Former CART President Joseph Heitzler has been very busy making Champ
Car's two Mexican races South of the Border a huge success. Mr.
Heitzler presided as President of CART through some turbulent times and
we were able to break him away from his hectic schedule to conduct the
provocative interview. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and Mr. Heitzler
is now able to reflect back on what was CART as well as provide
his insight into its future as Champ Car.
Joe, thanks for taking the time to be with us today.
Heitzler: Itís my pleasure Mark, thanks for inviting me.
AutoRacing1: It should be noted for the reader that we were
concluding this interview when the Champ Car/IRL unification story broke
and Mr. Heitzler asked we postpone concluding the interview until that
story settled down. Now that is has, with no hope of a unified open
wheel series in sight, what is your take on the topic of unification?
Can the two series come back together?
Heitzler: It seems as if the parties are in a look-see pattern. The
participants are all positioning their respective viewpoints and feeling
their way. What else can they do given the atmosphere of mistrust,
miscommunications and all the other elements that have transpired over
the last 10 years.
AutoRacing1: We understand you have been wrapping up your work in Mexico
and that you will be devoting time to other projects in the US. Can you
bring us up to date on this - in particular what is your next project
and what does it entail?
Heitzler: While I will be focusing more attention on the U.S. I will
still spend a significant amount of time in Mexico. The Mexican
corporations are the most tenured sponsors in the series. That fact,
coupled with the desire of the Mexican corporations to expand both their
operations and their marketing programs to the U.S. warrants having a
direct relationship with the key decision makers and the management of
those corporations. Unless you have worked as closely with these
corporations as I have you probably would not know that the second
largest economic factor in the Mexican economy is the over $14 billion
dollars Hispanic consumers in the U.S. send back to Mexico each year.
That is significant! Cross border development is an essential element in
our long term business plan so I will maintain an office with a staff
full time in Mexico City.
In the U.S. there is a great deal going on that I would love to share
with you and your readers but, for all the obvious reasons, I simply cannot. What I can share is I am in the final stages of forming a new U.S.
company that will be focused on providing corporate communications
services with an emphasis on special events, such as motor sports. Iím
very excited about this new venture and look forward to sharing more
information about it with you and your readers just as soon as
everything is finalized.
AutoRacing1: We recently reported, as a rumor I might add pending our
receiving more definitive information, the Herdez press bulletin that was
released in Mexico indicating they would not sponsor racing teams in 2005. They may want to sponsor golf instead. Herdez owns a big
chunk of HERDEZ Competition. What are Herdez, Corona and Gigante
planning for 2005?
Heitzler: Our company, EMG, is in negotiations will several of these
firms and it would be premature to announce several positive
developments in this area. But they are positive.
AutoRacing1: Obviously both Mexican races were huge successes last year
and Monterrey drew well this year. What did your team do to make it all
Heitzler: One essential aspect of the success of these events is the
incredible love and passion the Mexican fans demonstrate on a daily
basis for Champ Car. The 2003 season was absolutely rewarding with 17
podiums for Mexican pilots (drivers) which helped to heighten fan
interest in our events. My people in Mexico, my core team, are some of
the most talented people Iíve ever worked with. There are none better.
They dedicated themselves 24/7 to ensuring these were going to be
successful events. Their passion for what they were doing was contagious
and the fans, the sponsors and even the media all fed on their energy.
You know, Mark, passion is a critical element in most every aspect of
management in Mexico. I never have had a member of my team say they
could not do something. They naturally assume they can do whatever it
is they set their minds to, and you know what, they do! It was amazing.
My biggest transition was to learn the language and, more importantly,
learn and understand the issues that truly motivate the management of
the corporations making these sizable sponsorship investments.
AutoRacing1: Is there one lesson you learned down in Mexico that you
think could help some of the promoters in the States?
Heitzler: I would without a doubt have to say the media coverage and our
relationship with the media in Mexico is totally refreshing, especially the level
of trust and interest by the media and a willingness to help make the
events successful. They have pride in the event and have taken ownership
of the Champ Car World Series and the Mexican races. The Mexican media
prefer to report the news not the rumors and they are not interested in
spinning news to suit the political agenda of a competing series. You
must remember that the fans in Mexico are overwhelmingly road racing
fans. F1 and Champ Car is what they follow. More than one of my Mexican
colleagues has asked me to explain what U.S. fans see in oval racing,
particularly NASCAR. All I can do is shrug my shoulders and shake my
head because I havenít been able to figure it out myself. Road racing
demands so much more talent from the pilots, the crews and the teams as
a whole. There simply is no comparison in my book. Another lesson
learned here in Mexico that could be exported back to the U.S. is the
way in which the Mexican sponsors integrate their participation in Champ
Car into their core advertising. They are much more effective at this.
Champ Car becomes a common thread woven into all of their advertising
and promotion. They are very aware of the value in tying it all
AutoRacing1: Are you happy to see Champ Car now in private hands? Do you
wish it was when you were President?
Heitzler: YES, very happy. As to it having been private during my time
as President of CART, honestly, Iíve never really considered it.
AutoRacing1: You were somewhat instrumental in helping OWRS win the
bankruptcy trial over Tony George? Do you get a lot of satisfaction out
Heitzler: Yes, but my satisfaction with that victory is derived more
from the confidence demonstrated by Mr. Forsythe in asking me to provide
my contribution. There was a lot at stake there and I would be lying if
I didnít admit it was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my
career. I would like to share this though, Judge Otte was overwhelmed by
the support shown by CART fans. He allowed the court room to burst into
applause on more than one occasion when procedural rulings went in favor
of the OWRS bid but on those occasions when a ruling may have favored
the IRL there was only silence. No response at all from those in
attendance. I must give CART fans a lot of credit. They were sending
e-mail to Judge Otte urging him, not so much to save CART, but begging
him not to let Tony George get his hands on it just so he could kill it.
I sat near Tony George for a majority of the day, inside the docket
area, and that was really an interesting vantage point to watch from.
The last time I had seen Tony was when I attended the 2001 Indy 500 as
the CEO of CART and as a guest of then CART supporter Roger Penske. As
Iím sure you may remember, CART drivers swept the top five positions
that year. Tony, in a very private moment backstage at the awards
banquet, said it was the worst day of his life! I obviously was in a bit
of a different mood.
AutoRacing1: What do you view as the major hurdles Champ Car still has
to clear? What about Open Wheel Racing in general in the USA?
Heitzler: Sponsors and TV. Both are absolutely critical to Champ Carís
future. Champ Car needs a business plan that addresses sponsor equity
and sponsor development. They also need a single Producer/Director to do
the Champ Car broadcasts. You take the signal Champ Car produces or you
donít get a signal. Pure and simple. The same Producer/Director for
every event - a consistent look and feel for each broadcast. It becomes
a signature element of the series much like PGA golf was on CBS when
Frank Chirkinian and Chuck Will did every CBS golf telecast and set the
broadcast standard everyone else has chased ever since.
As far as a business plan is concerned they must look to the future.
Each race weekend the ownerís (OWRS) jets should be full of corporate
CEOs and senior marketing executives from the worldís most visible
consumer products companies all of whom need to reach the kind of
consumer that is the Champ Car fan! Champ Car fans fall, not
surprisingly, into the most highly sought after consumer demographic on
the planet. We have to begin educating key corporate decision makers in
our product and we must demonstrate to them that the Champ Car World
Series is one of the most cost efficient means for them to reach their
target customer in mass. There is nothing that gets that point across
like getting these executives to a race so they can experience it firsthand.
One last thing relative to the business plan, I would organize a
national contest to pick the best 20 or so Champ Car fans and then form
a fan advisory panel. Have them meet three to four times per year with
the owners to voice their concerns or criticisms and provide us with the
input we need to ensure Champ Car stays focused on the fans who are our
customers. Customer service is everything in any business, including
ours. It is the fans of Champ Car, together with the owners and the
sponsors, that have gotten us to this point. Without the fans where
would we be now?
AutoRacing1: Are you bullish on Champ Car, or is the jury still out?
Heitzler: Let me put it to you this way. If you were given the chance,
knowing their track records as businessmen as you do, would you invest
with Gerry, Kevin and Paul? Has Gerry Forsythe deviated one step from
the desires and objectives he had for the sport when he was the single
largest stakeholder in CART? There is a significant rationale attached
to these guys when they dedicate themselves and, more importantly, when
they allocate financial resources, to this investment. Add to that their
charisma and the promotional talents they all share and you have some
real Disney, Apple, Microsoft style aura going. I would bet the ranch on
AutoRacing1: Should Champ Car focus on North America or make a major
effort to become a true global sports property? What changes would they
need to make to be successful at either?
Heitzler: As a global sports entertainment product they will be
enormously successful. North America is too small for this product and
the North American market is already crowded with the oval racing
entities. As tobacco bans force F1 out of their traditional venues new
opportunities for Champ Car to step in, fill the void, and introduce new
customers to our product are created.
AutoRacing1: Rumors say that NASCAR will be racing in Mexico soon. Can
you comment on that?
Heitzler: Having spent the time I have as a resident of Mexico I have
learned a lot about the culture and the business mentality of the major
companies and their consumers. Oval racing is not of any interest at
this time. Oval style racing has none of the deep seeded traditions road
racing enjoys in this country. Again, oval racing is a uniquely American
product and it does not export well. Combine the lack of interest in
oval racing with a relatively low level of disposable income at a
national level and you have some major obstacles for NASCAR to overcome.
However, on balance, there is an emerging Middle Class developing in
Mexico and as this consumer class develops they may seek out new sports
entertainment options, create a paradigm shift if you will, and develop
a taste for oval style racing with trucks and stock cars.
also, just as suddenly, become big fans of ice hockey too! Who knows
what COULD happen. But given how entrenched road racing is in this
country, partially due to F1 and Champ Car, but also due to karting and
the other forms of open wheel, sports car and motorcycle racing, I think
NASCAR will have a long uphill battle to win the Mexican motorsports fan
over to their form of the sport. An example of Mexican interest in stock
car racing was seen a few weekends ago. The new stock car series was
having its first event and only drew between 800 to a 1000 spectators.
This was not a good way to start a new series and supports what Iíve
been saying for some time: there is no interest in oval racing in
Mexico. Recently Mexico has beaten Argentina in a major soccer
competition and that combined with the upcoming Olympics has caused the
Mexican media to focus on those events. Also the Mexican pilots are
having a tough year in the Champ Car World Series.
AutoRacing1: Obviously your Presidency at CART didn't end up the way you
had hoped. Was the situation there unworkable regardless of who was
Heitzler: I have heard some say that I was the right guy at the wrong
time. One of the individuals that I brought to the board said he had
NEVER seen as many intellectually dishonest people in his life in one
place! It is beyond my comprehension that the SEC (the Securities and
Exchange Commission) did not conduct some kind of investigation into the
activities of the CART board. These guys were asleep at the wheel and
would not support anything that represented an improvement. Now theyíre
all over in the IRL and look whatís happened over there since they
arrived! There were only a few CART board members who wanted change but
they were always in the minority. It is my opinion that no matter who
was at the helm of CART at that time they would have been doomed from
the start just as I was. My successor went through over $100 million
dollars in cash and wiped out over $250 million of market capitalization
and this board never received one visit from an angry stockholder. It
truly puzzles me.
AutoRacing1: What do you feel was your greatest achievement as CARTís
Heitzler: That I did not have a heart attack or find myself divorced!
Seriously, though I feel that I was able to demonstrate that the fans
and the drivers were what was important. Iím also very proud of my
decision not to allow the Engine Committee to adopt the IRL engine and
chassis specs. The fact that I kept the turbo engines was a source of
great satisfaction to me. Also, I felt that we had to leave the ovals to
the oval track cartel. I cancelled the Nazareth race and recommended we
remove all the ovals from the schedule. The Texas race cancellation was
a good decision made in the interest of both driver and spectator
safety. I stand by it to this very day. I received several messages from
drivers, some who have been hurt at that track admitting that, in
hindsight, it was the right call. That catch fence was there for Kenny
Brack last year because CART REQUIRED it to be there as a condition of
racing there in 2001! But in the end there were other issues (G loading)
that could not be corrected so we did not race. I also think adding the
second Mexican race, renewing the Vancouver race and adding a third
Canadian race were strong management decisions made by my
To sum it up, Mark, I think the ultimate scorecard for my time heading
CART is the financial condition of the corporation when I left. CARTís
stock was trading in the mid fourteen dollar range I think and there was
$122 MILLION in the bank. I believe we were being responsive to the fans
while working hard to increase stakeholder value in their company,
increase CARTís value as a spots entertainment product, and run the
company as Wall Street expects any publicly traded company to be run. In
all of those pursuits, we succeeded.
AutoRacing1: What do you feel was your biggest disappointment while CART
Heitzler: If I could do it all over again (pauses a moment to consider)
. . . on day one I would have asked for the resignation of the entire
board of directors. This would have cleared the deck for massive and
immediate change for the better. A complete housecleaning might also
have made more untenable the actions taken by some team owners that
ultimately contributed to CARTís demise. In hindsight a MAJOR mistake on
my part, Mark.
AutoRacing1: While President what was your relationship with Tony
Heitzler: We had a cordial relationship. When our drivers finished in
the top five spots in the 2001 Indy 500 I could have really hit him hard
but I decided not to rub it in. No good could have come from it. We
treated it very softly. Our guys took all his cash back to CART with
them. That was good enough I thought. I did find Tony to be dedicated
and passionate about his mission. I have no respect for his mission but
can at least respect his passion.
AutoRacing1: Was there ever any dialogue about a possible merger or
truce, or did you feel the IRL was out to put CART out of business?
Heitzler: Never any dialogue at all about a merger or truce and Tonyís
intentions toward CART and now Champ Car have been painfully transparent
for some time now.
AutoRacing1: What really happened with Toyota and Honda that made them
leave CART? Is there a story that has not been told?
Heitzler: Yes, there is a compelling story and someday it needs to be
told. The fans deserve to know the truth about Toyota and Hondaís
departure from CART and the truth about the pop-off valve incident. But
I regret we must save that for another time.
AutoRacing1: How do you feel about the Champ Car TV situation? Was Spike
TV the way to go?
Heitzler: The TV situation is of great concern to me. When I did the
deal with FOX it was because there were no other deals available. There
were no other suitors. This Spike deal was more than likely the only
deal available, so it needs to be made to work. Everybody needs to get
behind this deal and make it a great business decision. A win-win
proposition for everyone. Letís all stop being so critical and get
behind it. Tune in and watch! Look at it from CBSís perspective. Why would they
want Champ Car on their air given our ratings? Donít forget Spike is part of
Viacom so CBS is like our next door neighbor. Spike is available in virtually
every basic cable and basic satellite television package. The problem isnít being
on Spike. Champ Carís ratings are not what weíd like them to be but the IRLís
ratings arenít any better and they're on ABC! Promotion and advertising of the Champ Car World Series is
key. We must tell our customers where and when they can see us and
when they tune in we MUST give them the most exciting and entertaining
program we possibly can. If we do that, all the other issues, including
corporate support, will take care or themselves. If we execute on Spike
itís only a matter of time before CBS takes a second look at Champ Car
and likes what they see.
AutoRacing1: What about network TV, should OWRS buy time on CBS for the
majority of races?
Heitzler: No. Continuing to buy time is a VERY expensive proposition.
Those kinds of deals will always be there but we need to perfect our
broadcast and build our ratings back up. Then we need to find the
correct mix of sponsors and, as Iíve said, the rest will take care of
itself, including CBS or, by then, maybe ABC will be looking for
something people are willing to watch!
AutoRacing1: Would it make sense to tape delay the races to prime time
on Sunday evenings?
Heitzler: No! By Sunday night everyone is sports viewed out! The
Sopranos, Deadwood, dozens of movies, free over the air programming,
itís extremely competitive in prime time so Sunday night is a real tough
slot. A live broadcast supported by the simply incredible HDTV feed is
the way to go. If we canít get that then a same day tape delay airing
before prime time would be next best.
AutoRacing1: Joe, Thanks for your time. Is there anything else you would
like to add in closing?
Heitzler: Yes, there is. I never really had the chance to thank all of
the fans who voiced their support for me while I was at CART and, most
importantly, continued to support me after I left. The fan support means
a great deal to me. A very special thanks must also go to Gerry Forsythe
and Alejandro Soberon, the Chairman CIE, for their unwavering confidence
in me and for the support they provided to me as CEO of the Mexican
events we created. Mark, I think itís worth pointing out that in less
than two years we created a management team and a product from scratch
that has to date attracted over 1.2 million people to just three races!
On average thatís some 400,000 people per event which, last time I
checked, is MUCH better attendance than the Indy 500 has enjoyed the last
couple of years. I am most proud of this accomplishment and of the
talented team that made it all happen.
The author can be contacted at
to discuss this article