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Trying to Steer Series Back to Prominence


Can Chris Pook, who performed one miracle in racing more than 25 years ago, perform another this year?

Pook's announcement last December that he could turn around the moribund Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc., was met with as much skepticism as his 1975 announcement that he was planning to run a Formula One race down Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach.

The fortunes of CART, once the premier open-wheel racing organization in the country, changed dramatically last year.

Roger Penske moved his high-profile team of series champion Gil de Ferran and Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves to the struggling Indy Racing League along with CART's major sponsor, Marlboro; engine suppliers Honda and Ford rebelled when CART announced it would change from turbocharged to normally aspirated engines in 2003 and said they would not furnish engines after this year; a race in Texas was canceled at the last moment because cars were going too fast; the car count dropped to an all-time low and rumors flew that several other CART teams would follow Penske into the IRL next year.

Pook, who turned 61 on April 1, hates to hear or read about things like that.

"Why have so many writers chosen to focus not on what happened at CART in the last few months but on the shortcomings from last season, including a race that was canceled 11 months ago?" he asked. "It seems some of them want to keep CART on the same directionless course it was last year. I can assure you that will not be the case.

"In most cases they champion the greatness of the IRL and the demise of CART, but it should be embarrassing to them when the three opening rounds of the IRL series had attendance in the 10,000 to 15,000 range while our first three races will attract combined three-day crowds of over half a million people."

It was vintage Pook, stressing the positive despite stressful surroundings, just as he had in 1977 when facing a $1.7-million debt and Bernie Eccelstone refusing to let the Formula One cars run until Pook came up with $300,000 for the purse. He made it, scavenging nearly all night among Long Beach Grand Prix board members.

Again, in 1984, he dropped F1 because of its exorbitant expenses and turned to CART for his spring seaside race. This brought another storm of criticism, much like this year's, when attendance fell from 82,000 in 1982 to 56,000 in 1984. By 1987, the crowds for the Indy cars were bigger than ever.

"You think this is tough, getting CART up and running," he said with all the confidence of a man who enjoys the challenge of rising from the brink. "We will turn CART around in much the same way we did the Long Beach Grand Prix 20 years ago."

In a wide-ranging interview with The Times on the eve of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which he founded and presided over for 27 years, the new president and chief executive officer of CART explained his positions.

Question: After four months in your new position, where does CART stand today?

Answer: We're running on about 71/2 cylinders at the moment, and I expect to have it up to 8 by midsummer.

Q: And how many cylinders were running when you took over Dec. 19?

A: About one.

Q: What makes you think the future is so bright?

A: The original concept of CART is a great product. It is just the best, with a variety of disciplines--road, oval, street and superspeedway--that defines a true champion. There is no better racing product.... The IRL is an oval series running in this country only, we are a multinational series.

Q: What about criticism that CART is a junior version of Formula One, calling itself an American series while holding nine races in six foreign countries?

A: I think it's terrific. To be associated with Formula One is wonderful. F1 is in a total class of its own. There is no getting away from the fact that ours is a North American series, but we offer our sponsors something no other series can offer, all the benefits of the world's newly opened trade zones. Mexico, Canada and the United States deliver all the benefits of the NAFTA agreement, we reach the Pacific Rim through our races in Australia and Japan, take advantage of the European Economic Union with events in Germany and Great Britain and hold the gateway to Latin America with our new race in Miami.

Other than adding a St. Petersburg [Fla.] street race next year, we expect to have a stable schedule. This year we added Mexico City, Denver, Montreal and the streets of Miami. We dropped Michigan, Nazareth, Texas and Detroit. It all adds up to a package that is attractive not only to sponsors, teams and drivers but millions of race fans around the world.

Q: What is CART's status with California Speedway, the only track with both an IRL and a CART race?

A: We have a contract for two more years. We've had some attractive races there. I don't see us leaving.

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