CART, like the Phoenix, about to rise up from the ashes

 by Mark Cipolloni
September 25, 2002

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Everyone is predicting the demise of CART, but that's not the way I see it.  Chris Pook has something up his sleeve, but no one has yet been able to put their finger on just what that is.  Let's examine the facts, peer into our crystal ball, toss in a dose of speculation, and try to foresee what the future might hold for CART.

Greek legend spoke about the Phoenix, a fabulous Egyptian bird that enriched the country. The bird then sang a melodious dirge, flapped its wings to set the accumulated wealth and itself afire, and rose from the ashes with new, vigorous life.

The Phoenix symbolizes immortality, resurrection and life after death. Depictions of a Phoenix have appeared in Egyptian, Greek, Hindu and Chinese art and writings for a very long time. It also later appeared in medieval Christian writings as a symbol of death and resurrection.

In some respects, CART resembles the Phoenix - -  after this year the CART paddock will have been stripped of many of its best teams and some of its best drivers (as well as washed up over-the-hill drivers), all gone to the IRL.  What's left has many scratching their head about what will become of CART, and many journalists are predicting its imminent death, burnt to the ground in a heap of ashes.

The onslaught has been relentless, merciless. It appears to many we talk to that it was a concerted effort to kill off CART with the hope that the one remaining Indy Car series left would be stronger and more prosperous.  We don't know if it was a concerted effort, or a result of CART's own arrogance, but CART has been hit from all sides, yet it still stands, and like the Phoenix, stands poised for a resurrection.

But what if CART were to die, and all we had left was the IRL's oval-track series, would it prosper?  Let's look at the facts.  CART put on great oval races at MIS, Fontana, etc with all the big names and yet no one watched. A great lead up to this years IRL finale - great promotion, etc., yet no one cared, hardly anyone tuned in to TV.  Sure the broadcast got a 0.9, but anyone can get around a 1.0 rating on network TV, even Trans-Am and ALMS get that.

I could stand on a corner in Manhattan with a picture of da Matta, de Ferran, Hornish, Brack, Franchitti, Castroneves, etc. and offer $10,000 for anyone who can name any one of them. At the end of 8 hours, I will still have my $10,000 in my pocket.   So if the IRL ends up with all these drivers, what does it really get them?  The TV ratings were bad when they drove for CART and they will remain bad when they drive for the IRL.  No disrespect, but none of today's Indy Car drivers are heroes, just good drivers, and as any good marketing person will tell you, fans watch sports and spend money on sports to see their heroes, the best of the best.  All successful sports have superstars and Indy Car racing has none, at least not anymore.  Gone are the days of Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt, of Dan Gurney and the Unsers.

Did IRL's TV ratings go up when Team Penske went over?  Nope, in fact they are down from last year. Ditto if Haas goes over, Ganassi, Green, etc. It really isn't going to matter, because Indy Car racing has no heroes.  The folklore is gone (see related article).

Today, Indy Car racing is essentially dead, killed by the split.  Perhaps the contrived close racing in the IRL (contrived because of rev limited 100% throttle racing) will eventually fill the grandstands, much like the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) has sensationalized wrestling.  It's not real sport, but it gets the fans excited.

What's left for CART?  All the momentum appears headed to the IRL.  CART has all the good big-city venues, and there are plenty of good drivers in Europe and America hungry for rides. In fact, one can argue that CART needs fresh blood anyway because the old stale blood wasn't getting them anywhere, at least not in the TV rating department. Arguably CART needs more young, aggressive American drivers.

If Unser and Andretti are so popular, why were CART's TV ratings no better than the IRL? Why did the IRL TV ratings actually drop when Team Penske and Al Unser Jr. jumped to the IRL?  Why did this year's Indy 500 TV ratings plummet when all the best Indy Car drivers from CART and the IRL participated?  Would one Indy Car series prosper?  Perhaps, if run correctly, but there's no evidence yet that substantiates that, and with no love lost between Tony George and CART, do you really ever think that is possible?

As we learned a long time ago, if there's a viable race series with a decent TV package, there will be race teams and there will be race drivers.  CART claims they will have 18 cars on the grid in 2003, and if rumors can be believed, that's quite possible.  Below is a list of some of the possibilities, and we hear there's even more that have inquired.  Out of 28 possibilities listed, it's conceivable 18 or more will emerge.

1. Newman Haas
2. Newman Haas
3. Newman Haas/Andretti
4. Team Rahal
5. Team Rahal
6. Players Forsythe
7. Players Forsythe
8. Nigerian Prince/Forsythe (2 cars?)
9. Fernandez Racing
10.Fernandez Racing
11.Herdez Competition
12. Herdez Competition
13.Patrick Racing
14.Patrick Racing
15.Fittipaldi Racing
16.Fittipaldi Racing
17.Coyne Racing
18.Coyne Racing
19. Protostar/Wayne Taylor
20. Stefan Johansson
21. Stefan Johansson
22. Walker Racing
23. Walker Racing
24. Mo Nunn Racing
25. Indy Regency Racing
26. Indy Regency Racing
While the long-rumored Ford announcement is probably finally going to happen during the Fontana race weekend, we hear there's more to come at the year-end banquet, also in Miami on November 22nd.  Rumors persist that CART will soon become a private entity again.

The Ford deal will secure CART's immediate future, but what's the long-term future really hold for CART?  What are we to make out of Chris Pook's recent statements that CART will switch to V-10 gasoline powered engines (read that F1 engines) and statements that CART is going to be a feeder series for F1?  For that I have to take out my crystal ball.

Pook's a sly-old hound and he's up to something.  Even Roger Penske must sense a change, because he no longer predicts CART's demise, saying Pook's a shrewd businessman and making noises that there may not be just one series like he originally predicted.

Everyone is having a hard time imagining why Chris Pook is saying CART will go to V10 gasoline powered engines in 2005. Wouldn't the cost be prohibitive?  I have a gut feeling he may have struck a deal with Bernie Ecclestone, whereby F1 will start putting restrictions on engine design to significantly lower runaway costs, and those engines would be used in both CART and F1. That in itself would be significant, but let's look a bit deeper.

With CART being the official feeder series of F1, CART's cars would always be slower because Champ Cars weigh more than F1 cars.  That would appease the arrogant F1 crowd who tends to look down their noses at CART and anything American.  However, with identical engines to F1, instantly Ferrari, BMW, Mercedes, Renault, Toyota, Honda, and Ford/Jaguar have the lucrative NAFTA market open to them through CART, or whatever new name Chris and Bernie come up with.

Why would Bernie Ecclestone agree to this?  Because the USA is the largest market for all the F1 engine manufacturers and having just one race per year at Indy doesn't give them enough media exposure.  In addition, there are demands for more races around the world that F1 can't meet.  Bernie gets to kill three birds with one stone - lower costs for manufacturers, satisfy the world's demand for the F1 product, and open up the NAFTA market to them.  And if CART is a privately held entity again, would Bernie Ecclestone become one of the owners?  The price is certainly cheap enough right now.

CART has an identity problem.  Where does it fit in the scheme of things?  Even more important, what's a CART?  What's a Champ Car?  Neither are branded names, far from it.  So what would you call this new series?  Formula One (or F1) is a branded name.  How about "American F1", or something along those lines? 

I can see CART giving all the ovals to the IRL and let them focus on growing that sector of the sport, while CART focuses on becoming the premier road racing series in North America.  How many  times have I suggested that?  Regardless, I think it's finally about to happen.  Both co-existing and neither stepping on the others toes.  To this day, both Roger Penske and Tony George say this country needs a strong road racing series.

F1 needs American drivers.  With CART becoming the official feeder series of F1, that happens.  F3000 is struggling and Premier 1 appears as if it will be stillborn.  Is F3 really a proper feeder series to F1?  I think not.  In that respect, F1 needs CART and CART needs F1.

Imagine the scream of a Ferrari down the streets of Long Beach again!  Or Miami? Or Denver? The North American fans will go bonkers.  CART (sorry, American F1) has far too many great venues for it to just fade away.  There's great value in all those races, and we have a hard time imagining one Bernie Ecclestone isn't chomping at the bit wanting to get a piece of the pie.  Ecclestone and Pook go back a long way.  With the might of one Bernie Ecclestone behind CART, and the marketing savvy of one Chris Pook, the possibilities are endless.

Is CART, like the Phoenix, about to rise up from the ashes?

This all makes far too much sense, but am I dreaming?  Perhaps hallucinating is a better term!  Pinch me....and we'll see what happens! 

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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