I've been thinking about the issue of CART's lackluster promotion and ways in which the series might grow in the new millennium. Whether or not CART decides to go "international," I think its roots are American and it will need its American identity (and fan base) to thrive.
With all the pressures on the series to seek a place for itself in the international arena--this year 8 out of 22 races were scheduled to be held on "foreign" soil--it is going to become increasingly difficult for it to define itself to a national audience. With many others I've gone on record as lamenting the loss of the Indy 500 as CART's "centerpiece," not just from a marketing standpoint, but as a crucial element in defining its identity as well. Perceiving "reunification" with the IRL to be a lost cause for the time being, last year I suggested making the Vanderbilt Cup and the CART Championship into the focal point of CART's presentation of itself to the world. I felt this could best be accomplished by offering a huge cash prize--winner take all--as the means of "putting the CART Championship on the map" from a marketing standpoint.
While the possibility of a merger with the IRL seems as remote as ever, recent developments increasingly appear to point toward a de facto return to Indy by the major CART teams. For instance, the number of CART regulars who will be in the 2001 Indy 500 field has tripled and several other teams and drivers have expressed interest. If this trend continues, as seems likely, CART teams might claim half the Indy grid within five years. Assuming this happens, cooperation (or lack of it) between CART and the IRL is going to make a world of difference to the success and/or survival of both series.
In light of this, I'd like to put forth an idea borrowed from CART's past which I feel would not only increase its popularity worldwide but solidify its American fan base as well: the "CART Triple Crown."
Simply stated, I propose that CART incorporate into its regular schedule three 500-mile "Crown Jewel" races which will serve as centerpieces for the series. Ideally, they would include a race to open the season, the Indianapolis 500, and a race to close the season. Taken together, the three events would count toward a special trophy and a bonus award of money which would amount to the richest prize in sports (not just auto racing).
For reasons which will be elaborated upon later, the Triple Crown races should have the following characteristics: they should be 500-mile events held on 2-mile or larger oval tracks; they should be extended-week affairs patterned after the Indy 500 and/or the Daytona 500; the first race should be held as close to the first available Sunday after the Super Bowl as possible and the last race should take place as close as feasible to the Sunday before Labor Day (which is the beginning of the football season); and, finally, the races should be for cars built to Indy Racing League (IRL) technical specifications! Before explaining why, a brief bit of background:
Triple Crown History
According to Hickoksports.com "the phrase 'Triple Crown' was originally applied in Great Britain to an English, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh national Rugby team that defeated all three of its opponents in a single season. It was next used for England's three major horse races, the Two Thousand Guineas, the Derby, and the St. Leger. When Gallant Fox won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 1930, sportswriter Charles Hatton brought the phrase into American usage. It has since been adopted by baseball and by harness racing... This probably isn't startling news, but it always refers to winning three of something."
In America, the most famous Triple Crown is unquestionably the one in Thoroughbred racing. Long an imaginary title, it was given official status in 1987, when the three tracks involved created the Triple Crown Challenge, with a $5 million bonus to any horse that won the Triple Crown. Last year the Kentucky Derby, the first "leg" of the Triple Crown, was the ninth largest sporting event in the U.S. and the other two legs were practically the only Thoroughbred horse races given national media coverage.
The "Triple Crown" concept also has a precedent in CART's past. Until 1971 the typical USAC national Championship --the "Championship Trail" -- consisted of 20 to 25 events, including the month-long sojourn at Gasoline Alley (including the two weekends of Indy qualifying). In September 1970, the precedent-breaking California 500 at Ontario was added to the Championship Trail and in July 1971 the Pocono 500, with Indy and California, became USAC's short-lived multi-million dollar "Triple Crown." I believe the concept was short-lived because, in reality, the only thing which distinguished USAC's Triple Crown was the fact that it comprised it's three 500-mile races. There was no special trophy nor award of bonus money for winning all three "legs" of the Triple Crown (as in thoroughbred horse racing) and, while the three races were undoubtedly the richest on the Championship Trail, each event was essentially stand-alone (which led to the demise of two of the events).
I think USAC had a fantastic idea which was poorly executed. Hoping to emulate the success of thoroughbred horse racing's premier events, they apparently thought they could create a "tradition" by virtue of simply labeling it thus. There was never a
coordinated effort to market a Champ Car Triple Crown in any but the most cursory way. Ontario Motor Speedway was plagued by financial problems from its beginning and Pocono International Raceway's management was reportedly hostile to the concept from the start. Also, I harbor the suspicion that the Hulman group was less than enthusiastic about allowing any other race to be on an equal footing with Indy. Thus, what I contend could have been a fantastic marketing opportunity was still-born.
It's not too late for CART to revive this concept to breathe life into the series. 500-mile races are different and that difference should be exploited to create a marketing bonanza with a "CART Triple Crown," the richest prize in all sports -- not just motorsports!
Here's the idea in more detail:
* CART's "Crown Jewels" would be a championship within the FedEx Championship (to the extent that it could even have a different corporate sponsor). Just as the Indianapolis 500 is virtually a "stand alone" event, so would be the Triple Crown. While CART has no ability to market the Indy 500 directly, by marrying two CART races to it a "set" is created and their media value increased. If one thinks in terms of the thoroughbred horse racing model, the Indy 500 could be likened to the Kentucky Derby while the two CART races would be akin to the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes -- not as valuable as the centerpiece event but much more valuable, financially and media-wise, than any other two similar horse races. Thus, they afford the opportunity to market the two races as a package or they may be used to sweeten the total CART media package.
* Indy has set the bar for the Triple Crown; to be as important, especially without a "heritage," the two CART races must be of equal length and on tracks as big or bigger than IMS. This is the most problematic element in the proposal in my view. That's because of the required dates for the two races. To avoid the media juggernaut of professional football, CART's real nemesis, the first race should be near to the first available Sunday after the Super Bowl, meaning early February. Ideally, the last Triple Crown race should be held the Sunday before Labor Day, which is the traditional start of the football season, usually in early September.
Let's take the date of the first race, sometime in early February. What's required is a two-mile plus oval in the sun belt (because of the winter weather). The only traditional CART track which meets the bill is the California Speedway. Michigan Speedway would likely be under snow. Tracks like Texas Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Miami-Homestead Speedway are all 1.5-mile ovals -- too small for "grandeur."
Hypothetically, though, since we're discussing the start of a new "tradition," one might conceivably get away with holding a 360-mile race at one of these tracks. The excitement engendered by the start of the season as well as the purse might endow this lesser "jewel" with enough of a unique quality to suffice. In this event, a case could be made that a smaller venue would be more appropriate for the smaller crowds likely to attend a new race; i.e., "standing room only" status could be achieved all the sooner. Also, a race length somewhere between a sprint and a 500-miler might be long to enough to convey a "special" quality but short enough to start the season with a bang. In keeping with its uniqueness, a prize half that of Indy and the California 500 would be in order -- it would still be one of the richest in motorsports. This would also make the race easier to finance yet answer any criticism by facility owners that the track was receiving more favorable treatment. In other words, the Triple Crown track promoter would be required to underwrite a larger purse and the extended-week promotional activities as the cost of getting the race.
The 1.5-mile sunbelt speedways tend toward steeper banking, which proved to be a problem for CART at Texas Motor Speedway. Running IRL-spec equipment for the Triple Crown solves this problem as the IRL competes at these tracks regularly without difficulty.
Another option might be to utilize one of the Southern "super" speedways used by NASCAR, like Daytona. I don't favor this solution. The problem here is that they are a little TOO grand -- a CART crowd would be lost in their cavernous grandstands. And there's also the problem of their banking; they're even steeper than the 1.5-mile speedways (like TMS), which might put too much of a gravitational strain on the drivers of even IRL-spec cars. NASCAR runs laps at Daytona in the 190 mph range; IRL cars could be expected to top 225 mph?
Otherwise, our criteria leaves only the California Speedway for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
The final leg also presents some problems. If one wants to keep to the current arrangement, the final race of the CART season already meets our criteria: the California 500 at Fontana. Conceivably, one could start AND end the season at California Speedway. However, there might be another option. If one were willing to forego the advantages of ending the CART season with a Triple Crown race, the Michigan Speedway might be used just before Labor Day to stage a big "event" before football plows motorsports under, giving CART three distinct Big Oval races.
Basically, I see two possible TC scenarios: a Triple Crown Challenge consisting of the Atlanta (or Miami-Homestead) 360, the Indy 500, and the California 500; or, 2) the California 500, the Indy 500, and the Michigan 500.
* The "Triple Crown" would have its own trophy and each of the three races would earn FedEx Championship points (perhaps double the usual amount). Essentially, this gives CART two championships to market from one series; each being distinctive enough to avoid conflict, warrant its own sponsor and, possibly, even its own fan base. For instance, I can easily see a majority of IRL fans avidly following the Triple Crown while ignoring the FedEx Championship Series road course and street races. Moreover, with three major oval races to follow, it wouldn't be too surprising to see some IRL "cross-over" to CART's other oval races. Also, as stated, the Triple Crown Challenge might easily become a valuable, separate media package of its own.
* All three Triple Crown races would be extended-week events in the Indy 500 mold, providing a media "build-up" and additional promotional opportunities for each race.
The Indianapolis 500 led U.S. sporting events in economic impact in 2000, according to the National Association of Sports Commissions. It was found that the Indianapolis 500 creates an economic impact of $336.6 million annually to its surrounding area, almost $100 million more than NASCARís Daytona 500, which was second on the list.
Interestingly, eight of the top-ten events on the list were auto races. The only non-racing events listed were the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby. The explanation may be because the gains for the local economy and for state governments from racing included none of the costs for the building and/or maintenance of facilities or staging the races. As a result, all of the economic benefits identified were real increments, resulting in no opportunity costs or other costs for the state, local governments or taxpayers.
Not long ago, there was an intense debate in Los Angeles over whether or not to attempt to regain a professional football franchise (having allowed the Raiders and the Rams to depart). What emerged was the fact that the economic benefits to be derived by the community from having a pro football team had been vastly exaggerated. A University of Chicago economics study disclosed that the total benefit to the local economy of an average pro football team was less than that of a medium-sized Holiday Inn! In fact, in many metropolitan areas the football franchise was costing the tax payers money. That's because in order to attract a franchise, cities had uniformly offered them virtual tax-free status as well as footing the bill for stadiums or stadium improvements without receiving any portion of the profits in return. As for all the local "jobs" which the football league claimed were being created, a moment's reflection showed that almost all of them were part-time, minimum-wage, seasonal work (i.e., only available during home games). The only rationale left to the football league owners was that a football franchise put a given city "on the map" and conferred on it some imagined status or "image." The Los Angeles taxpayers felt that the city was high-profile enough not to have to pay a king's ransom to the football league for this dubious benefit. As shown by the study published in Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal, motorsports franchise and facility owners are far more valuable to their local economies than their counterparts in the "stick and ball" sports but have yet to effectively market that advantage.
With two obvious exceptions: IMS and Daytona.
The marketing of the Indy 500 is brilliant. Over the years the Hulman group has managed to turn the routine of auto racing into individual "profit centers" and to involve most of the surrounding communities from Terre Haute to Richmond, and from South Bend to Evansville and everywhere in between. This year, by sharing the wealth, as many as 118 Indiana cities and towns will co-operate in promoting the 85th running of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
Look at how IMS has turned racing minutiae into money:
The mere act of opening the facility gates and holding a practice session is a paid event with a sponsor: the Indianapolis Star Opening Day (May 6). This day sets the tone for each and every day of the three weeks to follow. Tickets for adults are $5 and are available on a two-for-one basis by presenting a coupon from advertisements running in The Indianapolis Star on April 29 and May 3-6. The first 3,000 children admitted on Indianapolis Star Opening Day receive an opening day checkered flag courtesy of The Star. A special "kids only" autograph session with Indy Racing Northern Light Series drivers takes place in the Pagoda Plaza, located behind the Speedway's 13-story Pagoda control tower. Children up to age 16 are invited. The first 200 children at the session can have their picture taken in an Indy Racing car and receive a special "front page" poster of The Indianapolis Star with their photo on it.
Each following day of practice, May 7-11 and May 16-19, MBNA Pole Day (May 12), Second-Day Qualifying (May 13), Bump Day (May 20), 500 Festival Community Day (May 23), and Coors Carb Day (May 24) require a general admission ticket and many have sponsors and their own special entertainments and competitions. Essentially, IMS has turned one race into a three-week carnival with three distinct weekend "happenings" of increasing importance and excitement leading up to the penultimate Indy 500 on May 27th.
The two proposed CART races would be structured along these same lines and add at least a week of qualifying -- resulting in a mini-Indy atmosphere. Think of it. CART would have the possibility of working with the tracks' local communities (like Speedway and Indianapolis do with IMS) promotionally to their mutual benefit. Qualifying could become a revenue source by itself, as at Indy, with qualifying weekend tied to a nighttime showpiece event, like a rock concert or a fireworks show. All manner of financial, public relations, and tourist industry opportunities could be explored with local and state government.
* The "hook": the (Sponsor's) Triple Crown Challenge Bonus, the largest pay-out in sports ($7 million?), would be awarded to any driver and team that can win all three Triple Crown races. Theoretically, statistically, one could afford to make the prize $100 million as the odds of winning the Bonus are simply astronomical. Thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes) has been unofficially run since before the turn of the last century and has had exactly 11 winners! That's for approximately a dozen horses running less than two miles in under 5 minutes! By comparison, we're talking about infinitely less reliable machinery, 25-33 cars, running 400-500 miles for approximately two hours. And the same driver and team have to manage it three times in a single season! (Parenthetically, only one driver, Al Unser Sr., managed to win USAC's Triple Crown.) Not only will the purse (and the feat) stun the sports world but, as if the endless marketing opportunities weren't enough for the popularity of CART, the first "leg" toward the Crown is the season opener, "The Greatest Spectacle in Auto Racing" marks the mid-point of the season, and the final "leg" could be the climactic race of the CART season (and, perhaps, of the Championship). If CART can't market THIS, they ought to just give up!
* OK, now for the controversial part: Even though they are part of the Fed-Ex Championship, all three races are to be run for IRL-spec cars. Before you hit the "Delete" key, hear me out. Barring reunification, the Indianapolis 500 is going to be an IRL event no matter what. As mentioned, CART's top teams are already investing in IRL-spec machinery in order to compete there. They're doing so because the benefits of participation outweigh the costs. Despite CART's boycott, last year the Indy 500 was listed as being America's largest sporting event. It's hurting CART not to be a part of the "Spectacle" and if the series can find a way to share the Indy limelight without compromising its identity, I think it should do so. I believe that can be done and I'm going to outline how.
The most obvious objection to running IRL equipment is that it's an "apples and oranges" approach to the CART FedEx Championship Series. In this regard I feel a bit of a hypocrite to bring up USAC traditions, as I never really followed the series (being a F1 fan primarily), but until 1971 the USAC Championship itself was structured just this way: namely, until a separate division was made for road racing, and dirt tracks began to be phased out, a driver going after USAC's premier championship needed points from ovals, road circuits and dirt tracks. To be competitive he needed a chassis set-up especially for road courses, one for his bread and butter racing on oval tracks and a sturdy front-engined roadster that looked like (but was slightly larger than) a Sprint car. So, I don't really see a problem with the specs being different.
There may be some concern that many CART teams just don't
have the financial and R&D resources to tackle the Triple Crown. I think the teams without the resources to take on Indy, for instance, are also the teams least likely to win the Triple Crown or the FedEx Championship. The Champ Car game has always favored the prosperous. The less prosperous teams have at least three solutions to their problem: they can skip the races; they can simply join the under-funded hopeful new participants with a bargain-basement car simply to
put in an appearance for their sponsor; or they have the option of becoming one of the teams that pursues ONLY the Triple Crown, a possibly more profitable use of their limited resources.
Assuming for the moment that I'm right, by holding two more "premier" events for these cars, CART could realize numerous benefits:
1) CART teams could use their IRL machinery for three races instead of just the Indy 500, which helps to justify their investment in totally different cars. Amortizing the cost also provides opportunities for less well-financed CART teams to take part.
2) CART has the opportunity to create a new corporate security: partial or "associate" franchises. Some new teams may find it economically advantageous to contest only the Triple Crown Challenge events, as may some sponsors. As a result, CART could tap into a much larger pool of potential partners. It would also provide interested sponsors with an intermediate step -- partial series involvement -- which could be an easier sell and might lead to more full-series sponsors down the road. CART might innovate, to tax advantage, by structuring "associate" membership around the purchase of a certain amount of CART's common stock ("profit sharing");
3) Indy becomes the centerpiece of CART identity again;
4) CART annexes the best IRL teams, filling the grids at its two premier races with cars and the stands with IRL fans. Just as the Indy 500 bred generation after generation of "Indy only" fans who didn't follow the rest of USAC's Championship Trail, so too the CART Triple Crown could create a separate "series" within the FedEx Championship with its own following. This could not only provide a much larger audience for CART's full-season sponsors but also help cement the American fan base to CART as it ventures abroad. It is more than likely that a number of them may be enticed to follow CART's other oval races as well. Any way one slices it, this increases CART's fan base, especially from among the ranks of its "lost" fans;
5) Additionally, the large oval speedways are capable of handling larger fields (e.g. Indy's 33 places) which might not be appropriate for CART's smaller venues. The Triple Crown could act as a simple device to size the grids appropriately for
the various venues without the need for complicated rules changes and procedures;
6) CART gets badly needed American drivers in its American races;
7) CART's two Triple Crown races will require separate testing schedules because of the IRL equipment involved. This affords the opportunity for IRL teams to test side-by-side with CART teams. "Cross pollination" of the two series can only benefit both. CART gets first crack at promising IRL talent and IRL drivers are encouraged to seek rides in CART. The IRL becomes, in essence, a form of CART "feeder" series. Additionally, many IRL teams have sponsors -- they are introduced to the FedEx Championship also;
8) On the subject of "feeder" series (i.e., Indy Lights and Formula Atlantics) there's been a lot of discussion lately about the need to rationalize them to provide more opportunity to
more drivers and to find ways to provide talented drivers entrťe to a Champ Car ride. I've always thought one of the most important aspects of the Indy 500 was the possibility for new teams and drivers to mount an Indy-only campaign with
the possibility of moving up to the "Big Time" if one was able to showcase one's talent in this one race. Indy provided an opportunity for immediate recognition (fame) and substantial prize money was paid all the way down to last place as an incentive for teams to give it a try. How many USAC/CART legends got their start in just this way? Many! A Triple Crown could triple the opportunities for newcomers hoping to break into the Champ Car ranks.
Currently, CART has become so competitive that virtually no team dares run last year's car. The few teams that have tried--Adrian Fernandez comes to mind--quickly morphed into the latest spec equipment as the season progressed. With a Triple Crown Championship there would be a market for last year's equipment, as less well-financed teams purchased last year's equipment in an effort to qualify in the expanded TC fields, a financial boon to the full-franchise teams.
By way of contrast, IRL cars are legislated to be competitive for three years through the use of "up-grade" kits. So, CART teams buying IRL equipment have a replacement cycle only one-third that of normal; plus the cars are much less expensive to purchase.
That is one of the main reasons it's likely that the Triple Crown races would attract new teams and drivers (and sponsors) who could not otherwise afford to campaign a full season in CART. It's also why the poorer Champ Car teams might be much better off campaigning only the Triple Crown races rather than either a full-season of CART or the IRL.
At present if a Champ Car team can't get the funding for a season-long campaign, CART hopes they'll bide their time in Indy Lights or Atlantics. Market realities, however, make it much more probable that they'll move to the IRL or one of NASCAR's lesser series as they're an easier sale to sponsors. By giving these teams a high-profile alternative that should actually cost less than a full-season in the IRL, CART retains their participation rather than see them go to other series. Whether old or new, a greater number of CART teams could not help but improve the quality of the series and increase its popularity. Additionally, new Triple Crown teams would require only an "associate" franchise, therefore they would
have no effect on the current CART power structure;
9) It is generally recognized that CART's oval races require less horsepower from the car's engines than their road racing venues. That's largely because the speeds on the ovals is being artificially limited. The incident at Texas Motor Speedway gives a good example of why. Simply, CART's racers are too technologically sophisticated for the oval tracks. Ideally, an engine formula could be arrived at which would allow for the running of a detuned version of the same basic engine at oval tracks. If that detuned engine could also be run in IRL events, it could afford both series many benefits. Besides all the obvious gains, engine manufacturers might be able to keep their performance secrets for their leased-engine programs while providing a bread-and-butter detuned engine for sale to the IRL et al. Thus, CART could retain its technological superiority where it counts. Adding two premier high-profile races (in addition to Indy) which would cater to a common engine formula -- later, all of CART's oval races might be added -- may serve to hurry this process along by making it financially attractive for the engine manufacturers to invest in new engine programs;
10) It is said that CART, Inc. is bullish on Nevada, particularly Las Vegas, and plans to move its corporate headquarters there. With one leg of the Triple Crown nearby at California Speedway, some IRL teams might find it advantageous to join CART teams in a sort of "Gasoline Alley West" at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, making the move more feasible and giving CART an identifiable base of operations;
11) There is little argument in media about the attractiveness of big-money prizes. The difficulty for CART is in how to obtain such prizes given the constraints of a public company. Tony George is committed to paying $10 million plus in prizes for the Indy 500 (including approximately $1.5 million to the winner). While CART has no right to market Indy directly, by running its two Triple Crown races under IRL technical specifications and awarding FedEx Championship points to any CART license holder who takes part in the Challenge races, the Indy 500 would become a de facto part of the Triple Crown (as would its purse) whether IMS management likes it or not. The California 500 pays $1 million to its winner and, perhaps, another half-million dollars toward the total purse. All CART has to do is match the California 500 purse for the other leg of the Triple Crown (or, possibly, half that amount for an Atlanta 360) and it has created the largest prizes in motorsports: a $12+ million total purse for the Triple Crown races ($10 million for the Indy 500 + $1.5 million for the California 500 + $1-1.5 million for Atlanta/Michigan) and a Triple Crown winner's purse of $10 million ($1.5 million for Indy + $1 million for California + $1/2-1 million for Atlanta/Michigan + $7 million Triple Crown Bonus) for a Triple Crown Challenge worth $22 million! Furthermore, Tony George has to fund nearly 50% of the pay-out while CART gets the publicity benefits of the entire purse while actually paying around 7% (the total purses for their two races excluding any Bonus).
Also, skillful marketing could easily make use of the entire 85 years of Indy 500 tradition without the need for so much as a nod from Tony George, effectively co-opting George's trump
card. What's he going to do, ban any participant who accepts points in another series from taking part in the Indy 500? Under American law I don't see any way he could exclude any driver who also races in another series as long as the driver meets the requirements for regular entry into the Indy 500. Also, Indy is sanctioned by the FIA who would not allow such an ban.
12) Finally, as stated, the Triple Crown Challenge is a sports marketers dream come true with three separate "events" and the probable involvement of state governments and local communities. A certain amount of press comes "built in" and CART can discreetly ride the Indy 500's publicity coat-tails in the national and international media markets. There are many places in the world where the Triple Crown Challenge Bonus would be an almost inconceivably large prize, bigger than anything in Formula One. If one looks to motorsports history, the Indy 500 became the equal of any Formula One event almost exclusively because of money; for most of its history, the Grand Prix schedule included Indy so the European teams could try for an American pay day. A large part of Formula One's status is based on its driver's astronomical salaries, among the highest in sports. Yet, the individual race purses are rarely mentioned (for good reason). Here's a chance for CART to one-up F1 in prestige by eclipsing the monetary value of its individual races -- and the present financial structure of F1 makes it unlikely that it would be able to respond anytime soon. Additionally, CART can once again stake a claim to Indy 500 "tradition." If CART can't market THIS, they should quit!
Sample Press Releases
Now, to give everyone an idea of the possibilities, I took two press releases from the current sponsor (Visa) of horse racing's
Triple Crown and doctored them to represent Visa's mythical sponsorship of the Visa CART Triple Crown Challenge:
THE VISA TRIPLE CROWN:
A Royal Trio For World Champions
"Gentlemen, start your
And they're off to the thunder of turbocharged engines for one of the most recognized American sporting events in the world! The Visa Triple Crown, comprised of The California 500, The Indianapolis 500, and The Michigan 500, is auto racing's most prestigious series. As the title sponsor through 2005, Visa continues to extend the excitement of auto racing for fans through national advertising and the $7 million Visa Triple Crown Challenge Bonus. The bonus, the largest payout in sports, in history, is awarded to any driver and team that can win all three Visa Triple Crown races. Visa has narrowly missed awarding this elusive prize for the last two years to the 2001 CART FedEx Champion Paul Tracy and Team KOOL Green and the 2000 Champion Gil de Ferran and Marlboro Team Penske. To date, two drivers have come within one win of accomplishing the feat but no one has overcome the almost insurmountable obstacles to climb the victor's podium to earn the Triple Crown trophy and an immortal place in the history of motorsports.
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VISA U.S.A. RENEWS TRIPLE CROWN SPONSORSHIP
Agreement establishes Visa as title sponsor of the Visa Triple Crown.
San Francisco, July 20, 2002
As the countdown to Kenny Brack's run for the Visa Triple Crown continues with this Sunday's U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway, Visa U.S.A. and Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. today renewed their partnership agreement, making Visa the exclusive and worldwide sponsor of auto racing's most valued property -- the Visa Triple Crown (Marlboro 500, Indy 500, U.S. 500) -- and a year round promotional partner with all Visa Triple Crown tracks. In addition, Visa becomes the "Preferred Card" of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Michigan Speedway, California Speedway and all Visa Triple Crown partner tracks. Visa also renewed its exclusive sponsorship of the $7 million Visa Triple Crown Challenge Bonus, which began in 2001 and will now continue through the year 2011. Building upon the existing equity Visa has developed within auto racing, Visa will receive extended broadcast and on-site branding, including finish line signage and designating sponsor for all Visa Triple Crown race broadcasts. Visa will continue to have extensive brand exposure through Visa Triple Crown signage on-track and at point-of-sale, as well as through national television advertising. Visa Member
banks and merchants will continue receiving pass-through rights to execute promotions surrounding the Visa Triple Crown races.
"Visa is proud to be aligned with the crown jewel of auto racing," said Carl F. Pascarella, president and CEO, Visa U.S.A. "The Visa Triple Crown sponsorship will continue providing excitement for fans while building the Visa brand, which ultimately benefits our Member financial institutions and merchants."
Due in part to Visa's national television advertising and its $7 million bonus, Championship Car racing has experienced significant growth in popularity since Visa signed as a sponsor in 2001. Television ratings, on-track attendance, race
handle and fan interest have increased not only for the Visa Triple Crown races, but also for all open-wheel racing.
"We are very excited about keeping Visa in the Triple Crown family," said Chris Pook, president and CEO of Triple
Crown Productions and Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. (CART). "Visa's strong presence has helped to heighten the sport's popularity over the past few years, and we look forward to continuing this momentum as partners in the new
Visa will continue to offer the $7 million Visa Triple Crown Challenge Bonus, awarded to the driver and team that wins all three Visa Triple Crown races. The Visa $7 million bonus is part of an integrated Visa Triple Crown marketing program, similar to other programs that align Visa with the world's leading sports properties -- Olympic Games, National Football League, NASCAR -- and various arts and entertainment partnerships. The Visa Triple Crown Challenge is comprised of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in
Indiana; the U.S. 500 at Michigan Raceway in Brooklyn, Michigan; and the Marlboro 500 at California Speedway in Fontana, California. There have been only 3 drivers to win two of the three required Triple Crown victories in the history
of the contest, the most recent being Paul Tracy last season. Prior to that Rick Mears won both the Indianapolis 500 and the Michigan 500 in 1991.
As the World's Best Way to Pay, Visa is the leading payment brand and the largest consumer payment system worldwide with more volume than all other major payment cards combined. Visa plays a pivotal role in advancing new payment products and technologies to benefit its 21,000 member financial institutions and their cardholders. Visa has more than 70 smart card programs in 33 countries and on the Internet, with 23 million Visa chip cards, including over 8 million Visa
Cash cards. Visa is pioneering SET Secure Electronic Transaction -- programs to enable and advance Internet commerce. There are more than 800 million Visa,
Interlink, PLUS and Visa Cash cards, which generate nearly US$1.4 trillion in annual volume. Visa-branded cards are accepted at more than 16 million worldwide locations, including at over 480,000 ATMs in the Visa Global ATM Network.
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And there you have it, except for some random thoughts.
* On the 2001 schedule CART has also listed three 500-KILOMETER oval races overseas: the Firehawk 500 in Motegi, Japan; the German 500 at Lausitz, Germany; and the Rockingham 500 in Corby, England. These could form the basis of an "International Triple Crown Challenge."
There were rumors last year that Bobby Rahal, in his capacity as CART CEO, was thinking for a time of two CART series--one for the U.S. and an international one. Here's a viable way of getting all the benefits of European and Asian participation by "local" (international) teams, drivers, and sponsors without having to splinter the series; simply by creating an
International CART Triple Crown contest as well, comprising the 500k races in Japan, England, and Germany (with the possibility of still ANOTHER title sponsor). I believe that the influx of new teams and drivers couldn't help but increase
CART's "equity," while having very little affect on its newly re-minted Vanderbilt Cup Championship points race.
If one takes a look at, say, the USAC Championship Trail results circa 1965-66, I think you'd see a preview of what the current Championship plus the addition of two Triple Crowns would be like. For those two years Mario Andretti was the USAC Champion and there were approximately 76 drivers competing for the title. In addition to virtually every legendary American open-wheel driver of the period, USAC fans also got to see the likes of Jimmy Clark, Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Chris Amon, Masten Gregory, and Peter Revson at work. Even though two of the European
F1 "stars" won the Indy 500 in succeeding years, they didn't affect the upper echelon of the Championship, which was comprised of drivers such as Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt Jr., Jim McElreath, Gordon Johncock, Joe Leonard, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, etc. How many drivers TOTAL do you suppose competed for the 2000 CART FedEx Championship? Thirty? I think the Triple Crown(s) concept is a one-way ticket to the "Good Old Days" (only better!);
* To add a distinctive "look" to the Triple Crown races, as well as making them more enjoyable to watch, CART could adopt the soccer model and have continuous banner ads running in the upper-left corner of the screen. Only during yellows would there be actual commercial breaks so that fans could keep in touch with the race's continuity and drama. Further, by increasing ad revenues (by allowing more ads) it would reduce the need for commercial breaks and, potentially, bring in new sponsors because of reduced costs;
* In keeping with the foregoing suggestion (banner ads), why not add "radio" revenues to the ad coffers by having Paul Page break into coverage every now and then to say, for example: "the next ten minutes of this exciting race at Fontana are brought to you by our friends at Spam. Spam: it's almost like real food;"
* CART could also "borrow" a page from NBC's (or was it ABC's?) New Year's Eve coverage (also Bernie Ecclestone's F1) and digitally replace a certain number of the trackside banners with targeted local advertising;
* How about doing something about CART's name? Already, for obvious reasons, its NYSE designation is "MPH." The label "CART" has never caught on -- how about calling it "ChampCar, Inc." and religiously using the term "Champ Car" to label the cars and "Champ Car racing" to describe what the company promotes?
* As briefly mentioned, I think one might foresee a situation in which the non-Triple Crown tracks object that the few TC tracks are getting favored treatment. A similar situation occurred within the NHRA in 1972 with regard to the closing of Dallas International Motor Speedway. In a coming
50-year National Hot Rod Association retrospective, the decision was termed "One of the Ten Biggest Blunders" made in the history of the NHRA.
Outlined as briefly as possible: "...in 1969, the crown jewels of NHRA race tracks were Bristol (Tennessee) International Dragway and Indianapolis (Indiana) Raceway Park. No other quarter-mile sites could compare to the beauty and convenience of the two racetracks designed solely to be the best in the sport. When Dallas International Motor Speedway opened its gates in 1969, however, it was quickly pronounced the King. Featuring every creature comfort available, a
massive timing tower complex, huge grandstands and an incredible racing surface, Dallas became the track to which everyone headed. In only its second season it was granted both the NHRA Spring Nationals and World Finals. Its first national
event, the '69 NHRA Spring Nats, featured the sport's first 6-second 32-car Top Fuel field, and by 1971 DIMS had produced the quickest Funny Car passes ever and the second-quickest Top Fuel run (Garlits' 6.44 in 90 degree heat) in history. When the track experienced multiple rainouts of scheduled non-national events in 1971, track management asked the NHRA for help in covering a substantial debt
for repaving costs. The organization declined on the grounds that the move might be misconstrued by other track operators as favoritism, forcing DIMS to move to IHRA sanction for 1972. Lack of promotional savvy by the fledgling IHRA,
however, prompted even larger losses in the face of dwindling crowds during their two seasons of association, leading to the sale of the property to the Xerox Corporation in late 1973. The closing of DIMS, assisted by the earlier bankruptcy of the massive and even more glamorous all-purpose Ontario
(California) Motor Speedway, stifled the progress of the "supertrack" more than a decade before the same type of facility became the rage in the sport. Had DIMS succeeded, it may well have moved the sport into a trend toward facilities with the comfort and style now enjoyed--but ten years before the "megastrip" returned, ironically, in Dallas in 1986. The most telling aspect of the impact of the loss of DIMS has come from the highest level of both NHRA and IHRA management, all of whom are on record as regretting ever allowing the sport's most fashionable facility to fold."
The point being that the Triple Crown tracks ARE going to be favored by virtue of BEING Triple Crown tracks. They'll attract bigger crowds for more race days, more race entries and fees, receive larger promotional benefits, etc. So--and remember we're only talking about two tracks initially as Indy is George's "problem"--it is only fair that, like the NFL franchise owners, the Triple Crown tracks pay larger franchise fees. Overall, increased popularity of the series and the consequent financial rewards for all the track owners should outweigh the deficits.
* Recently, after viewing the USGP, I've come to think that the Indy 500 may need CART as much as the series needs the
race. This feeling was reinforced recently by an interview I read with announcer Tom Carnegie, the "Voice of Indy," conducted by one of IMS's public relations flaks. Needless to say, neither party gleaned from their conversation what I perceived. Discussing his 54 years on the job each May,
Carnegie said that IMS owner Tony Hulman helped him understand something about the aura of the speedway, something that was not immediately evident:
"I used to get annoyed at Tony because he let the fans get so close to everything," Carnegie said. "That area leading from the pits to Gasoline Alley, I would get irritated because the fans there could slow things down, getting in the way. But
there was no changing Tony's mind, that was something he felt very strongly about.
"In the 1970's I went to Ontario Motor Speedway in California, which was a new, modern facility. But it was too sanitary, the fans were isolated from everything. And it did not have anywhere near the electric atmosphere that Indianapolis has.
"And that's when I realized that Tony was right, by letting the fans be such a part of the whole picture. That is one of the things that made Indianapolis so special, I think."
What I noticed watching the USGP is that Tony George has ignored his uncle's dictum in favor of Bernie Ecclestone's
approach to staging a race. Almost all of George's $72 million (Ecclestone's figure) "improvements" to IMS have served to isolate the fans and preclude their "being a part of the whole picture."
* As with any organization with a history, there is a tendency in CART to focus a bit too much on "what is" at the expense of "what might be." What is the cost to CART of trying the Triple Crown concept? Perhaps I'm mistaken but, as with the new races in England and Germany, it seems to me that they'd be dealing mostly with OPM (Other People's Money).
I believe CART could learn quite a lot from Bernie Ecclestone. For better or worse I think the global phenomenon that is "Big Formula One" can be laid at his doorstep (and, possibly, Colin Chapman's). Whether you want to label him a "promoter", a
"showman", an "impresario", whatever, Bernie has brought about F1's "success" through marketing savvy. If Ecclestone had not found his niche in motorsports, I have no doubt he would have made a formidable media executive. In short, Bernie's accomplishment has been to organize and package F1 in a highly impressive way and sell it to the world. To my eyes, he has concentrated on two key elements (besides his underlying organization of the sport) to do this: each Formula One race is an "event," usually one of "its" country's top-3 sporting events, and the concept of a World Championship. CART is light years away from performing at Bernie's level. In
part, this is due to the fact that those in the sport potentially capable of it, men like Roger Penske, Gerald Forsythe, etc., are too preoccupied with doing it for themselves (as it Bernie). The difference is that Bernie owns Formula One and Roger Penske, for instance, owns Marlboro Team Penske.
Anyway, CART is now basically as well-organized as F1 but it's packaging stinks (in comparison to F1). Don't take my word for it, why do you suppose the CART board keeps hiring "sports marketing" executives like Andrew Craig? However, CART now has one of Bernie's key components: a World Championship to promote. So, what's missing is Bernie's media smarts and the possession of major "events." Since CART holds the majority of its races in North America, it doesn't have F1's built-in exclusivity. That's where the Triple Crown concept comes in as a means to take races you already have running and labeling them in such a way as to make them "events" (i.e., special). Then, CART's got to get their
TV act together (but having "events" to market will help that also).
I'm not privy to the inner workings of CART management but, before departing, Bobby Rahal said that getting a good TV "deal" was his top priority. Then, nothing happened. Out here in Hollywood, that usually means only one thing: Bobby opened bidding on the CART package and nobody new bothered to
submit a bid. Not good. At the risk of redundancy, having a few "events" will catch media's attention and, next time, maybe more than one interested party will sit down at the bargaining table. IMHO, anyway.
* At the recent Nazareth race, Roger Penske was asked:
"You have been quoted on several occasions as saying there isnít room for two open-wheel racing series in the USA. Any thoughts on putting it back together?"
Penske: "I still say that, and I would say it today and tomorrow. There is not enough room; there are not enough sponsors. From a track perspective, we need to get more fans. Weíve broken the open wheel game by having two series and both series have suffered. Itís great to write about a conflict between a couple of drivers or teams, but I think when you start hacking away at the core of the sport, we all lose. The fans lose and the sponsors lose. Iím an advocate of seeing it come together. As Iíve said before, Tony George holds the key, because he has Indianapolis. Thatís the Masters or the Super Bowl, and people want to run there. Thereís a real opportunity now with the rules package now of getting the engine rules together. We build new cars every year, and in fact we change the cars throughout the season. So I donít see that as a huge factor. But to design a new engine that goes from turbocharged to normally aspirated takes a lot of time and development. I think if we get the engines close together we might have some crossover, and we could maybe have three 500-mile races where the teams from both series could run. So I see the engine rules coming together, there are a lot of good drivers and sponsors in both series, but what we need to do is take the best of the best and make one solid series with a good secondary series like you have in NASCAR. That way you can pick the Greg Rays and the Tony Stewarts and the Ryan Newmans that come up through the support series where they learn the tracks and the rules. Itís tough when you go to see a sponsor and the first thing they ask you is if youíre going to run at the Indy 500. Our sponsor has said the same thing, and fortunately, the tobacco legislation is such that we can run there."
"The Captain" knows a thing or two about Champ Car racing. Maybe we ought to listen to the guy?
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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