CART - 'A Stranger in a Strange Land'

 by Steven N. Levinson
November 14, 2001

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With yesterday's announcement of the Premier 1 Grand Prix Series Inaugural 2002 schedule, it is apparent that CART has come under a complete and total "Global Encirclement" from its enemies worldwide. From my perspective it is obvious that this new series is a patent attempt to blunt CART’s move into international venues that have been left vacant by B.C. Ecclestone's desire to expand to new markets in Asia, Russia and perhaps the Middle East (although September 11th has put that fantasy to rest for the moment). 

It should be obvious that the abandonment of traditional venues such as Zandvoort, Paul Ricard, Estoril, Dijon, Donington Park have a fan base longing for high caliber open wheel events than are currently being provided by the FIA's F3000 and the various national F3 series. CART has reluctantly seen this as a "potential market". Their success in Australia, Canada, Germany, Mexico, and to a certain extent, Japan. (Note: this year showed a marked upswing of interest in Japan) underlie CART’s global potential. This has not gone unnoticed by Mr. Ecclestone. Especially the glowing reports from Rockingham by media and fans alike. 

Therefore, it should be no surprise that Ecclestone, through the Premier 1 series, can now satisfy two principal goals; (1) satiate a latent hunger by open wheel fans in abandoned F1 venues, and (2) potentially blunt the growing offshore interest in CART. The series has a novel approach to entice fans. It will use popular soccer clubs as team sponsors, in hopes of trying to transfer the rabid worldwide popularity of Inter-Club Soccer rivalries to the racetrack. Let's just say this is an adult version of the ACRL (American Cities Racing League) that was supposed to get fans in places like San Jose and des Moines interested in sports-prototype racing. That scheme failed. But this series has Bernie's backing and his considerable business acumen! 

Of particular interest to CART followers is the fact that they have already secured a race at Rio's Jacarepagua Nelson Piquet International Raceway for November 10, 2002 at a time when both CART and Emerson Fittipaldi both claimed that it was impossible to do business with the Mayor of Rio! The Brazilian team will be backed and supported by the world famous "FLAMENGO" soccer club located in the chic Ipanema section of Rio. Their "Red and Black" (Preta e Vermelho) colors are famous all over the world. Presumptively this should provide opportunities for Brazilian drivers and result in thousands of "Race Mad Brazilian fans" to flock to the track next November. This will be interesting; since BRAZIL LADEN CART had enormous trouble attracting fans for the CART races until Emerson took over the promotion and sold tickets for between $30 and $ 70. My question is.……who pays the sanctioning fee/ who pays for the promotion? How will this work in recession wracked Rio? Or is this the same type of "VOODOO ECONOMICS" that prevails in the IRL? 

More puzzling is the race in Argentina! Here is a country on the verge of financial collapse and imminent default on it's international debt, and they now have a Premier 1 race. This is absolutely amazing in these difficult economic times. This sort of event needs the same type of "creative financing" that we see in the IRL! (1) Low Sanctioning fees, if any; (2) indemnification of promoter losses (Note: Does anyone believe that Phoenix International Raceway can pay a Million Dollar IRL purse on 25,000 spectators?), (3) Sponsor-less race cars. 

But realistically, "VOODOO ECONOMICS" works!. It has driven CART out of nearly all ISC Tracks. Now Certainly CART has to take much responsibility for it's own failure to promote it's series, but ISC's dearth of promotion at Homestead, Nazareth and Michigan are not shining examples of track promotions. I am not suggesting that Tony George and ISC are acting in concert, for that would be a conspiracy, but the residual effect of it has been to drive CART out of the oval track business in the USA. This has worked, but to what ultimate effect remains to be seen. There is abundant evidence that fans have deserted open wheel oval track racing in favor of NASCAR's "WWF” approach. Furthermore the CART/IRL split has fractured the fan base, and George's "low-tech” approach has exacerbated the alienation of the CART fan base. 

No matter how cheap the tickets are to Michigan, Homestead or Nazareth, no matter how many tickets are given away, I do not see massive amounts of fans returning to those venues. We have already witnessed a "trail of blood" left by the IRL at Phoenix and Loudon (previous CART venues) and consummate failures at Las Vegas, Charlotte, Atlanta, Dover and Walt Disney World. This year Nashville was a 23,000 fan "SELL OUT". Hooray! There were more people at nearby shopping malls that night! St. Louis, at half the price, and no competition from the Rams or the Cardinals, the crowd looked abysmal. 

Notwithstanding, CART needs to REACT, and REACT NOW to this new reality. Promoters will see the opportunity to present an open wheel "SHOW" at a lot less money. In fact, you will never see a Premier 1 or IRL sanctioning agreement, because both are "NOT PUBLIC COMPANIES"! And whether or not Tony or Bernie make money is irrelevant, as long as it serves it's purpose - Continue to damage CART and reduce it's threat domestically and globally! 

There has been much speculation about whether or not the IRL ever had a "business plan" other than to destroy CART. There is an honest intellectual disagreement about this. I for one, believe that from day one it was the "Scorched Earth Policy", i.e., “in order to save it (open wheel racing) you needed to destroy it".(the Vietnam approach). Others more forgiving than me, say the mass destruction was an "un-intended consequence.” It was simply "collateral damage" that (1) TV ratings went to hell, (2) sponsors departed, and (3) manufacturers fled. 

Some have suggested that the IRL/ISC love affair is nothing more than a "seduction" by ISC to eventually take control of IRL/IMS. That George will become so beholden to ISC's promotions, ticket give-a-ways, and beneficiaries of the NASCAR Season Ticket Promotions, that ISC would have enormous leverage to put Tony George in a "BOX"! I have no idea, but ISC has shown it will play hard ball; witness its battle to keep CART off the streets of downtown Miami! 

Lest I forget, there is Don Panoz and his fledgling ALMS Series. He should be an obvious CART ally. Both series have the same demographics. Double-header weekends should be a natural at Sebring and Miami, and perhaps Shanghai and Sepang. But everything is quiet. It seems that they are both fighting over the same turf, instead of joining forces against a common foe. After all, some suggest that the France Family started up the Grand American Series to "divide and conquer" U.S. road racing, and insure its fragmentation and eventual demise.

I keep having a recurring nightmare that 24 hours a day, I see Benny Parsons blaring out the NASCAR GOSPEL and Dr. Jerry Punch telling me that NASCAR is the greatest thing since the invention of the pick up truck. I see legions of NASCAR fans ("GOOBERS" as referred to by Speedvision's Ben Blake) marching in zombie-like unison to the next race at Bristol. 

Let’s face it, I am a stranger in a strange land. I love CART, and my series is in deep trouble! Likewise, CART is a stranger in a VERY strange land. They are trying to conduct "business" on the normal principles taught in business school. You remember……."Profit and Loss", "debit and credit"; "expenditures and revenues"; but now it's "Voodoo Economics," ticket give-a-ways, empty side pods, empty grandstands, promoters who don't promote and don't care because they are guaranteed to make a profit. Gee, Tony may have won his "WAR against the Infidels, the Non Believers". But it will be a Pyrrhic Victory. ..Gettysburg 2003!

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