Bullish on CART

 by Mark Cipolloni
September 18, 2001

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No one will deny that CART certainly has had some trying times since the splitting of the sport by Tony George back in 1995.  Cancelled races, several Presidents, poor attendance at some venues, pop-off valve controversy, and soft TV ratings.  However, it appears we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is shining quite bright.

While some detractors would have you to believe that all is gloom and doom with CART, nothing could be further from the truth.  It appears CART has bottomed out and ready to rise.  In fact, at no other time in its history has CART been so well positioned for greatness.  Here's why:

1.  The new administration is cleaning up all the leftover issues, most of which were created by prior administrations.

2.  Even though the economy has tanked, attendance at the majority of its street and road circuits have been stable. In fact at several venues we have seen record attendance.

3.  CART's international races have been a huge success, proving that CART is indeed a thriving world championship series.  Fabulous attendance at Monterrey, Mexico, Toronto, Vancouver, Japan., Australia (will be) and Germany underscore the pent up demand for top-level open wheel racing in the world.  If Rio had not been cancelled this year, a record attendance was expected.  The 2000 running was a sellout on the Roval and this year's race was expected to be run on the road course.  Brazilian fans love road course racing and the old Rio F1 circuit was a fabulous facility.  That event is expected to be back on the 2002 CART schedule, bigger and better than ever.  What's particularly encouraging about this is the fact that the Mayor of Rio now realizes what a terrible mistake he made by canceling this years CART race for political reasons

4.  CART's success in Germany was a watershed day for CART.  There was some question as to whether or not CART would be accepted in Europe after all those years of badmouthing by Bernie Ecclestone and Niki Lauda.  In addition, the European motorsports press doesn't go out of its way to give CART much coverage, so CART is still largely an unknown to many Europeans.  To see 87,600 fans turn out on race day in Germany, blowing horns and waving flags just like they do for F1 races, left no doubt in anyone's mind that CART can go into markets dominated by F1 and do quite well, thank you.  However, CART is going to have to do a better job of educating overseas fans about CART.  It's going to need better year-round media coverage.

5.  CART has shed the majority of its weak USA races and in all cases, has replaced them with stronger events.  The empty grandstands at those weak races were ruining CART's image.

6.  CART's new TV deal, while on the surface appears weak because Speedvision does not reach as many households as ESPN, may turn out to be a marriage made in heaven.  CART needs a TV broadcaster that will will really get behind the product and give it the proper attention it needs.  That means good production, a lot of on-air time, and good promotion.  At the same time CART will be Speedvision's biggest product.  With F1 moving over to ABC/ESPN (although that announcement still has not been made), and given its NASCAR shows will not be any live races (just old re-runs and specials), CART will be the only major race series it broadcasts live.  When ESPN took on NASCAR some 20 years ago, they really got behind the series and did its share to help grow the sport.  At the same time NASCAR did its part.  They grew together.   A lot of people are looking for CART and Speedvision to be a similar success story.  Last I should mention, that it was clear ABC and ESPN were getting behind the IRL because of the power of the Indy 500 and the contract terms associated with it, and CART was going to play second fiddle.  Now CART will be with SpeedVision and CBS, two broadcasters that don't have other competing race series to focus on.  CART will be their #1 motorsport product.

7.  CART has a lot of potential new venues that are really going to get the series some major worldwide exposure.  Mexico City is going to be a bigger event than any of us can imagination.  My sources tell me to expect over 300,000 fans on race day for that race.  Likewise, as we reported previously, Shanghai China is going to be another phenomenal success story for CART.  It will see Mexico City like crowds, but more importantly it will get CART and its sponsors into one of the world's largest economic markets.  No one is as fanatical about their racing as the Italian race fans, especially the tifosi whom worship anything Ferrari.  While there is no Ferrari in CART today, there may be Ferrari's sister company, Maserati, in CART someday, and that's likely to light a fire under the Italian race fans.  With Imola, Italy about to lose its F1 race, CART must be ready to pounce on the opportunity to replace F1.

Stateside, there are races such as Miami, New York and San Francisco on the horizon that will each help raise CART to the next level.  If CART plays its cards right, five years from now we might see a 22 to 24 race schedule with 100,000+ average race day attendance.  Those are NASCAR proportions, and certainly will grab the attention of the corporate world.  However, CART must bite the bullet and jettison each and everyone of its weak races.  Any race that doesn't draw at least 50,000 on race day today, must be jettisoned.  If the market and/or promoter can't guarantee a big attendance, then CART needs to move to one that will.  Huge race attendance has helped propel NASCAR's TV numbers.  CART needs to do likewise.

8.  A real possibility exists that CART may be able to someday do business with one Bernie Ecclestone, arguably the most powerful man in motorsports.  Ecclestone is facing a real dilemma.  He needs to drop at least two European F1 races from the schedule to make room for a race in Russia, China and/or the Middle East.  How does he tell a track owner who has been part of F1 for years, and who brings in over 100,000 race fans today, that they are going to lose their major #1 race?  From where we sit, CART is primed to help Ecclestone appease those track owners, by offering up CART and to guarantee to the track owners that he will get behind the promotion of those races.  With additional races in Europe, CART will begin to really catch the eye of the European Motorsport press. 

9.  CART, for the first time ever, now has a 5-year Strategic Marketing Plan in place.  In the past CART has had a hard time explaining to corporate America and to the fans what it really was, and where it was going.  Not only does the plan lay out where CART will be in 5-years, hopefully it lays out a plan to 'brand' the CART name. And for the first time, the CART board has actually funded a CART Marketing Plan.  For the first time, Rich Henley will have the tools to work with to market the series.  Expect to see a major announcement soon that CART has signed on one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world.  I am told this firm is going to propel CART into mainstream Americana and raise overall awareness worldwide. 

10.  Some interesting major investors have been buying up CART stock.  Investors that will insist CART do what's best to grow the series rather than what might be best for some personal interests in the CART paddock.  No longer will these investors sit back and watch CART race at races owned or promoted by existing team owners that are not huge successes. A couple of races that come to mind are Milwaukee and Chicago.  While Carl Haas and Chip Ganassi won't like it that they face the prospect of losing their race, they are going to be forced to either market their race to grow their attendance to the 100,000 range, or move aside for a promoter that will.  CART is not 'club racing,' this is serious business with a huge market potential.  There is no longer any place for serving self interests unless they can deliver the goods.

In a nutshell, while other media sources have predicted CART's demise, and while a lot of negative CART rhetoric has been spewed on the internet, I'm bullish about CART.  CART is well positioned to become a global powerhouse.  It may never be as big as F1, but it doesn't have to be.  

There is plenty of room in this world for F1 and CART to coexist, and while everyone talks about a CART and IRL merger, that looks less and less likely by the day.  CART's future is not butting heads with NASCAR and the IRL, CART's future is a truly global high-profile world championship series. Why shoot for the moon when you can make it to the stars?

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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