No Lessons Learned

INDIANAPOLIS, December 9, 2003 — What’s next for Championship Auto Racing Teams after a season impacted by massive expenditures, defections and hyperbole?

That was the question asked by most attendees at last week’s behemoth Performance Racing Industry trade show in downtown Indianapolis, even as CART cancelled (at the last moment, of course) a press conference it was to conduct with suppliers Brembo and Dana Corp.

Coming on the heels of a late Tuesday night announcement that Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) was withdrawing its bid to buy the company outright for a meager 56 cents per share, pending a shareholder vote set for next Friday, December 19th, OWRS said it would instead buy certain CART assets. The questions surrounding CART’s survival continue to mount.

Having lost its ability to garner sanction fees and forced to promote the vast majority of its events in the United States, one each in the United Kingdom and Germany, forced to spend its near-$100 million war chest on survival during the 2003 season, CART has gone beyond treading water and now appears to be drowning in an inch of liquid.

This is one of the saddest stories in motorsports history. Whereas CART once was a strong entity in the racing business, it now is a meager shell of its former self. While parts of a CBS television contract are in place, announced at Toronto in July, the balance of the schedule isn’t on anyone’s docket yet. Aside from Bridgestone and Ford-Cosworth, there do not appear to be sponsors willing to support the Champ cars.

It is acknowledged most competitors would prefer to continue racing on road/street courses and ovals (or is Milwaukee the only oval left?), yet poor performance by CART management over the past decade is forcing many of the competitors to the Indy Racing League. It’s a business decision borne of poor business principles by CART.

How did this happen? What can be done to save CART? Should anyone even want to save CART anymore?

By most accounts, CART’s demise began in the mid-1990s, when its great stars retired. Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt Jr., Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser and racers of their era became older and those who came to take their place, including Formula One champions Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell, either didn’t have the cachet of those heroes or didn’t stay at the dance long enough to endure.

Fittipaldi’s career-ending accident at Michigan Speedway in 1996 pretty much marked a finale. Even his nephew Christian Fittipaldi couldn’t keep the famous name going and never had Emmo’s following. Al Unser Jr. couldn’t match his father; neither could Michael Andretti, who finally called it quits this year after a tremendous career marked by victories everywhere but Indianapolis.

That was only part of the problem, though. When [then] CART president and CEO Andrew Craig convinced the board of directors to take the company public, everything changed. No longer would CART be a sanctioning organization putting on races for the benefit of its clientele. Now it had to answer first to stockholders. The bottom line on a spreadsheet became more important than pole positions, fastest laps, wins and championships. This was — and is — a travesty.

With the advent of the Indy Racing League, many in CART thought Tony George’s idea of bringing grass roots racers to their Holy Grail, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was laughable. George, of course, now has the last laugh. While it has cost him a great deal of money to begin and promote his Indy Racing League, the IRL’s IndyCar Series has turned out to be not only a viable entity but close to a mirror image of CART before the fall.

The only thing, though, that stands between the League’s ascendancy to the throne of American open wheel racing is its competitors. Nobody knows their names! Try as they might to get the American public interested in excellent drivers like Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves, Tora Takagi and even Dario Franchitti, the League has been ineffective.

Only Sam Hornish Jr. has a recognizable American name and his lack of personality still stops the Indy Racing League from getting the type of pedigree it sorely needs. And where are the grass roots drivers George was so intent on promoting? Most are gone. Billy Boat, Davey Hamilton, Robby Unser, Robby McGehee, Jimmy Kite are not driving fulltime in the League any longer.

The Indy Racing League’s perennial most popular driver, Sarah Fisher has had difficulties competing against the foreign set over the past few years and may not be back in 2004. Former USAC Triple Crown and IRL champ Tony Stewart went to NASCAR and, this year has taken the new USAC Triple Crown champ J.J. Yeley with him to NASCAR’s Joe Gibbs Racing. This leaves a bunch of former CART drivers, for the most part, who are reluctant to drive in an all-oval series but must because that’s where the work lies.

It’s not a hopeless situation, though, because the Indy Racing League will be breaking its pledge to be an oval-only discipline in the near future and will be competing on road courses soon, maybe even next year, depending on what happens with or to CART.

At the PRI Show there was a great deal of sadness and questions over the situations faced by CART, its remaining drivers, teams, suppliers and partners. Even as Tony George and the Indy Racing League sit in wait for CART’s ship to finally sink, a good look inward might be in order.

In its pending defeat of CART, the IRL has become suspiciously similar to it, snagging CART’s former commercial partners and venues. History always seems to repeat itself. Have there been no lessons learned?

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