Top-10 challenges facing new CART owners


 by Mark Cipolloni
September 18, 2003

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CART isn't sold yet, but it's getting closer by the day.  After years of mismanagement, self-interest business deals, and a protracted battle with Tony George and the IRL, CART is down, but certainly not out.  Now the rebuilding process must start, and the new buyers, Open Wheel Racing Series LLC (OWRS), have their hands full.  There are a number of key areas that need addressing if CART is to return to the popular racing series it once was. 

CART didn't get to where it is today overnight, and it won't get back to its former glory days with one magical silver bullet.   Making the series financially viable is of course challenge #1.  In this article, we examine the top-10 challenges that face OWRS (in no particular order), all of which will help the long-term financial viability of the series.

1. Drivers are the stars, not the cars or the guitars – One of these days CART is going to understand that it’s the athletes that attract the fans. That's the case for any sport, and racing is no different.  Fans come to cheer for the drivers first and foremost, not the race cars or the sideshow entertainment. Sure the cars are great, as is the sideshow entertainment, that's all necessary, but at the end of the day, if CART ever wants to improve its core TV ratings, which are essential to attracting new sponsors, it’s going to have to make the drivers the heroes.

NASCAR has a large core fan base that tune into their races each weekend, regardless if the broadcast is on network TV or cable.  Hardcore fans of drivers will find a race broadcast, regardless of what channel it’s on.  These are the fans that are proud to say Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin are their drivers, their heroes.  They wear their driver's apparel and they stick their car number in the back window of their car, minivan, SUV or pickup truck (right below the gun rack......only kidding, that redneck stigma is fading away).

While we think the MotoRock concept is a good one (see below), if CART makes the cars and the guitars the stars, and not the drivers, ultimately it will fail....again. For too long CART's fans have been fans of particular "events" like Long Beach, but it needs fans to be fans of the drivers first.   CART's new management must not lose focus on what CART is - a racing series first and foremost. As we discuss below, CART must focus to make the racing product the best it can be, and the cars and the guitars will just add to the experience.

2. The on-track racing product is broken – The parades need to stop, or at least be brought to a minimum. If fans want to see a parade, they can tune into the Macy's parade on Thanksgiving.  Parades certainly don't win over any fans.  Why watch the race on TV when you can just review the starting order after Saturday qualifications and immediately know Sunday's finishing order? First, it’s time to implement single-car, and most importantly, single-lap qualifying to mix the starting grid up.  Single-lap means the driver gets one chance to be perfect.  Mess up and you start further down the grid.  Second, implement the push-to-pass button because many of CART’s tracks are too Mickey Mouse to pass on without a little extra power when you need it.

3. More network TV – Dare we say all races on network TV in the USA? Well at least 75% of them. Because CART buys air time, how can it afford to do that one might ask? How can it afford not to? With ratings at or below infomercials levels on SPEED Channel, the entire series will remain cash poor if it can’t garner consistently decent TV ratings and the sponsors that brings.  The racetrack is where a fan first falls in love with a sport, but TV is where a sponsor gets exposed to the most eyeballs.  High TV ratings bring the most consumer value to a sponsor, while at-track hospitality helps build business-to-business (B2B) relationships.  CART lost its way when it focused on B2B and neglected the consumer side of the business.

4. CART needs engine manufacturers....desperately – The CART paddock lost a lot of money this year. Why?  Because all the engine manufacturers are gone. Sure Ford is there, but they are not doing anything for CART except giving the series some credibility by putting their name on it. CART is going to stay with its current “Spec” Ford Cosworth Turbo engine. That’s fine, but if they can’t find additional engine manufacturers to badge the Cosworth engine with up to five manufacturers, the new owners had better be prepared to either spend a lot of money to keep the series afloat, or lose their shirt and eventually shut it down.

5. Merge Trans-Am and ALMS with CART – Auto racing in the USA is an industry ripe for consolidation.  There are so many types of racing, different sanctioning bodies, and different types of race cars, that the fan base is largely fragmented.  Every other month we hear of some new this or that, each one further dividing the market share.  There are strength in numbers and road racing in North America needs its “road racing cartel” who are going to work in unison to ensure road racing makes a comeback in the USA. The three series, Trans-Am, ALMS and CART have a good working relationship now, and Paul Gentilozzi already owns Trans-Am and will be a part owner in CART. Bringing ALMS's Don Panoz and Scott Atherton into the fold will strengthen their position in the market. Under a new combined organization, redundancies in operations can be eliminated and a focused effort placed on marketing and promotion.  Drivers can and should switch between series on a regular basis so the fans can watch with interest as drivers compete in one type of car on Saturday, and another on Sunday.   Three day weekends could then be filled with racing action from start to finish, with Trans-Am running as support to the ALMS Saturday feature event and Toyota Atlantics running on Sunday in support of Champ Cars.

6. Champ Cars need a major overhaul – Champ Cars should be America's F1 series, fast, nimble and challenging.  There should be no question who the best drivers in North America are.  When you watch an F1 car, it's "oh my god they're so fast" and "that scream" of the V-10 sends chills up and down your spine.  Champ Cars are far too heavy and look rather clumsy in comparison, especially on tight street circuits. Champ Cars weigh over 400 pounds more than an F1 car. It’s appalling how slow and clumsy they appear. Taking 400 pounds out of the cars would require too many expensive lightweight materials, but a 200 pound weight reduction should be the goal for 2006. 

Make the cars smaller (F1 size in width to make it easier to pass on narrow circuits) so they weigh less and place a nice small 1.5 liter turbo gasoline engine in the back (gasoline powered cars would get better fuel mileage and hence would not have to carry so much fuel onboard, weight that slows the cars down).  Get the cars off the high-speed, bone and back breaking ovals, so some material that's in the car now for oval wall-banging safety, can be reduced. 

Something minor perhaps, but CART should adopt the F1 size wheels (smaller diameter), high-sidewall tires - grooves and all.  The current low-profile, stiff sidewall tires take away from the driver's ability to throw the car around and the cars look as though they are on rails.  Dimensionally a Champ Car should be identical to an F1 car in every respect.  Lower cost materials and standardization of chassis (dare we say 100% Lolas?), transmissions and engines (think badging) will save cost.  Fans could care less whether a Lola beats a Reynard.  They do care if Paul Tracy beats Jimmy Vasser.

7. Capitalize on the MotoRock concept – the MotoRock concept is a good one, a very good one, especially if to buy some concert tickets also requires a race ticket purchase. That will help to expose new people to the CART product.  Going after the fast and furious younger generation gets the kids hooked early and the on-track racing product hopefully will keep them. These kids are primarily the “rice burner tuner” (Japanese cars) crowd and CART would be wise to get a Honda, a Toyota, or a Nissan back in the fold, or  even a Korean or Chinese manufacturer. We assume Toyota will limit their involvement to the Toyota Atlantic series, having already committed to expensive IRL and NASCAR programs.

MotoRock's Jamie Rose thinks "the concept maybe adds a little bit to the schedule and, from a pure marketing standpoint, if I can get 50,000 more people through the doors because of a rock concert at night and we have a night like the Cleveland race, which was such a great race…if that race was followed by U2, for example—which may be an indication of the future—I would think that we would see 120,000 to 130,000 people.  If he's successful, CART will benefit immensely.  The MotoRock concept must extend to the merchandising, MTV, etc. - a whole lifestyle concept. NASCAR fans are walking billboards for NASCAR and its drivers. While CART's affluent mostly white collar older generation won’t wear clothing with race cars plastered all over them, the fast and furious crowd probably will if the clothing is tastefully done and the stars are mixed with the cars and the guitars.

8. Add races in strategic markets – CART needs to seal its deal on the streets of Chicago and add a major northeast city like New York, Philadelphia or Washington DC. As for overseas venues, I still maintain that Seoul, South Korea or Beijing, China should be high on CART’s list. And if CART were to merge with ALMS, then we can see the Champ Cars added to the ALMS weekends at Sebring during the 12-hour weekend (would require some milling to smooth the pavement) and Road Atlanta for the Petit LeMans weekend.  CART should reciprocate in-kind.

9. Improve the visibility of the on-track product – paying customers should be able to watch all the action on the track, no matter which grandstand they are sitting in. CART’s natural terrain road courses especially need the Jumbotrons in strategic locations because those fans are getting shortchanged compared to fans who buy tickets for street circuits where the big screens are prevalent.  As for the TV experience, the races need more cameras (a lot more) and less long-lens shots that rob the viewer of the speed sensation.  F1 cars look fast on TV and part of that sensation is the abundant use of cameras and proper camera positioning.

10. CART has an identity crisis – First, CART must figure out who they are.  They need to be the premier road racing series in North America, and some would argue they already are.  Second, the average Joe on the street has no idea who the current crop of CART drivers are.  None, nada, zilch. CART must rebuild, but it’s going to take far too long to build new stars (heroes) from scratch so-to-speak. CART would do well to land a couple of popular F1 drivers like Jacques Villeneuve, Heinz-Harald Frentzen or Nick Heidfeld who may be out of rides in F1, but at the end of the day, CART needs a big-name American driver or two while it develops future American stars like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Jon Fogarty and AJ Allmendinger.

I can name at least 10 additional to-do items.  However, addressing the above would be a good start.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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