DAVID HIGDON: Welcome, everybody thanks for joining us this afternoon or this morning wherever you may be. I have here with me today four gentlemen. First, Jim Michaelian, President and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, which oversees the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach scheduled for 2008 April 18 through the 20th.
Our second guest is Charlie Johnstone, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Toronto, which oversees the Steelback Grand Prix of Toronto, scheduled in 2008 for July 4‑6.
Our third guest today is Greg Hooton, General Manager of IMG, which oversees the Gold Coast Indy 300 Champ Car event in Surfers Paradise, Australia. Recently completed in 2007, scheduled for 2008 October 23‑26th.
And our fourth gentleman today is Steve Johnson, President and CEO of Champ Car.
Again, thanks everyone for joining us. We have a pretty full group here. We'll try to get to all of your questions. Feel free to ask a question when I mention your name and follow‑up question, if you want to direct it at anybody specific, please let us know.
So first, why don't I have each of our guests say a few brief remarks. Jim, you want to get us started.
JIM MICHAELIAN: Thanks, David, and good afternoon to all of you. Thanks for joining us here from Long Beach. We're indeed looking forward with great anticipation to hosting the opening round of the Champ Car Series in what will be the 34th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. And will also be our silver anniversary for running Champ Cars here in the downtown city.
We feel it's a great opportunity to kick off the '08 season in grand style. It gives our Southern California audience, actually, the first look at the cars and stars of Champ Car for the '08 season. And we anticipate with a more structured preseason program that there will be significant momentum leading into our season opener.
So we're looking forward to it with great anticipation to having all of you coming out and joining with us here for the first event of the season in '08.
DAVID HIGDON: Thanks. Why don't we turn it over to Charlie.
CHARLIE JOHNSTONE: We're thrilled to be part of the Champ Car World Series again for the season '08. We had a great year in '07 with a new sponsor in Steelback Brewery. Despite soggy conditions race day, we saw a 12% increase in attendance, and 58% increase in vendor sales on site.
So overall we had a great race last year. We raised a quarter of a million dollars for children's charities locally last year, and we look forward to continuing that in '08 as we move forward with new initiatives with our new title sponsor. And working with the city in Exhibition Place, it's going to be a great year in Toronto.
DAVID HIGDON: Greg Hooton, who joins us bright and early down under.
GREG HOOTON: I would say good morning, but I better say good afternoon to everyone. Thanks for having me along.
Having just completed the round the other weekend where we've got 314,000 we're absolutely looking forward to 2008. And with the government's support and the support of everyone, we think it's going to be another great season.
Obviously, we're hoping that Will Power will do a lot better next year. But we're more than happy to be involved in the whole series. We just see it going from strength to strength, and the racing in Europe has us all looking forward to next year.
DAVID HIGDON: Lastly, let me turn it over to Steve Johnson.
STEVE JOHNSON: I want to welcome all of you to this call. And I'm very pleased to be announcing what I feel is a very strong and stable 14‑race schedule for our 2008 Champ Car World Series, and an 11‑race schedule for the Cooper Tires Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship powered by Mazda.
I want to thank Charlie, Greg and Jim for your opening remarks. And I'm ready to open it up for questions and comments.
DAVID HIGDON: That will be great. Thanks, Steve, and thanks everybody. Let's get started.
Q. Jim, you've expressed some concerns about not wanting to be the season opener because of some of the problems ‑ Champ Car announced some teams on the day before qualifying starts or even hours before qualifying starts. What makes you think things will be different this time around? Do you really want to be a season opener?
JIM MICHAELIAN: Well, as you and I have talked frequently, we've expressed a preference for not being the opener. And our position would continue to be such.
But when you really think about it, three of the last four years we have been the season opener, and I think you could say that, honestly, we haven't suffered very much and have managed to survive it.
But I think the big difference this year is I've already had some conversations with Champ Car, and sense that there's going to be a much more structured preseason program. And fact that they're coming back to Laguna, and now that being one of the venues on the Champ Car schedule and the programs are going to evolve from there.
I think it will provide significant momentum coming out of that. And also the Sebring test on the East Coast and with a more developed program, I think it gives us the opportunity to lead right into the Grand Prix here in Long Beach in a much more effective way than it was in the past.
That's not to say there aren't some challenges. We need to work together with our sanctioning body so we can identify the teams and the drivers well in advance so all of you in the media as well as us can be promoting who is going to be here and who is going to be competing and with what teams.
But I'm more confident now than I have been in the past that that is something that all parties are looking to achieve. And with that, I think we can be in a position to conduct a very successful event here to kick off the season.
Q. Why isn't the Vegas race on the schedule again this year?
STEVE JOHNSON: That's a good question. I knew that would come up. The promoters of the 2007 Las Vegas event were the same promoters who cancelled our Phoenix event. To make a long story short, we're not prepared to work with them again. Though we did consider different options for returning to Vegas in '08, the tight timetable just didn't allow it to happen.
We'd certainly consider returning to Vegas in the future, but really only under the right situation.
Q. Have you gotten any feed back from Las Vegas and all of the people that had to be, that the promoters had to work with to get that race last year that now feel like maybe they've been left in a lurch?
STEVE JOHNSON: I have had conversations with them as I just came back from the SEMA show in Las Vegas, as I was there all week last week. While there is some disappointment, there is also understanding by everybody I spoke to, including members of the city council. As they said, they're going to do whatever they can to try to get us back there in the future, and they understood the challenges that we faced.
Q. On the theme of Las Vegas, another race that many expected or had been talked about quite a bit was China. Can you talk about where things stand as far as a race in China goes?
STEVE JOHNSON: That's another market that we'd like to go to. But we're not going to make any announcements on China or any new markets until we have signed agreements and everything done.
We are currently exploring opportunities for China again in the future. We didn't feel that we were far enough along to stage an event there in 2008, so, therefore, we didn't put it on our calendar. We're exploring a couple of different promoters right now to work with in the future for that market.
Q. If I could ask a follow‑up on that there is an asterisk at the top of the schedule saying pending FIA approval. Can you, perhaps, shed some light on that, what is involved and what sort of timeframe you're operating under there?
STEVE JOHNSON: We don't anticipate any issues there. We maybe learned a lesson from the past. But we've presented our calendar to the FIA, and they have a meeting coming up. I believe it's this next month in December, where they present the schedules to their council that then approves the races.
So, the critical thing is we have abided by all of the rules of the FIA and the calendar works with them, it works with us. But it just has to go through the formalities where they approve everybody's schedule for 2008. Again, we don't see an issue, but we want to make sure we follow all the rules of the FIA.
Q. What went into the decision to bring the race back to Portland?
STEVE JOHNSON: Well, a lot of things. Obviously, we're getting ready to celebrate our 25th year in Portland. We've all seen the successes of Portland in the past. We're convinced that those successes can be there again in the future. I'm not willing to give up on Portland. We've got challenges there, we've got great fans, I can tell you that, and very vocal fans.
I got a lot of emails and phone calls from them.
When you add it all up, it's a market that we want to be in. We've got a lot of work to do to continue there in the future, and it's one that we're willing to continue to invest in to really turn the corner and to get a lot of the commercial support from the businesses in that area.
I'm going to work hard personally on doing that this year, And we want to be there.
Q. You moved the date to the 27th of July, what went into that?
STEVE JOHNSON: It was recommendations we had from a lot of people from within that area, including some leaders from within the commercial area and the business area there.
Q. Are you having the same promoter?
STEVE JOHNSON: We're still working through that right now. We're not sure whose role is going to be what at this time, but I think you'll be seeing me in Portland real soon to finalize some of these things.
I can tell you there is just a lot of interest on having Champ Car there. And I want to thank the fans for being vocal and for some of the business leaders who have come forward as well. We're excited to be coming back to Portland in 2008.
Q. It's a very interesting schedule, Steve. But this is mainly for Long Beach, Surfers Paradise. Bernie Ecclestone said that the Melbourne is no good, and is ready to die because of financial and other things. So he sent his men to Surfers Paradise to see if it's possible to make a race. On the other side, Tony George from Indianapolis, he sent somebody to see if Long Beach is ready to give to him a race. What can you say?
DAVID HIGDON: : Start with you, Greg, answer that, and then we'll go to Jim.
GREG HOOTON: I have seen those reports. Now I can't comment on what's going to happen within the future. But for the race to come to surface, I think it's highly unlikely. The street circuit I don't think would serve, and also the investment from the state government. It would take probably an investment from 10 to 15 times what they make now, and I don't necessarily think they'd be prepared to make it. I don't think the figures would stack up.
So the government like all good governments do their due diligence, but I think it's highly unlikely. As the Premier of Queensland said at the last race, she's looking forward to the continued support with Champ Car and moving forward into the future. So I think the governments have sort of already moved beyond thinking about the race.
JIM MICHAELIAN: I can be more definitive than that, I think. You've got to remember that our owners of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach are Kevin Kalkhoven and Jerry Forsythe. And I can only assume that as long as they have a principal position with regard to Champ Car, that we'll remain a Champ Car event for the foreseeable future.
Q. Steve, if you could talk about the returning date at Road America, and the pairing up with the ALMS.
STEVE JOHNSON: Yeah, as a fan, I love that weekend. It's probably one of the best weekends there is in road racing, you know. Going into such a famous track like Road America, which is really an enthusiasts track.
Our crowds were way up last year for both ALMS and Champ Car there. There was more corporate support that came in, and we're excited to be going back there.
I know George Bruggenthies loves having us, and it's now become his big weekend. It's a great weekend when we race with ALMS. They're good partners with us on the event. It's a totally different style of racing, so the ultimate value comes to the fan. And I think it's a great weekend for everybody.
Q. Once again we've got the last race in North America, August 10, about a three‑month gap to the end of the season. Was that not enough of a concern this year to try to bring the series back to North America at least for a season ender in 2008?
STEVE JOHNSON: We looked at a lot of different scenarios on this. Would we like to in the future? I think there's a good chance of that. But the way the schedule came out, this was our option.
So we're working on 2009 and 2010 right now as we talk, and we're looking at different type of scenarios. But this is the way it worked out. A lot of it is because of contractual issues. So when you have contracts with Surfers and contracts in Mexico City, you can't get out of those. And I don't even know if we want to get out of them. But we are exploring all of those types of options for the future.
Q. Is Portland going to be year to year? Is this a new three‑year deal? How is that working?
STEVE JOHNSON: Don't know yet. Again, I'm going to go in. We're going to get a lot of questions answered here in the next couple of weeks. I'm going to go in right after the season is over, right after Mexico within two weeks after that. And we're going to hammer all of that out.
As I said, 25 years, we'd like to be there. In 1909 is when we had our first race in Portland, I believe. So there is a 100th Anniversary coming up for Champ Car there. So it makes a lot of good, strategic sense for us to be there. And as you and I have talked many times we're trying to turn the corner on a commercial aspect, and I think we have a good opportunity to do so moving forward.
Q. Is there still a shot at ALMS tying in here?
STEVE JOHNSON: I don't know, not this year. They've already announced their schedule.
Q. I was wondering how fixed this calendar is in terms of around Assen time there is a hell of a gap. I wondered if there is a possibility of adding a fourth European venue?
STEVE JOHNSON: Thanks for the question. I'll never say never. I'm sure not going to start putting maybes in there because, again, you learn from the past. The object is not list a bunch of races and then have them cancel. So we feel very good. We're solid with this 14‑race schedule. And if a great opportunity came up, we would definitely look at it. But right now we've got a 14‑race schedule for '08.
Q. What do you think went wrong with the Las Vegas event here? It seemed that they had solid promoters with money. Obviously spent a lot for infrastructure, lot of guys said it was the best course they've raced on in a while. What do you think went wrong here?
STEVE JOHNSON: What went wrong? I think there may be a couple of things, obviously. I don't think they had secured their corporate sponsorships and their partners as they moved forward. I know their costs came in extremely high, higher than what they had budgeted. And probably from an execution standpoint on that end is what went wrong.
I think that we had a decent turnout for it being Easter. We had a pretty good fan turnout. The track, itself, as you said there were nothing but rave reviews for the layout of the course.
So I think there will be a future some time again in Vegas. But again, it's got to be executed flawlessly to make it work.
Q. Does Champ Car, do you guys have any liability in the promoter's contract with the city?
STEVE JOHNSON: No. No, we don't.
Q. I know you still have the three Canadian races on the calendar. Maybe a double question. Are you satisfied with the way the Canadian races have gone, and in the future do you see adding, subtracting or is everything going to remain the same here?
STEVE JOHNSON: I think the Canada races really seemed to stand out this year. And Charlie did a great job in Toronto. We had a great partner come in Steelback. I think the Triple Crown that we had had a lot of excitement. Edmonton continues to shine.
Then when you look at Tremblant that may have been one of the best races we had all year. So we're very happy with the three events that we have. We're happy with the promotion. We're extremely happy with the fan base in Canada. It may be some of the best fans we have in the world and most knowledgeable that really support Champ Car and seem to embrace us as their hometown sport.
So I'd say things were very, very solid, and will continue to grow more. And if the opportunity was right, we'd always look for expansion.
Q. Have you had any interest from any other Canadian markets? Vancouver lost a race, and it went to Edmonton. Has anything surfaced from Vancouver again?
STEVE JOHNSON: We've had phone calls and that's probably where I'll stop it, because nothing has really come about other than some interests.
Q. I'm just curious why Champ Car is pursuing more races in Europe?
STEVE JOHNSON: We're exploring more races just internationally in general and more races in North America. So, yeah, we're going to make sure that we control our own growth. The Europe events that we had last year, I think you were there, weren't you?
STEVE JOHNSON: The event was very successful. If you take a look at our driver lineup the majority of them are Europeans. There is a tremendous amount of interest in the Champ Car World Series that seems to be coming out of Europe. So that's why it makes sense for us to grow there.
But as a World series and International series, we've got to look everywhere, which we are, which includes the U.S. So I think you'll see growth going forward. After we get things stabilized, and that was our goal this year to really stabilize this schedule then to control our own growth. You could potentially see growth in markets around the world.
Q. As a follow‑up, Jim Michaelian seemed confident and enthusiastic about the future in terms of announcements of drivers and things like that. Can you make a comment on that topic?
STEVE JOHNSON: I can tell you we're working on it right now, and I'm in a lot of meetings with team owners, with drivers, sponsors and with series owners. So everybody realizes that we definitely want to come out strong. And as Jim Michaelian said, we're pushing towards that.
We're excited with what's going to happen in '09. But we've got our work cut out for us. We've just got to continue moving forward. I think today's a great step on putting out a very solid, stable schedule for 2008.
Q. We're down to six races in the United States, which I believe is the smallest number in history. Any particular venues, markets in the United States that you are pursuing or can comment on?
STEVE JOHNSON: Let me put it this way, Gordon, there are some that we are pursuing. None that I can go out on the limb and say. But there are three or four markets that we're in discussions with right now and we know a couple areas that we need to grow, and we're working hard to get there. How's that for not answering your question?
Q. Very well done. You could be a presidential‑elect candidate.
STEVE JOHNSON: Steve No, please, no. It's hard enough doing Champ Car.
Q. How close are you to announcing the TV schedule for next year?
STEVE JOHNSON: We're very close. We had to cement and finalize the schedule, which, obviously, we did. And our folks are now in discussions with ESPN in working out all of the television. And as soon as we do, we'll have another call but that is number one on the board right now is to finalize that. So it should be soon.
Q. Is the goal to not have any races on ESPN Classic again or is that still a possibility?
STEVE JOHNSON: I don't know. I don't have our TV guys on the line with us. I don't know where it's all shaking out and falling in. But, yeah, we'll just have to see. But again, we should have that out. As soon as we get it we'll get it out to you guys right away.
Q. I wanted to ask about the Canadian races and about their schedule being so close together. It seems to me that a Canadian fan would have to pick one and not be able to attend all of them just financially. Is there any thought to maybe spreading those out? I guess that could go to Steve Johnson and maybe Charlie.
CHARLIE JOHNSTONE: From our perspective it actually makes a lot of sense to have the races back‑to‑back. It certainly adds to the hype and excitement that builds into Toronto.
I love the idea of having a Canadian race before the race in Toronto. That build up, and then being able to piggyback off of that the week after. Frankly, from my standpoint, it's ideal.
If you've got real fans in the Toronto GTA area, they could drive to Tremblant and drive back. Getting up to Edmonton might be more of a drive, but other than that, I like the idea, frankly.
STEVE JOHNSON: I have to echo that. I've heard the same comments from both Edmonton and in Tremblant, they like the three of them together.
Q. Of course, then we have the triple crown. Thank you very much, gentlemen.
Q. Jim, Sebastien Bourdais, and I apologize I got on the call right in the middle of your talking. So if you've answered this question I apologize. Sebastien Bourdais won't be in Long Beach next year, won't be in Champ Car. And he's become some sort of a hero in Long Beach since he's won the last three in a row. Is that going to hurt the Long Beach event him not being there?
JIM MICHAELIAN: I tell you what, there is a gentleman that is returning that's won four of them and looking to win his fifth, and his name is Paul Tracy. And Graham Rahal is coming back, and Will Power's coming back, and I'm expecting him to come back at least. And Justin Wilson. So there is a very strong cast of characters.
Plus some of the new folks like Matos coming out of Atlantics that I think is going to provide plenty of electricity on the street.
Yeah, we're going to miss Sebastien, he was a great ambassador for the sport. But in a way that gives a positive reflex on what Champ Car's all about, seeing one of its premier drivers graduate to Formula 1.
So we've gone through many, many, many stars over the years starting way back in 1984 when Mario Andretti came here and won the first race that we ran here with Champ Car. And a lot of them have graduated on and been replaced by new stars. And we'll be featuring them on the streets here.
Q. Kind of a big gap there between Assen and Surfers Paradise. Just wondering if that is a place that you're set up for maybe adding a few races? Are you looking at maybe adding some over the season or is this pretty much set in cement?
STEVE JOHNSON: I'm not going to say we are going to add them and not add something. So as I said earlier, I'll never say never. We're aware of that.
We have contractual obligations with both Surfers and in Mexico. So is there potential room there? Absolutely. But again we're working on the future right now. And if the right opportunity came up for 2008, we'd definitely take a look at it.
I'm really happy with the stable schedule that we have right here.
Q. In a general sense looking at Eastern Europe and into the Middle East which are avid but sort of under developed racing markets, is that a place you're looking to possibly expand in the future?
STEVE JOHNSON: We're looking at a lot of places, actually. Again, it's got to make the right business sense for all parties. We don't want to just put races on just to have races to say, wow, man, we've got a 16‑race schedule. It's got to make good business sense. And we have to have the right partners, obviously, to move into any places like that. If those things come about with the right partners and good business reasons, then you'll probably see us there.
DAVID HIGDON: That wraps it up. We will get back to Mexico this week. As you know the Champ Car World Series will be in Mexico City for our season finale this weekend the 9‑11th. I look forward to seeing you all there.