Editorial

One-on-one with Champ Car President Steve Johnson
 
by Mark Cipolloni

 February 2, 2007

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Champ Car President Steve Johnson

Champ Car President Steve Johnson has a lot on his plate these days as the series is undergoing a number of advances. Bringing five new races on board within one year is a major undertaking for any race series.  Add to that a new TV partner, a new race car, a struggle with car count and sponsorship and you can image just how busy he is.  We had the opportunity to get him to spend some time addressing some of the issues facing Champ Car.

Q: You are two years into your presidency at Champ Car. Is it everything you expected?

Johnson: It's everything and more. Champ Car is an organization that's been around for nearly 100 years and we are in the middle of both a turnaround and a start-up. The one thing that stands out greater than I expected was the passion and commitment that our owners, fans, teams and partners have for Champ Car. We are clearly under the microscope every hour of every day and that sometimes makes it very challenging to run the business. Everyone has their ideas and expectations for the series and they are not afraid to share them. At the end of the day, it's a great organization full of great people who truly want Champ Car to succeed.

Q: Is all the travel hard on your family?

Johnson: I am blessed with a great family. I often say that we have been married for 25 years but have only been together 3. Anyone in this business knows what I am talking about. It is tough on everyone's family so you focus on quality of time versus quantity.

Q: As is typical this time of year, a lot of negative rumors are floating around about Champ Car's struggles, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to allow you to tackle them head on. A lot of us, including me thought this would be a breakout year for Champ Car and in some respects it is with new venues, a new car and a better TV package. However, I'm a little concerned about car count. Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven had predicted between 22 and 24 cars this year. How does it look at this point?

Johnson: I think this is one of several breakout years for Champ Car. There is no magic wand and with any business we are going to take two steps forward and one back. There will be areas that we do well in this year and others we will be challenged. Our new venues will be exciting and position us in new countries and major markets in North America. We will have hundreds of thousands of new fans come to our events for the first time. Our television coverage will continue to improve and our ESPN partnership will pay huge dividends for all involved in Champ Car.

Our new car will be fantastic and deliver exactly what we were looking for. Car count will be a challenge and we all were overly optimistic (passion caught us) we will still be there with 18 or more cars for the season. I would much rather watch 18 competitive cars overtaking each other fighting for the lead on the last lap than 24 cars running in a parade with one or two cars lapping the field.

Q: As President how do you deal with the negative PR effect of having less than 22 or 24 cars?

Johnson: As President you get use to negativity. We said we would have 24 cars and we won't so therefore we deserve a couple of shots. That will turn around quickly when the green flag drops in Vegas and we put some of the best racing Champ Car has ever seen in front of our fans.

Q: The Denver race recently had to be postponed for two years.  Has Champ Car given up on the Denver market?

Johnson:  The bottom line is the dates don't work for us at this time in Denver. Our schedule does not allow us to be overly flexible with the addition of Europe. We are not giving up on Denver and expect to be back hopefully after they host the Democratic Convention in 2008.

Q: The new TV contract looks like a major improvement and it surprised a lot of people. Are you happy with it?

Johnson: I am very happy with our multiyear television package. ESPN is a great partner who understands what it takes to mainstream a sport. They are excited to have Champ Car and have a lot of creative plans for our series. Our team led by Mark Reilly deserves the credit and is working around the clock to maximize this opportunity. We still have some work to do in this area but I am confident we will continue to improve all areas of TV which will in turn accelerate our success.

Q: Have you decided who the TV announcers will be yet?

Johnson: I expect an announcement soon. We are going through a process of identifying the best talent for our series as well as factoring in costs, availability and chemistry.

Q: When will we see the details of the TV contract - things like channel lineup for each race and start times?

Johnson: As with talent, we are about to release this information. We have done a very good job in negotiating and working with the network to develop the best package available for Champ Car and our network partners.

Q: The two new European races look as though they have the potential to be successful in year 1. Do having so many drivers from Europe on the grid help make that possible?

Johnson: Hometown heroes are extremely important. Currently we have more Europeans in our series and we will maximize on the opportunity. The return to Europe is exciting for our series, fans and sponsors and clearly enables us to market ourselves as the Champ Car World Series.

Q: Are you concerned about the China race with no Chinese, or even Asian drivers? What's the strategy to overcome that?

Johnson: I am not concerned but I do know marketing the event in China would be much easier if this was not the case. We are looking at several Asian drivers and I think with Champ Car racing in China, will make it much more attractive for Asian drivers to come to our series.

I have been to China several times in the last 6 months and I can tell you this race is going to be great. The city is very happy to have us as is the track and the local business leaders. We took our test car there for a media day and you would have thought the race was going on. The excitement that the nearly 200 media present showed was unlike anything I have experienced.

Q: Tell us about the NEXT Marketing deal. What are the areas you will have them focus on?

Johnson: Next Marketing is a proven sales and marketing agency within motor sports. One thing that Champ Car has struggled with is the ability to both sell and market the sport effectively. That is not a slam on anyone in the organization but more a product of the environment. We have continually asked our staff to deliver more without giving them the tools or training to deliver. Next marketing is the tool we will use to streamline our sales process and have them work closely with our marketing team. Unlike many agency relationships, Next is structured as a dedicated Champ Car sales force that understands our product and can integrate our product into their clients needs. I am very excited about this and feel good about the opportunities already identified by Next.

Q: With Ford and Champ Car severing ties Wednesday, what's on the horizon to replace them?

Johnson: First I want to thank Ford for what they have contributed to our organization. As in business, our objectives for the series and Ford's objectives for their business did not match. We could have continued with Ford but it was not in their best interest or ours so we parted as friends.

We are in discussions with several manufacturers and will make sure that we create a program that is a win-win for all.

Q: Does Champ Car have plans to market the drivers as the true stars of the sport, or is there still too much turnover of drivers from year-to-year to do that?

Johnson: It is always our intention but I can't say we have done a great job doing so. We are fortunate that we have very marketable drivers and characters to say the least. Some drivers do a better job than others of becoming stars on their own. The driver turnover is a challenge and one that will sort itself out over time.

We will kick off a good deal of our efforts in the next few weeks leading up to our spring training event at Laguna Seca.

Q: Here we are at the first big test of the new Panoz DP01 and no sign of Gerald Forsythe or Kevin Kalkhoven. In fact I hear Kevin is in Antarctica for two weeks on some ecological/science project. Is he that confident that things are in good shape?

Johnson: Kevin was in Antarctica, when I heard that a ship had run aground there last week I thought he may have been at the wheel. (not his ship)

I think you should ask Kevin or Gerry about their confidence.

As far as the DP01 goes, the test went as good as could be expected. I am confident that the season will be in good shape and the car will perform to all of our expectations.

Q: Out of the many positive things Champ Car has done for this year, which one do you think is most important....or hasn't that one been announced yet?

Johnson: I would have to say securing a long term television package with ABC/ESPN is pretty high on the list. I also think securing the new venues and especially running through the streets of Vegas and Phoenix is right there as well. We still have a long way to go but as I said earlier we will continue to take two steps forward and one back because we are trying new things and breaking new ground.

Q: They say hindsight is 20-20. If you had to do anything differently with Champ Car, what would it be?

Johnson: Since I can't change anything I have done, I won't focus on what could have or should have. I can say that I try to make the best business decisions for our series with the interest of our teams, sponsors, promoters and fans at heart. I sleep good at night knowing we are doing the right things for the right reasons.

Q: I predicted over a year ago that 2007 would be Champ Car's breakout year? Was I wrong?

Johnson: You were not wrong but there is no one breakout year when you are in a turnaround and start-up. Each year will bring successes and failures and we are not close to saying everything is great. We will look back and be able to identify the building process that has occurred and that will become the breakout period versus the breakout year.

Q: If there's one closing remark you would like to leave with our readers, what would it be?

Johnson: Your readers/ Champ Car fans are why we do this. Without their support, passion and energy the lights would be off and the doors locked!

I do read the forums and don't post but I do listen. Keep the ideas coming and thank you for supporting all of our teams, sponsors and partners. Stay patient as this is a work in progress but one which we are all committed to and excited about.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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