Editorial

What's the holdup on Chris Pook?
by Mark J. Cipolloni
December 12, 2001

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Chris Pook, CART's next President?

A year ago CART went through an extensive search for a new President and CEO.  Chris Pook's name came up as a leading candidate then, but he withdrew his name from contention.  With CART up against the clock on many key issues, now is not the time to procrastinate on the obvious.

I have done my own due diligence on Chris Pook.  Everyone I have spoken to, from sponsors, to manufacturers to promoters to team owners (except one) have voiced strong support for Chris Pook.  The more I dig, the more Pook keeps coming up smelling like a rose.  Even CART critic Brock Yates calls Pook CART's last great hope.

It's time the Delaware Board of CART decide on the obvious, to elect Chris Pook as CART's next President.  Half the battle of being a success in that position is to have the backing of those around you, in this case CART's constituents.  It appears Pook has that, which means when he suggests something, he's likely to get the support he needs to get things done and done quickly.

But why Chris Pook?  Let me tell you a story of my own experience with Chris.  A little over a year ago I decided, out of the blue, to contact New York City to see if they would be interested in hosting a CART race through the city streets.  Much to my surprise they were receptive to the idea.  I knew a race in NY City would be fabulous.  The financial capital of the world, the nightlife, the large population, it had all the right ingredients.  But in the past there were several failed attempts to get a race done in NY.  Even Bernie Ecclestone tried and failed.  I promised them I would get back to them shortly.

I went home that night and I said to myself, hmm, this is going to be a difficult nut to crack.  Having worked in NY City for many years, I knew the politics were going to be tough.  Unlike Californians who are in love with the automobile, New Yorkers are a mass transit type of crowd.  Some don't even own a car, they rent one when they need to, otherwise they take a taxi or mass transit.  I could hear it now.  Fast and loud cars racing down my streets!  Are you nuts?

It didn't take me long to conclude that the only man who could possibly pull this off was Chris Pook.  Imagine the resistance he must have gotten in Long Beach when he devised the idea of America's first street race (well not really, there had been a few other failed attempts some 50 years ago).  Not only was he able to bring that race to fruition in 1975, by the second year he had negotiated with Bernie Ecclestone to bring the F1 circus to Southern California.

The 1975 inaugural race was a F5000 event won by Brian Redman.  The attendance was good, but not spectacular.  The following year the F1 circus came to town and Long Beach was on its way, or was it?  The cost to do a F1 race was high, even in those days, and Chris was barely making it.  The 1976 event was good, but still not a stellar crowd, and financially Pook was desperately trying to stay afloat.  Of course after the wildly popular win by American ace Mario Andretti in 1977,  beating then F1 king Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter, things started to turn positive.  Mario's win had the fans cheering loudly, their American hero won.  The following year attendance increased dramatically and Chris Pook was on his way.

After the 1983 F1 race Bernie Ecclestone, just like he does today with track promoters, wanted a big increase in the sanctioning fee to return.  Chris told him thanks, but no thanks, keep your F1 race and ludicrous prices.  I'll bring in CART at much less cost.  Bernie laughed and said he was nuts.  

The crowd was down a bit when he changed to CART in 1984, but Mario Andretti once again saved the day.  Now back in CART fulltime after winning the F1 world championship, Mario annihilated the field, leading the 1984 race wire-to-wire and going away.  Again the crowd went wild and from then on, Long Beach became one of the most successful races anywhere.  Although Pook thanks Mario for helping him get through those difficult times, in reality it was Chris Pook who turned a dream into reality.

But it wasn't just the racing.  Pook made it into an 'event'.  It was more than just another race, it was a happening that just got better by the year.  But what does a race promoter know about running a publicly traded company like CART?  In Pook's case, more than you think.

He knows how to run businesses, he started and ran the GP Association of Long Beach until Dover Downs bought them out.  Pook then went to work for Dover Downs, itself a publicly traded company.  So he has the company experience, but that's not enough.  What else sets Pook apart?  Racing is a strange business, it's run based on a lot of relationships, and Chris has a lot of them.  

If there is one failing Joe Heitzler had, it was that he wasn't in the sport long enough to develop those relationships, he was a 'stranger in a strange land.'  Because Pook has been in the sport so long, he knows just about anyone who matters. When he calls, people answer.  When he walks into a room, people turn to look.  No, he's not a sports hero.  No, he's not a loud obnoxious guy.  In fact he's kind of quiet.  Perhaps it's the way he carries himself, but more importantly the way he conducts himself.  He can be charming, witty, cunning, and ruthless, all in one breath.

Successful  people don't miss the details, and Pook doesn't.  Let me give you an example.  After the Long Beach race was over this past April, and all the hoopla had died down, Chris took the time to walk into the press room where everyone was feverishly working on their stories, he shook hands and asked if there was anything anyone needed.  Was everything OK?  Here was the President of the Long Beach race taking the time to ask the reporters if everything was OK?  Why?  Because he understands the importance of the press, the power of the press.  If the press writes good things about his race, that helps him to succeed.  Looking after those little details, even on his busiest weekend of the year, is one key reason why Pook is so successful.

Which leads me back to NY City.  I knew if anyone could get a race done in NY City, it was going to have to be Chris Pook, so I gave him a call.  Chris took it from there.  He setup a meeting with the City, made a strong presentation, and got them excited about a possible race.  Things were progressing nicely, and Chris told me he might be able to make a race happen as early as 2004.  Then September 11th, and the great tragedy that befell NY City.  Unfortunately, that immediately put the race planning on hold, but not before considerable progress was made.  Will it ever be resurrected?  One would hope so once the City gets back on its feet and the World Trade Center mess is cleaned up, but that won't be for awhile.  For now, the City's funds are better spent on other matters.

Because he's been doing this so long, he understands what it takes to make events successful.  He understands the politics, promoter issues, sponsor issues, team issues, driver issues, TV issues, etc.  In short, Pook's the best man for the job and endless searches (that some board members want to pursue) are not going to turn up anyone more qualified (no, Bernie Ecclestone is not available) than Pook.  It's my understanding that if Pook gets elected to run CART, he would immediately resign his position at Dover Downs, to avoid any conflicts of interest, and that Dover Downs in onboard with that.  Rumors that he's not available just are not true.

So what's the holdup?  There are important issues that must be addressed for next season, and addressed immediately.  Miami.  Engines.  International TV.  Attracting more teams and sponsors.  Stabilizing CART, a ship taking on water and listing severely. 

But bringing on Pook isn't the only answer.  CART itself must be restructured, it's too slow to act and there's too many conflicts of interest.  The Franchise Board must be dissolved and made into strictly an advisory board, with no real voting rights. Right now its an obstruction.  To streamline technical decisions, let John Lopes and CART Race Operations make the technical decisions for the series, with the board giving them advice.  If the Delaware Board doesn't like the job Lopes and company does, send them packing.  These meetings where team owners argue passionately....but endlessly about technical decisions, must stop.

Two or three team owners should be on the Delaware Board to represent the team owners interests.  The rest should be astute businessman who also understand racing. Grosfeld and Vannini come to mind.  I would also reduce the size of the Delaware Board from 12 to as little as 7 to get things done quicker. 

Given most of the team owners have cashed out their stock, what leg do they have to stand on to be on the board making decisions? They no longer own a part of the company.   Jerry Forsythe has a lot of stock, and continues to buy.  By all means give this man a seat on the streamlined Delaware Board.  As for the others who have taken their money and run, oh well you made your bed, sleep in it. Carl Haas still has some stock.  Ditto for Ganassi.  I'm not sure about Barry Green, but he certainly seems to be a neutral, diplomatic guy. Pick one of these guys as the 2nd team owner rep on the Delaware Board. 

Will Chris Pook be CART's next President?  Does the Delaware Board have the wherewithal to dissolve the Franchise Board, and chop itself nearly in half?  Will they let this President do the job he's being elected to do?  Or will CART continue to flounder because it can't get out of its own way?

Stay tuned as this soap opera unfolds.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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