CART circuit faces new identity crisis

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

As CART heads into the future, the big question facing the Champ-car series seems to be: What does it want to be?

Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc., was formed in 1978 by a group of dissident U.S. Auto Club car owners intent on being in control of their own series.

Since then, the leadership of CART has changed many times. Each of its presidents, chairmen and CEO's faced the problem of dealing with a board of directors made up of the very people trying to win races and championships.

''There have certainly been times when some owners' self-interest have been put ahead of the interest of the series,'' said team owner Derrick Walker. ''It's inevitable with the way CART has been run in the past.''

Yet, despite the pitfalls of its political side, the series has evolved into what its owners and drivers say is the most challenging in the world -- contested over a variety of ovals, road and street circuits that provide a significant test to man and machine.

''There is no other series that demands as much from its drivers,'' said Michael Andretti, the winningest driver in CART history. ''In Formula One, it's all road and street courses; in the IRL, it's all ovals; and in NASCAR, it's almost all ovals.

''In our series, you have to be able to adapt to different tracks nearly every week. It's a tremendous challenge and, I believe, the championship is harder to win in CART than in any other series.''

How, though, do you describe what CART is?

The rival Indy Racing League, brainchild of Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, began in 1996 and quickly established itself as an all-oval American series designed to give new teams and drivers an opportunity to compete.

Formula One is a glamorous, globe-hopping series which has astronomical team budgets and big-name stars such as four-time champion Michael Schumacher. It touches North America only twice a year -- with races in Montreal and Indianapolis.

NASCAR's Winston Cup series is also all-American and has become a mainstream sport in this country thanks to a new TV contract and huge stars such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace. Even the death this year of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt -- replaced as the most popular driver by his son, Dale Jr. -- hasn't hurt NASCAR's popularity.

Meanwhile, CART faces a burgeoning crisis.

The biggest names in the series, other than Andretti, are foreigners virtually unknown in America to anyone but hardcore race fans. Two-time defending series champion Gil de Ferran could probably walk through New York's Times Square at noon and not be recognized.

Since the arrival of the IRL, the core group of open-wheel racing fans has been split, and CART's TV ratings have dipped precipitously. After working with ABC and ESPN for years, CART's new TV contract with a handful of races on CBS and the rest on cable's Speed Channel is considered a disaster by many people involved in the series, particularly some of its longtime sponsors.

It's expected that Penske Racing, run by Roger Penske, one of the founders of CART, is ready to announce its intention of racing in the IRL and possibly leaving CART altogether. Another body blow to the series.

Its most successful races, other than the street event in Long Beach, Calif., are events in Canada, Australia, Mexico, Japan, Germany and England. All are moneymakers for the publicly owned company.

The fact that most of its American races are less successful has forced CART to look for even more foreign events, with new races in Mexico City and Montreal on the 2002 schedule. There also is a new event in Denver.

Mario Andretti, Michael's father and one of racing's all-time greats, with championships in Formula One and American open-wheel racing, is retired now, but remains a very involved observer.

''I think that CART has no choice but to spread its wings into some international markets,'' he said. ''It's definitely a national series with a national championship, but it's got this international flavor. ... CART as a series is much bigger than NASCAR on a worldwide basis.''

Andretti added that in his travels all over the world, he is constantly asked questions about CART races that people have seen on international television.

''Would we like to have the popularity of NASCAR in the United States at the moment? Yes,'' he said. ''Will we always continue working toward achieving some of that and trying to increase the fan interest? Yes.

''But at the same time, you just have to really go to the markets that want you.''

He pointed out that more than 200,000 people turned out last year for the series opener and inaugural race in Monterrey, Mexico.

''CART has to do what is best for the series in the overall,'' Andretti said. ''There's still a great, strong open-wheel fan base in the United States, and again, I hope that we will continue to have good presence here. But there's nothing wrong with spreading our wings abroad.''

Joe Heitzler, who took over as chairman of the company last year, says CART still needs to work at remaining an American-based series.

''We still are defining ourselves,'' he said. ''This company has a great future, but it's not written in stone. We can go several different ways in how we schedule our events and the venues we visit.''

He expects changes in the sport to continue over the next few years.

''The most important thing, though, is to remember that we are entertainment and we need to continue to give people the kind of show they want to see,'' Heitzler said.

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