Why did Fernández leave Champ Car? Follow the money.....

 by Mark Cipolloni
March 13, 2004

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When in doubt,
follow the money.....

As you might imagine, we have been deluged with emails the last two days from readers looking for the real reason Adrian Fernández bolted from the Champ Car series to the IRL.  To find the answer, you must look beyond all the hype and examine what is wrong with open wheel racing in the USA.

As we understand it, and this is not the official word from Fernández, but with Tecate cutting back their sponsorship of his team by some 85%, and moving their money to more race sponsorship and track signage at Champ Car events, it left his team $3 million short of money. 

He was looking for a subsidy from Champ Car like the teams received from CART in 2003.  When Paul Gentilozzi reiterated once again at the Champ Car Season Premiere in Long Beach that there was no way the teams were going to get free handouts as in the past, it finally sunk in to Fernández that he had to take the free money offered to him to run in the IRL to keep his team alive and food on the table for his employees. 

Fernandez's decision was driven by sponsorship, plain and simple. Team co-owner and general manager Tom Anderson told the Indy Star only one minimal payment had been made to the Indianapolis-based team, and that arrived just last week. Anderson said the team's Mexican sponsors wanted to see Champ Car's television package for their country. It didn't come in time, he said.  Even though we know TV Azteca will air the races, somehow the Mexicans didn't?

Adrian Fernández lost a big portion of his Tecate sponsorship

The free money from CART last year, and the free money thrown around in the IRL for years.  has created a false economy and just underscores the damage that has been done to the sport since Tony George created the IRL.  The split has allowed NASCAR to suck the sponsorship well dry, which, and the free handouts offered by the manufacturers in the past have created a false sense of security for the teams with their hands out.

Free handouts are simply wrong.  Honda and Toyota threw a lot of money around the Champ Car paddock when they were in CART and now they are doing the same thing in the IRL.  This has created teams who do not know how to sell sponsorship by hiring the right people to do it, instead waiting for freebies in the form of engine subsidies, driver salary subsidies, subsidies from companies that engine manufacturers bring to them through business relationships, or subsidies from Tony George.  In NASCAR and in F1, teams find their own sponsors or they don't race, simple as that.

Champ Car teams like Newman/Haas have people like Ralph Hanson finding sponsorship for them, and year in and year out he comes through.  They have two big sponsors in PacifiCare and McDonald's and would have had a third sponsor for a third car from Cialis had it not been for bad timing of the CART bankruptcy.  The rest of the teams need to hire people like Hanson who can get the job done even in a weak economy.  He's worth his weight in gold. 

Of course it is OWRS's duty to help their teams find sponsorship by creating a series that has value and a good TV package.  They must also have a business plan that is sound and well documented. This will help the teams sell sponsorship on their own, and attract engine manufacturers to the series.

Spike TV is not our idea of a good TV package (compared to CBS), but given where the series is right now, and given Viacom's assurances of getting behind Champ Car, it's the best they can do, and may in fact turn out better than many suspect.

We admire OWRS for standing up and saying enough is enough, no more free handouts.  They want their teams to get whole on their own.  Just like Andretti Green, the largest sponsor Adrian now has is probably Honda. Unfortunately for him, most of his success has been built on his popularity in Mexico, which now becomes irrelevant in the IRL. Losing a car at this stage is a blow for OWRS, but not as meaningful as the IRL faithful or Adrian believe. 

"I certainly don't think there's any benefit for a Hispanic-speaking market to be in a series that goes around in circles in America," Keith Wiggins of the Herdez team told the Indy Star, referring to the IRL. "We lost a true competitor and a great ambassador for the sport, sure, but there are four or five younger boys from Mexico ready to go."

Toronto's Paul Tracy, the defending series champion who is the top driver on Forsythe's team, said he heard the rumors regarding the two Mexican drivers.  He told the Toronto Star, "apparently both Rahal and Fernandez are (ticked) off that both those Mexican drivers were slated to go to their teams, but the big millionaires came in and scooped them," said Tracy in a telephone interview from his Las Vegas home.

"These guys shouldn't be fielding paying drivers. If they believe that much in the series they should be putting up the money and fielding cars out of their own pockets.''

Tracy pointed out there are at least four former Formula 1 drivers — Mika Salo, Jos Verstappen, Justin Wilson and Ralph Firman — seeking rides.  "They have to put some name drivers in cars," said Tracy.

"The only way this series is going to survive is if these guys put their hands in their pockets and spend some money."

Contacted at his Illinois office, Forsythe said the claims that he and Kalkhoven pulled the rug out from under the other teams were not accurate. "They came to us," he said.   Forsythe said Fernandez is upset because OWRS refused to pay him the $2 million (U.S.) he felt he was owed under a participation agreement he had made with Chris Pook, the president and CEO of the now defunct CART series.

Fernandez declined to comment on the reports of the loss of the Mexican driver or the money owed him by CART.  "That's his (Forsythe's) opinion," said Fernandez.  "I'm not going to get into that with him."

As I understand it, there will be some key announcements out of the Champ Car camp in the next two weeks that will effectively erase the blow Fernández's departure had.  Since the IRL was created, Champ Car Racing has taken one major blow after another, yet it still stands much to the dismay of Tony George and the oval track cartel.  This underscores how good a product it is and how strong of a fan base it has. 

So, while the IRL continues to run on the false economy of the past, OWRS is creating a series in Champ Car that is building a strong foundation for the future, based on proper business accounting and not voodoo economics.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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