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MOTOR RACING

A Racing Phenomenon in Any Language

Motor sports: The popularity of open-wheel competition has spread far beyond its American roots.

April 04, 2001|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Open-wheel racing as practiced by Championship Auto Racing Teams, once the province of American drivers, has become a global phenomenon.

"Right now, I would define CART as a global open-wheel racing series," new CART President Joe Heitzler said from his office in Troy, Mich. "We have built an awesome awareness in foreign countries, where cities throughout the world are seeking our sanction to come to their country.

"What we need to do right now is to build a situation where we can convert that kind of energy to our fan base at home. As an indicator of our overseas popularity, all of our races will be shown on live TV on the European continent, including the United Kingdom. Our Eurosports contract sends our races to 118 countries, with 95% of the telecasts in their native language."

This is a radical turnabout from 1978, when CART broke away from the U.S. Auto Club to form its own sanctioning body. Its legacy then was of drivers such as Bobby and Al Unser, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears, all household American names virtually unknown overseas.

As Bobby Unser said in 1975, after winning the second of his three Indy 500s, "I'm better known in Europe for winning the Pikes Peak hill climb than I am for winning Indy."

In the late 1980s and early '90s, the popular favorites retired. Second-generation drivers Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. filled the void in some ways, but in 1989, when Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi won the Indianapolis 500 and the CART championship, it opened the eyes of young foreign drivers who saw that they could make names for themselves in the American series.

As Fittipaldi was joined by the likes of Teo Fabi, Arie Luyendyk and Raul Boesel, CART began to generate interest overseas. Then Formula One champion Nigel Mansell left England to race with CART and the entire racing world took notice.

The result is that, in Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, there will be three American drivers--Michael Andretti, Jimmy Vasser and Bryan Herta--and 25 foreigners, 10 from Brazil, Fittipaldi's country. And seven of the 21 races were scheduled on foreign soil--in Mexico, Japan, Germany, England, Australia and two in Canada. One other, in Brazil, was canceled but will probably return to the schedule next year.

"The balance of foreign drivers suits our direction," said Heitzler, 56, a business executive who replaced interim president Bobby Rahal last Dec. 4.

"This year we are going to three new sites in Mexico, Germany and the U.K. These weren't places where CART sought to go, these were places where we were wanted. For our opening race, we went to Mexico. There had never been a sanctioned open-wheel race in Monterrey before [although CART had previously raced in Mexico City] and we had 378,000 spectators over three days. Some people in CART said it was the biggest Friday and Saturday crowd they had ever seen.

"We expect similar responses in Germany, where a two-mile tri-oval has been built in Lausitz, and in England, where Rockingham Motor Speedway is a new 1.5-mile oval in Corby. To give you an idea of our European fan support, Bryan Herta went to the Eurospeedway in Germany with one car for a demonstration run and 105,000 people showed up just to watch him take a few laps all by himself in a 1999 Reynard-Honda."

Heitzler acknowledges that the loss of familiar names such as Unser, Foyt and Mears has reduced the appeal of open-wheel racing in this country, but points out that the world, especially the world of racing, has changed dramatically since they were racing.

"Back then, open-wheel racing had a distinctive market share," he said. "It did not have to share with so many brands of racing entertainment. NASCAR was not so big, Formula One was only shown a little on CBS, there was no Speedvision, no ESPN. There wasn't such a wide distribution of racing interest.

"The focus of the American racing public was almost entirely on open-wheel, with Indianapolis the center of its attention. Today the world is a smaller place, sponsorships are a bigger issue globally. Our foreign drivers and foreign venues bring on significant sponsorship allocations. All of this is good for CART.

"In the U.S., we face very aggressive marketing from NASCAR, from Formula One now that it is back in the States, and from Mr. [Donald] Panoz and his American LeMans series. But we must also come to the realization that we must remember how we got to where we are. We have to keep a grass-roots involvement, so that even if we go to other places, we need to continue to develop a tremendous fan interest in the U.S.

"I keep being asked why we aren't doing better here, but I think if you look at Long Beach this week you will find the answer. We are doing quite well. Long Beach is an American happening."

When race founder Chris Pook suggested putting on a motor race through the streets of Long Beach, it was to attract attention as "the International City." Now the series it will host is international.

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Who is Joe Heitzler?

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