He’s a Believer

INDIANAPOLIS, January 7, 2004&#151

With Paul Gentilozzi there really is no middle ground. You either love or hate him and I belong to the former group. The guy is a racer first and foremost who just happens to be an excellent businessman. Gentilozzi is leaving his mark on North American motorsports and I think he’ll be remembered well.

We were both in Detroit earlier this week for the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Hall. This monster of an auto show manages to bring more than 5500 media from around the world to look at cars and scoop one another.

Gentilozzi was on hand to support his longtime sponsor Johnson Controls, who took the opportunity to announce they will continue their affiliation in the 2004 edition of the Champ Car World Series (presented by Bridgestone, powered by Ford) once Gentilozzi and partners Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven have ironed out the details of the private company that will be running Champ Car’s events in the near and distant future.

Paul took the time to hang out and discuss this ongoing soap opera and his enthusiasm could warm even Detroit city, hit by temperatures just about the zero mark. The weather may have been freezing outside but Gentilozzi, standing in front of a mockup of last year’s #33 Rocketsports Johnson Controls Lola/Ford wasn’t having any of it.

For starters, the former Trans-Am champ is rushing heads first into the idea of racing more than the four events he drove last year. He particularly wants to drive in another two or three Trans-Am Championship races and “I’m gonna look for an angle to go race the V8 Series when we go to Surfers [Paradise, Australia]. My problem is left-hand shift. If I can find a real ride I’ll go over just after Korea, do a couple days of testing and learn a little bit about it.”

After Korea, he said, which indicates a Champ Car race in that area of the Far East is not just something people are yakking about. It might be part of the projected 16-race campaign. “We’ve been confident about what’s going on and in the next few weeks you should see a lot of news,” he said. Of course, that’s what he’s been saying but circumstances have prevented Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) from talking further.

Neither Gentilozzi nor his OWRS partners are much concerned with the news that 88 Corporation&#151which could be part of International Speedway Corp. (ISC)&#151might tender an offer for CART, Inc., the entity that OWRS is attempting to salvage through bankruptcy.

“First of all, we get last bid and we won’t be overbid” in the Chapter II bankruptcy proceedings. “Secondly, they thought they were buying something that they found out after the hearing they weren’t. They thought they could buy assets and get rid of the lawsuits (which they were gonna lose), but they found out differently. So, I think that’s changed their tune,” he grinned.

Paul Gentilozzi seems to grin a lot, and why not? He’s working in a field that makes him the envy of both his business contacts and his fans, all of whom would love to be in his driving shoes much of the time.

“The primary work [for the bankruptcy proceedings] will be done in court on the 23rd [of January] and the final hearing is on the 28th. The 23rd is the final date for submitting objections and the judge will process [objections] and either throw it out or allow it to be heard. Judge Otte has done a phenomenal job,” Gentilozzi said with admiration. “He understands motorsports and he wants to move the process along.”

Gentilozzi and Co. are planning for a future that includes a very different look to Champ Car’s World Series next year. “All Champ Cars will have anew look next year and that’s a requirement. Everybody in the Entrant Support Program (ESP) who takes part in the program will have to have a different-looking car than they did in 2003.

“Graphically, we want to set a new impression with a new start, so it’s critical for us to have a new look for everyone. In the case of our Johnson Controls car driven by Alex Tagliani, we’ve got an opportunity to introduce some more business partners and associate sponsors, to coordinate a look that is representative of the technology” marketed by his backers.

“We’re right at the contract stage with the TV package and we’ve been really quiet about announcing. Everybody’s in such a hurry [to get news] and it’s been inappropriate for us to talk but we’re really confident about where we are and I’ll tell you it’s good. It’s better than it was this year so when the time’s right everybody will know.”

Gentilozzi wouldn’t admit to six CBS network races of the 16 events Champ Car will contest. “In the United States, with 106 million homes that have television, we can be on some of the standard cable channels and get to 92 million homes. Our target is just, well, if we got 2 million, if we got a 2.0 we’d be really happy every week,” he laughed.

Speed TV, who had the contract last year is totally out of the equation, in part because it’s not a network that can be seen in hotel rooms around the country. Spike, on the other hand is. “Spike is owned by MTV, which is owned by Viacom which owns CBS,” he gave as the flow chart.

And to the criticism of paying for broadcasting? “Everybody but NASCAR pays to be on television,” he shrugged. “Forty-five percent of the people who watch Spike,” which bills itself as a man’s channel “are women. Hell, 48% of the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” audience are men, so we’re changing our viewing habits.

Paul Gentilozzi does not believe the core Champ Car fans have lost faith in the series during these difficult times. “I don’t believe the confidence of the fans is as bad as the confidence of the media. We had more fans this year per race than we’ve ever had and, if there was a lack of fan interest we would have seen it. Of course,” he admitted, “we had races with less people and we had races with more.

“I don’t see anybody writing about the fact that there were only 10,000 fans at Nashville for the IRL race there. Nobody wrote that. Their average attendance was down for the year&#151ours was up and theirs was down.”

Because CART, Inc. ia a public company, everyone knows about the lack of funding and the difficulties the firm has experienced. “With IRL you know nothing about the amount of money that’s been lost on operations over the last six years. They have 15 cars set for next year (at this point), in part because Honda just stepped up to fund three more!”

The Indy Racing League and the new Champ Car have different philosophies, Gentilozzi stressed. Gentilozzi and Tony George are friends and talk a great deal. “Tony’s vision of success is oval racing in the United States with very little outside of that. My vision is the championship ought to be mixed with a variety of ovals and road courses and there needs to be international flair.

“If Champ Car dies tomorrow,” he mused, “I don’t think Tony would ever go, say, to Surfers to race. Ever! He’d never go to Korea. He might go to Mexico City and he might go to Montreal, but he wouldn’t do Monterrey [Mexico], Vancouver, Toronto&#151he wouldn’t do any of those because that’s not his vision.

“It’s not right or wrong. It’s just different,” Paul said. “I tend to think we have two plans and we are willing to compromise. We know what we have to do to be in business and profitable five years from now. What could we do to multiply those rewards and be bigger and better? To be bigger and better we should have one open wheel series.”

OWRS changed the manner in which it is acquiring CART little more than a month ago, when it withdrew its offer to purchase the public company and instead offered to buy CART, Inc. assets. “When you make an offer to buy something, you buy based on the information you know. We looked under every rock with due diligence and made some discoveries” that caused them to change direction.

“We’ll either own it or not on January 28th and we don’t see any reason that we won’t own it at that time, subject of course to the judge’s discretions. “One reason I’m involved in this is because I believe in the product. When I look back at 10 years of operations at Champ Car I see two cyclical highs. There were periods when it was very profitable&#151and it can be again.” OWRS is using the business models that are successful in the racing field: Formula One and NASCAR.

“There’s only one Formula One and only one NASCAR, but maybe we need to be both. It’s going to take a while to make good substance out of this,” according to Paul Gentilozzi. Hang around him long enough and you, too, will be a believer.