INDIANAPOLIS, March 16, 2004—
Be careful what you wish for, the axiom says. You just might get it.
Owners of the Champ Car World Series may have won the battle to exist in Indianapolis Federal bankruptcy court on January 28th, but in order to survive they must have a 2004 season. The annual hegira to Long Beach, CA on April 16-18 could be in jeopardy, thanks to the iffy nature of this business and the manner in which it’s being conducted, particularly by owners Open Wheel Racing Series.
The hombre who defines modern Mexican motorsport has decided that, after witnessing the CCWS Season Premiere at the same Long Beach venue last Monday and Tuesday, signs of life are not good enough for him to stick around this year after being in the series formerly known as CART since 1993.
Adrian Fernandez’ Quaker State/Tecate/Telmex Lola/Ford is on the 30th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach race poster; yet Fernandez, the 40-year-old resident of Paradise Valley, AZ, arbiter of Mexican motorsports direction and participation won’t be in Long Beach next month.
He has defected.
As of last Thursday evening, Fernandez Racing is an Indy Racing League IndyCar Series entrant, working in concert with Super Aguri Fernandez Racing at both team’s brand new north Indy facilities. This weekend at his [adopted] home race the Indy 200 Copper World Classic, Fernandez will drive a #5 Panoz G Force/Honda/Firestone racer. While this must have been a tough choice for Fernandez to make, OWRS’ owners made it easier for him.
Adrian Fernandez is a good businessman. His business is racing. And he was appalled that no one at Champ Car World Series, including new CEO Dick Eidswick bothered to be in touch with him concerning his participation in the series. Fernandez expected answers to questions he had in his mind from OWRS, from Eidswick and from others in position to tell him viable plans for the 2004 season. At this time, he reminded, the series has no Mexican or international TV telecasts scheduled.
“There has been uncertainty about the series due to the bankruptcy,” Fernandez said. “I came to Long Beach to get answers but things were worse than I thought. I needed facts, not more promises,” and Adrian never got them.
He was particularly disturbed to see CCWS owners stealing drivers from private teams with less financial backing than their own, witnessing the poaching of Nelson Philippe from Conquest Racing to Rocketsports and the dropping of Patrick Carpentier from Gerald Forsythe’s team in favor of Rodolfo Lavin, who brings Mexican Corona beer pesos with him.
The latter deal left Derrick Walker, a CART supporter and member of the creditors’ committee that urged Judge Frank J. Otte to back OWRS’ play without the ability to put together a Champ Car World Series team this year. Walker, too, might bolt for IRL, where he once campaigned a car for Sarah Fisher.
“At this time, I saw no contracts for engines, for tires for races. I have too much of an investment to wait. They kept telling me to trust them,” Fernandez explained. “The series we knew as CART is gone. The major teams are gone and I could count 12 drivers only when I went to Long Beach.
“There were no facts; there was no business plan, no confirmation. How long should I have waited? I can’t keep hearing ‘trust me, trust me’ from these guys. The confidence level wasn’t there. This is no longer the CART we all knew,” he affirmed. “We at Fernandez Racing didn’t see any facts and we didn’t have the confidence” they’d see those facts in the near future.
Adrian doesn’t know about the possibility of other teams leaving the Champ Car World Series, but he does know that “a lot of owners are not happy.” It’s difficult to market a racing series where there’s infighting—which is going on right now at CCWS—and Fernandez needed to position his sponsors where they could get a return on their investment.
There’s talk about Team Rahal leaving, with or without driver Michel Jourdain Jr. and his Mexican Gigante sponsorship. Patrick Racing—where Fernandez scored six victories—has shut its doors. Walker Racing could be forced to do the same, as could Conquest Racing. And Forsythe Racing is sending 2003 champion Paul Tracy out to compete without viable commercial backing, other than Jerry Forsythe’s own company Indeck, “even though there are two Canadian races,” Fernandez reminded.
It’s not a pretty picture, is it? “I’m very sad about what’s happening. It’s a tough situation,” said Adrian. His own sponsor Tecate departed Fernandez’ CART team after the close of the 2003 season, yet is returning to do battle in the Indy Racing League. “The owners at OWRS did nothing to help me replace Tecate, which was a huge loss. I put the colors of “Visit Mexico” on my car in Long Beach” even though he wasn’t paid to do so. “I just wanted to give something back to the country that has supported me.”
Adrian Fernandez wasn’t willing to put his 40 employees out on the street if the Champ Car World Series didn’t make it out of the starting blocks. He had to look after those people. “There are so many mechanics looking for work” right now.
What could have kept Fernandez Racing in the CCWS fold? Simple facts, business plans, a verifiable schedule, television programming in his native land and a better sense of fairness by the new owners. Instead of making promises since they first approached the purchase of CART Inc., OWRS could have presented specifics about their plans. Rather than taking drivers from smaller teams, the owners might have helped those squads secure their futures.
None of this has been done and that inaction may lead to added defections to the Indy Racing League by teams and drivers more prominent than even Adrian Fernandez, who owns eight Champ Car victories—four of them on oval tracks, by the way.
It was arrogance and greed that brought down Championship Auto Racing Teams. While Adrian Fernandez would rather be racing on road courses and at home in Monterrey and Mexico City, that won’t be possible this year. “It’s not that I wanted to do a change,” Fernandez stated. “I am not turning my back on Champ Car; it’s the other way around. This is not what we like but we had no real choice.”
North American open wheel racing fans do have a choice. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a large Hispanic presence at this weekend’s Indy 200 Copper World Classic on the fast one-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval. And at 14 other 2004 IndyCar Series races. When Adrian Fernandez talks, his countrymen listen.