Editorial

CART's To-Do-List for the new Millennium

 

 by Mark Cipolloni
December 5, 1999

We do our annual review of what is right and what is wrong with CART.  And we suggest how to fix it!!!

Go to our forums to discuss this article

Others by Mark

Introduction
This is the third year I have written a "pre-season to-do list" of things which I believe CART needs to improve upon to become a better and more successful product.  As usual, we will expect a spirited discussion on these issues on our forums.  And, as usual my annual review of CART includes - what's right, what's wrong, and what needs to be done.

The creation of the IRL by Tony George, and his unwillingness to reunite the two series has done irrefutable damage to Indy car racing, but Mr. George isn't totally to blame.  CART has dropped the ball on its own foot so many times, I'm surprised it has any toes left.  We can easily write about all the things wrong with CART, and we will.  However, we will go one step better by telling you what we think needs to be done to get this ship back on course.  It needs to happen quickly or Indy car racing, already an endangered species, may soon become just a fond memory, as the NASCAR steamroller squeezes what little life is remaining out of all other forms of Auto Racing in America. 

Are drastic changes needed?
No.  All is not doom and gloom as some would lead us to believe.  In fact CART is still a fantastic series, and the competition and level of professionalism are on the rise each year.  CART has an excellent formula, excellent drivers, excellent engine manufacturers, excellent sponsors, and some great team owners, engineers and managers.  A solid baseline is there.  However, as they say, 'the devils in the details', and when it comes to details CART sometimes forgets to cross the T's and dot the I's.  What is missing is the all important attention and execution of the details that NASCAR never fails to deliver on.  The failure of the Hawaiian Super Prix is an example of a good concept to establish a signature event that went bad because the organizer overlooked the details and CART never bothered to ask.

Below are the key issues (in order of importance) as we see it that CART should concentrate it's efforts.  It's no coincidence, TV issues are the top-3 on the list.  They are the most important.

  1. Hire the entire ABC/ESPN NASCAR TV crew!
    ABC and ESPN did not win the NASCAR TV contract.  After next season CART and the IRL are the only form of auto racing ABC/ESPN will still broadcast and if they want to stay in the auto racing game, then they had better focus on what they have left rather than what they lost.

    When ESPN was young and NASCAR was breaking into the TV market, they formed a partnership that helped turn NASCAR into the behemoth that it is.  In turn, ESPN began to garner good ratings for its Winston Cup races and with it lucrative advertising dollars.  It's time ABC/ESPN do it again, this time with CART...more on that later.

    TV has an enormous impact on any sport.  NASCAR recognized that years ago. I said it before and I will hammer it home again.  NASCAR has 4 to 5 announcers who really make NASCAR races enjoyable to watch. Why? Just about every Sunday from February through November, they deliver a blend of small southern-town charm and big-city glitz, all wrapped in a mix of color, speed and personality. Because they love the sport their enthusiasm spills out during the broadcasts. And they have been there year in and year out. They have almost as much fan identity as the drivers. Dr, Jerry Punch, Bill Weber, Mike Joy, Ned Jarrett, Ken Squire and others. These guys eat, sleep and breathe auto racing, especially NASCAR. They each bring their own charisma to the broadcasts and they tell the personal side about the participants in a down to earth believable manner. CARTís broadcast team has always lacked that combination to deliver the race and personality Ďstoriesí and keep the viewer enthralled in them.

    So where should CART start?  The answer is staring them right in the face every time a NASCAR race airs on ABC or ESPN.   The NASCAR TV announcers and production personnel that currently work for ABC/ESPN will either have to leave ABC/ESPN after 2000, or be unemployed.  It's time to act, and act fast.

    Double their salary, offer them the world, do whatever it takes to hire each and every one of those folks.  Not just the announcers, but everyone.  They are the best in the business - on top of every last detail, right down to the music (that's right music!) and they are professional enough to make the switch to CART.  Watching a NASCAR race is like watching a story unfold.  It may cost CART millions out of its own coffers if ABC/ESPN are not willing to do it, but the payback will bear fruit quickly. If Andrew Craig has not already arranged a meeting with ABC's Howard Katz to discuss this very topic, shame on him.

  2. Negotiate a better TV contract as good or better than NASCAR's
    On the surface you probably think I'm off my rocker.  Think again!  An area that CART continues to get hammered on in the press are TV ratings.  Yes, they have declined since the IRL split, and yes they must be turned around, and quickly.  However, what is being overlooked by the bean counters is that CART races are broadcast worldwide.  While it is difficult to determine just how many people watch each CART race around the globe, I would venture to bet that more people watch each CART race worldwide than watch NASCAR, since outside the USA NASCAR has little following.  Assuming I am correct in my assumption, and I would be willing to debate this with anyone, then why isn't this pointed out to those that say NASCAR ratings are so good and CART's so bad.  If in fact CART gets higher TV ratings on a worldwide basis, the argument that NASCAR is so grand begins to fade in terms of TV contract value.  Yet NASCAR was able to negotiate an incredible TV contract recently and my hats off to them.  This is where the marketing prowess of NASCAR beats CART hands down.

    With more and more CART sponsors selling products around the globe, the ability to reach a worldwide audience is no small matter. CART's current TV contract is up at the end of 2001.  They have less than two years to educate the ABC's and CBS's of the world that in fact they bring just as much value, or more, on a per race basis, as NASCAR.  Rather than paying to broadcast it's races (and then selling the advertising themselves), CART should position themselves to receive a similar bid as NASCAR, whereby the network pays CART to air its races and the network sells the advertising.  This is no small matter and should be handled by a full time staff of people who understand the TV business.  If successful, this could ultimately become a defining moment in CART's history. 

    ESPN currently sells the rights to CART broadcasts around the world.  When they bid for a CART contract they should consider not only what they can sell CART for here in the USA, but also abroad.  As CART becomes increasingly popular worldwide, the value of CART to an ESPN increases.

  3. The emphasis and location of RPM2Night must change.
    A weekly CART show won't do.  As partners, CART must work with ESPN to change RPM2Night to have an Indy/Champ car emphasis. The power and influence of RPM2Night is underestimated.  Night after night they hammer the NASCAR product into race fans' heads.   To NASCAR's benefit and open wheel racings detriment, 90% of the material is devoted to NASCAR. Some say that is because most of the viewers are NASCAR fans.  Very true, but many became NASCAR fans because of RPM2Night's years of NASCARism.  The show is based out of Charlotte and almost every night they have a guest NASCAR driver or crew chief on the show. Fans watching the show identify with the people aspect of the sport, i.e. they become household names. That is important and contributes to the success of Winston Cup racing.

    They could and should do the same for CART.  The production of RPM2Night must move from Charlotte to Indianapolis, the home to a majority of Indy Car teams.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize RPM2Night should NOT continue to promote NASCAR so NBC's and Fox's NASCAR ratings go higher.  And if ABC/ESPN are not willing to change RPM2Night, then they aren't partners at all.  We are certain CART's existing sponsors would be willing to buy more ads on RPM2Night if it primarily covered CART news and personalities.  That fact should be sold to Mr. Katz.

  4. So what is CART, a road racing or oval racing series?
    We addressed this issue in depth in a recent article.  Here are the highlights: It is evident that CART has an identity problem.  It thinks maybe it has to be a NASCAR because NASCAR is so successful.  It thinks maybe it has to be an IRL, because the IRL has the Indy 500.  It thinks. it thinks, it thinks.  What CART really needs to be (they just haven't figured it out yet) is unique.  And to stop trying to be what it is not.

    CART has made their mark by being the premier road racing series in North America (They present a great oval show as well, but their non-ovals dwarf the ovals in popularity).  That's right the premier road racing series, and NASCAR is the premier oval track series in North America.  To the average fan, oval track racing is NASCAR.  NASCAR is huge.  NASCAR is a giant, a marketing steamroller.

    If CART is the premier road racing series, then why reverse direction now?  Why try to give fans more oval racing when NASCAR gives it to them, week in and week out?  Winston Cup, Busch, Trucks - everywhere we turn we are bombarded by oval track racing.  If I am an oval track fan and I want to watch oval racing, I tune in to NASCAR.   Open wheel racing, by virtue of the fact drivers can't rub fenders, can't draft as well because the cars don't make a big hole in the air, will never race as close and never be as entertaining to the majority of oval racing fans as NASCAR.  Never!  Period!  End of story!  Live with  it!  Lick your wounds and move on!

    Some track owners are pushing Indy car racing toward oval tracks so they can run an additional race to generate revenue, however, will the races be successful?  Did they ever bother to ask the fans what they want?  Is it at all possible that me, the average race fan, after I have purchased tickets for two Winston Cup races at Michigan in one year, may be all tapped out and won't purchase one for your Indy car race?

    This has proven to be the case at Michigan, and each of the Indy car races run at venues that also have Winston Cup races - Homestead, Phoenix, New Hampshire, Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, and Dover.  For all intents in purposes, these NASCAR successful tracks have not been able to sell the Indy car product.  Bruton Smith is on record as saying they 'marketed the hell out of the last IRL race in Atlanta', yet the attendance was so bad, the race was dropped.  How much money do you expect the same fans to put out in one year before they say enough is enough?

    By running Indy cars on the same track as NASCAR you beg to be compared.  It's inevitable.  And guess who wins every time?  NASCAR can fill the seats and every year the tracks build even more grandstands to accommodate them.  When the Indy cars show up and they are 1/2 to 3/4 empty, people come away with an image that Indy car racing is a loser.  So why put yourself in that situation?

    CART must tap a different segment of the population, the road racing fan segment.  The oval track fan base is depleted,  NASCAR has sucked the well dry, and will continue to do so.  Sure the recent CART race in Chicago was a big success, but will it be once NASCAR comes to town?

    Talk of eliminating street and road races during the CART/IRL negotiations makes one wonder!  Record crowds continue to flock to road and street races just as fast as they are disappearing at ovals.  One has to look no further than Miami to see that CART drew 90,000 fans to its only race in the downtown Miami streets, and saw that number cut in half when it moved to the Homestead oval.  It has never recovered.

    Street and road course races are a weekend event.  Fans flock to the track Friday, Saturday and Sunday giving the track owner the opportunity to generate revenue for three days rather than one.  Road races favor camping out (very popular at all NASCAR events), concerts and other family stuff.  Given the magnitude of CART's sanctioning fee structure, road races are more likely to stay financially solvent over the long run.

  5. So is CART American or International?
    This is another area where CART has an identity problem.  It thinks it is American because that is where it originated.  However, it thinks it wants to also be international because the world is very much a global marketplace and F-1's 16 to 17 races per year surely can't satisfy everyone's appetite.   Anyone who doesnít recognize that has their blinders on.  So what is CART to do?  How does it want to be known?  Does it try to go after the global market and risk losing some of the USA market, or does it just stay in North America and compete head-to-head with NASCAR and the plethora of American sports?  I think the answer is obvious.

    Andrew Craig has made it clear that CART is an American product that they export on occasion.  CART should carve out their niche on road courses in North America (and, except for the handful of successful existing oval races,  leave the ovals to NASCAR and the IRL) and on the ovals in Europe, Brazil, and Japan where CART's agreement with the FIA forbids CART to run on road courses.  CART is flexible enough to race on ovals, streets or road courses, and do each equally as well.

    Europe is an important market for CART. CART may be American, but it has a strong European heritage as well. CART sponsors sell product in Europe and CART has become increasingly popular there in recent years. Although Europe identifies with F-1 first and foremost, CART has a big following there. This is partly due to Nigel Mansellís success in CART, partly because all CART races are broadcast in Europe, partly because many CART manufacturers are based in England, and partly because many people who work on CART teams are from Europe.

    Mexico is another key market. Several teams have Mexico ties and did everyone hear how enthusiastic the Mexican fans are at Houston? Is there any doubt that CART would be a huge success in Mexico? Keep the ticket prices reasonable, and over 100,000 Mexicans will be there on race day. They love their auto racing. Mexico is in North America and that means CART can race on an oval or a road course there.  A road course has been proposed by the organizers in Monterrey, Mexico, a short 2-hour drive from Texas.

    Some argue that CART will lose its fan interest here in the USA if it races abroad too much. Technology and advanced communications now make it possible for anyone in the world to enjoy a sport-taking place half way around the world. As a fan, I can just as easily watch a race broadcast from Europe as I can from Wisconsin. A purely domestic series can succeed and prosper, but the fact that the world population is so much greater than any one country alone, means that the potential to reach far more people exists if you can export your goods (in this case auto racing) globally.  What hinders CART is its ability to market the series successfully here in the USA let alone trying to market it globally.  With Andrew Craig's Olympic background, one would think he would understand what it takes to market globally.  We think maybe he does, but we also think the man is spread way too thin at the moment.

    Finally, if CART wants to play in the international market, I suggest they start to look a little more international.  That begins with standing starts.  In a recent article I addressed this issue at length and a poll we ran on this topic showed fans are 69.8% to 30.2% in favor of standing starts.  Even Americans would like the variety.

  6. An expanded schedule 
    We have brought this up before, and we will continue to do so each year until this problem gets fixed.  20 (21 with Indy) races per year are a vast improvement over 16 two years ago, but it still is not enough. CART needs to be out in front of the fans a lot more, not just 7 months per year like it is now. The schedule needs to grow to 24, 25 or even 26 races per year....period!     Still not as many as NASCARís 34 races per year, but a significant improvement none the less. While 34 races per year with the more expensive Champ Cars is unobtainable, 26 is not (see below), especially if the races are spread out over more months giving the teams adequate time to prepare the cars between races.

    The naysayers cry out that this is ludicrous, Champ cars are too expensive.  To that I say - time to think outside the box folks.  Testing time was cut.  Cut it more.  Restrict the series to one tire manufacturer and the need for testing drops by 50%.  Others say it is too hard on the people who maintain the cars.  To that I say, hire extra personnel and rotate them.  Too expensive you say?  I say more races and a better TV contract brings more value to the sponsors and that pays for the extra personnel.

    The CART season must start in early February at Miami, not in late March, in place of Spring Training, and before the Daytona 500 steals all the headlines. February is a hotbed of auto racing in Florida and lots of reporterís stay down for a break from the winter weather. There are plenty of other warm venues CART can race in late February/early March (right after the Daytona 500), including Mexico (more on this later), Brazil and Road Atlanta. By adding a race in early February, one in late February, and one in early March, CART can add three races to the current schedule without putting a strain on the rest of the year long grind. A fourth race (the 24th) can be added with careful planning.

    Part of NASCARís success is because it is in the news almost year round. Like a bear, CART goes into hibernation all winter and expects the casual fan to still be there when it emerges in the spring. Guess what folks? The lion, NASCAR, with its two-month winter break, has stolen the USA market while the bear takes its annual 4.5-month sabbatical.

  7. New venues - 6 that should be added.

    Location
    (type of track)

    Reason to add

    Indianapolis,
    Indiana
    2.5 mile
    oval

    No explanation needed.  Whether it remains an IRL race, or it someday reverts to a CART race if the IRL continues its death spiral, all CART teams should be at Indy.  More on that below.

    Monterrey,
    Mexico
    2.2 mile road course

    Sponsor is on board, local government is on board, teams can drive transporters to track, Mexicans love CART.  It's a road course!

    Watkins Glen
    New York
    3.4 mile road course

    With news that NASCAR might drop its Winston Cup date at the track, will ISC want CART at its Watkins Glen facility?  A Champ Car race on the old F-1 weekend (1st Sunday in October), on the old F-1 track, could be a winner.  The Finger Lakes region is spectacular that time of year, with an abundance of autumn colors set in a mountainous setting.  We cherish those memories of F-1 at the Glen every autumn.  The track needs safety upgrades, certainly within ISC's means.

    Road Atlanta,
    Georgia
    2.5 mile road course

    It is rumored Panoz did not want to pay CART's asking price. However, with a little partnering on CART's part, we expect his position might change.  CART is still not sure that there is enough support for open wheel racing in the Atlanta market.  We think for a road course race there is.

    Rockingham,
    England
    1.5 mile oval

    With CART board member Forsythe now a part owner of the new facility, the chances of them getting a date have increased dramatically.  CART is very well known in England.  A lot of CART's suppliers are from England.

    Lausitzring,
    Germany
    2.0 mile oval

    Before Forsythe bought into Rockingham, Lausitzring was practically a shoe-in to get CART's first European date because Germany is a economic hotbed.  Now all that has changed.  We are still of the opinion that CART needs more than just one race in Europe to succeed, and England and Germany on back-to-back weekends makes a lot of sense for all the obvious reasons - shared transportations costs, a concentrated marketing campaign throughout Europe.

Can 6 more races be added to the current 20 race schedule?  Before you laugh, take a look at my proposed 26-race 2001 schedule and let me know what you think.  Just a little thinking outside the box and CART can do it.  Spring Training is eliminated as are the open tests....but it works.  I'll admit that 2001 may be too soon for teams to ramp up to 26 races, maybe 24 by 2001 and 26 by 2002.

  1. Indy Lights should be the Busch Grand National series of CART. 
    Just as the Busch cars look identical to the Winston Cup cars, so too should Indy Lights look like Champ cars, in size, and in weight.  The only difference should be the engine - lower HP and less computerization, maybe even IRL engines and chassis'.  This would enable Indy Lights to look like the real thing instead of some miniature version.  If Indy Lights were run to IRL specs, there could be some cross-pollination between Lights and IRL teams.  In addition, Champ car teams that buy equipment for the Indy 500 can then turn around and run that equipment as a Lights team.  And the equipment can be maintained under the same roof with the Champ cars eliminating redundant costs where possible.  Many of the NASCAR Busch teams and SPONSORS move up from the Busch series to the Winston Cup. It gives the sponsors a chance to get involved in racing without making a big leap.  Race weekends are a lot more exciting when the support series is worth watching.  Using the IRL spec for Lights would also give some of the IRL teams a series to use their equipment if the IRL folds. 

    Winston Cup drivers race in the Bush Grand National series all the time. The Bush series now gets better TV ratings than CART Champ Cars. When was the last time a Champ Car driver raced in Indy Lights? Never! That needs to change, and change soon. Every Champ Car team should try to have a Lights team. Not only to give their sponsors more exposure, but also to give their teams a good training ground for new drivers, mechanics, crew chiefs, engineers, and managers. Imagine what Andretti and Montoya could do for Indy Lights if they ran an occasional race. Ditto for the other drivers. CART must have a minor league series that is strong enough to retain new talent until an opportunity opens up in the Champ Car series, or a place to go for drivers like Raul Boesel, who lost his ride, yet was still competitive. A place to go so they might get a second crack at Champ Cars, should the opportunity present itself. It has been suggested that the IRL could have been the ideal ĎIndy Lightsí series, but there is too much hate and ego clashing between the two camps for that to ever become reality. Quite unfortunate. 

    And lest we forget, please change the name of the Atlantic and Lights series to CART Toyota Atlantic Series and CART Indy Lights Series.  The CART name needs to permeate throughout the CART structure.

  2. Retain the turbocharged engine formula
    CARTís turbocharged engines are not common in motorsports today, but they give CART a unique identity from the IRL and F-1. There has been a lot of debate lately as to whether CART should convert to normally aspirated engines or change to a 1.8 liter highly turbo charged engine. NASCAR, the IRL and F-1 are all normally aspirated. Does that mean CART should follow suit? The sound of a turbocharged Champ Car engine at full song is music to the ears of every fan. Everyone loves the sound, and the turbo keeps the noise levels reasonable for the street circuits. Why mess with success? Turbochargers have become very reliable and not a high expense item. They are a great way to control engine power as speeds continue their annual creep upward. If CART owners are ever going to return to the Indy 500, it is not going to be with CART equipment anyway. They will need to purchase all new equipment for that event. The internal debate over this issue has prevented CART from releasing new engine specifications as planned. The powers-to-be must stop procrastinating and announce a turbo formula, one that the engine manufacturers recommended two years ago.

  3. Only the strong survive - 50,000 minimum
    The deadbeat races should be eliminated.  Nothing is worse for the image of a sport than to see it played before largely empty grandstands.  Ask the IRL.  Ask CART after Michigan and Nazareth.  It is demoralizing for the fans, and even more demoralizing for the drivers, teams and sponsors.  If a track can't put enough resources into promoting a race like Ganassi did for Chicago last year, and draw at least 50,000 fans, it should be eliminated.  There was a lot of gnashing of teeth when NASCAR dropped their traditional races at the North Wilkesboro short track.  NASCAR did not care that some folks complained.  They knew there were bigger fish to fry, protestors be damned.

  4. Improve the safety
    Two drivers died in CART races this year, one on an oval and one on a road course.  Both were avoidable.  Clearly CART should hire an independent engineering firm or engineering consultant to review all of it's tracks with an eye for safety.  Even one death is one too many.

  5. Unite all CART sponsors for a coordinated marketing campaign. 
    Texaco, Honda, Ford, Toyota and Target do a lot to promote their drivers. What about the rest? All CART sponsors should be brought in for a week-long marketing planning meeting.  The purpose - to plan when, where and how all will advertise and promote throughout the year.  There should be a joint, well coordinated campaign, not the disjointed, every man for himself effort we see now (or at least that is the way it appears).

    NASCAR has that southern town charm and clean-cut, family-oriented, good old boy image. They have built that theme into an American dynasty. CART is a boiling pot of international talent and flavor. It is really the only top-level racing series in this country that can play that card. The Olympics intrigue Americans because it pits our countries athletes against the best the world has to offer. If CART is going to play in the global marketplace, it must hammer that theme home harder, not just with the Nations Cup competition, but in all of their publicity. Leave little doubt in the fans mind that the CART Champion is the best driver in the world. Many people say they are the best because they must excel on road courses, street circuits and ovals. When was the last time CART drilled that point home?

  6. More Americans
    There is little doubt that CART needs a few more good American drivers in the series.  The fact that CART is a melting pot of international talent is fantastic, but CART still runs most of its races in the USA, hence American fans do need more drivers to cheer for.   A lot of sponsorship money that might otherwise go to potential CART drivers is being siphoned off by NASCAR and other American sports for advertising dollars.  Sponsors from other countries give more support to their drivers because outside of soccer and auto racing, there aren't many sports for them to spend it on.  By developing a better farm system and negotiating a better TV contract, American drivers will begin to look more toward CART as a career initiative and American sponsors will begin to kick in more support.

  7. Say Thank You!
    How many times do you see NASCAR thank its fans, calling them the best fans in the world? Give the customer a good product and show them they are appreciated. And do it over and over and over. CART has increased its advertisements significantly in the last 12 months, but advertising to existing fans is not enough. Advertise in every NASCAR publication, advertise during NASCAR and F-1 radio and TV broadcasts. Give away tickets to the average Joe on the street to attend practice and qualifying days. Seek new customers everywhere. Think outside of the box. And say thank you.

So there you have it; our year-end recommendations for CART to consider. Are they listening? Only time will tell.

Go to our forums to discuss this article

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