Junqueira responded with irony: "It is enjoyable, when you finish the race in one piece. But that doesn't always happen."

The bottom-line is simple: audiences attracted to Champ Car's formula no longer relate to oval racing. The fans that pack Champ Car's street venues and its successful road course events aren't likely to stick around to see tube framed cars with carbureted engines run after what they perceive as the main show. Ditto for NASCAR fans - "no rubbin'" equals "borin'", and that's why most put their Bud-less coolers on the bed of their Silverados and headed back home after Shane Hmiel's NASCAR Truck Series win this weekend.

The Double Down in the Desert demonstrates the chances of success for Champ Car's domestic oval events are similar to those of George "W" Bush being acclaimed by Najafans as the father of a democratic era of Iraqi renaissance - and that, unless you're a registered Republican, means very slim to none.

Even so, LVMS CEO Chris Powell stated the speedway would like to have Champ Car for "another 75 years."   As long as Champ Car is paying him a hefty sum to rent the track I guess he would say that.

Note to Gentilozzi: running around casinos might be a better idea.

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Others by Cássio

Da Matta - I want to be in Champ Car next year

Winning hearts and minds - can you make a Champ Car fan out of a NASCAR fan?

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Why Champ Car needs to look at Savannah

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Champ Car must partner with business-to-consumer companies

Toyota Atlantic class of '04: Ready for prime time

Champ Car and IRL's final showdown

One (half) lap of Road America: Champ Car must stay at the USA's best track

Is Marco Andretti America's next hope?

Open Wheel Racing is in serious need of consolidation

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The major leagues of racing is no place for ride-buyers

CART, Driven to where?

Senna: The silence of Imola was heard from here

CART/IRL Split: The 'Evil' split, a Brazilian perspective

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