CART's road and street circuits click with the fans

 by Mark Cipolloni
April 19, 2002

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No one goes to Long Beach and says they're never coming back.  That's simply not possible.  Whether you go back every year, or in ten years, you eventually go back.  There are many Long Beaches on the CART circuit, and CART is poised to grow with them.

The naysayers would have led you to believe CART was going to fold after 2001.  We didn't buy it.  We have been saying all along that CART had all the ingredients to be the premier road racing series in North America, and to someday rival Formula One's worldwide popularity.  In Long Beach, California last weekend, we witnessed a hint of things to come.

Monterrey, Mexico above and Long Beach, California below, exhibit everything that is right about CART.  Fans pack the grandstands and line the circuit all the way around, and they are wildly enthusiastic,  the natural settings are breath taking and the nightlife has something for everyone.
Photos courtesy of Toyota

Long Beach had it all, a Monaco-like waterfront setting, packed grandstands, wildly cheering fans, close racing action, drama, and a win by this sports biggest name, Andretti.

If you are a true racing fan, and you haven't been to Long Beach yet, you haven't lived.  The place is electric.  No, I take that back, it's on fire. 

It's the type of race every CART fan dreams about going to.  There's something there to stimulate all your senses, and we do mean all.

The marina district where the race takes place is postcard picturesque, in part thanks to the success of the Long Beach Grand Prix over the years.  The money this race pumps into Long Beach has enabled the city to make significant improvements that make attending the race even more enjoyable.

The hotels around the track are first-class, the convention center lends itself well to a big indoor expo, boats and yachts line the waterfront, there's a new aquarium, restaurants that overlook the water and Queen Mary, perfect Southern California weather, and of course beautiful people.

There's something for everybody.  People are in a festive mood.  There's parties everywhere. Great food, plenty of exotic drinks and wild music. 

But on Sunday afternoon at 12:30, when it's time to go racing, the parties take a two hour time out, and Long Beach comes alive with racing.  The cars roar, the fans cheer, shout, and stand up and wave.

It's a contagious racing utopia. It permeates your skin. Even the track announcer, Bruce Flanders, is the best.  He's funny, witty and he pulls clichés out of nowhere that make you sometimes laugh a minute or two later when it finally sinks in.

People argue that NASCAR is so popular is because people identify with driving a Ford Taurus, Chevy Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, or Dodge Intrepid.  Open-wheel race cars aren't something the average fan connects with, especially driving in circles on an oval track.

However, people do identify with driving on city streets or on a natural-terrain road course, not unlike the real roads you drive on every day.  There's a connection there, turning left and right, shifting and braking, driving up and down hills.  This connection between the real world and CART's road and street circuits is real, and the attendance figures just don't lie.

Think about all the venues that connect with the fans.   Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Miami, Surfers Paradise and St. Petersburg all play out in a beautiful city surrounded by plenty of water.  Road America, Mid-Oho, and Laguna Seca have beautiful countryside, and real-world hills and bends.  The two road races in Mexico and the ovals in Germany, England and Japan have international character of their own.

Open wheel racing on ovals in the USA is having a difficult time succeeding for a multitude of reasons.  1) NASCAR has a monopoly on the oval market, 2) fans don't identify with driving an open-wheel car like they do a stock car,  3) real world streets and country roads don't go around in circles, 4) the cars are small and hard to pick out for all but the most serious fan, 5) they are so fast they almost make you dizzy going around and around, and 6) it can get awfully hot sitting on those aluminum bleachers with no place to go to seek relief from the sun like trees or a cool breeze off the water.

NASCAR has become a religion, their fans groupies, who worship the sport and drivers as if nothing else matters.  While CART may never reach NASCAR's popularity in the USA, it certainly is well positioned to become an international force to be reckoned with, by putting on a better show on the track than F1 and by having a schedule filled from end-to-end with hugely popular events.

CART had all these ingredients, but now, finally, it has a leader in Chris Pook who understands the sport, has the respect of sponsors and manufacturers, and has a vision for CART's future that is clear.

Look at what Pook has accomplished in five short months.  He's turned CART around from being a sport everyone said was dying, to one in which everyone now says has the best chance of succeeding.  If he can do that in five short months, imagine what he can do in five years.

CART is once again hitting on all eight cylinders, and it's brand of racing, primarily road and street circuits, is clicking with the fans.....just like Walter Mitty......1st gear, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th...I'm wide open down Shoreline drive in my Vette.  Hard on the brakes, down through the gearbox into 2nd, left, right, watch that apex....that's Andretti in front of me, I'm going to get em this lap......Honey!  Honey!  Watch the light is changing!.....Screeech.  Damn, why'd you that? I almost had him.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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