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Putting the CART Before the Hearse

Rumors of racing league's demise continue, but Pook says it's 'positioned better now than it has been for the last 10 years.'

October 30, 2002|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

Roger Penske has gone to the Indy Racing League. Michael Andretti, Honda and Toyota are going. Chip Ganassi may or may not be going too. The IRL seems to have all the momentum in the open-wheel race car war.

And yet, Championship Auto Racing Teams is hanging in there.

The series with the iron chin arrives at California Speedway this week for the Toyota 500 and the only things running faster than demise rumors will be the cars going 230 mph around the two-mile oval.

Yet, CART President and CEO Chris Pook, who masterminded the hugely successful Grand Prix of Long Beach in 1975, before he knew anything about the business of auto racing, says, "CART is positioned better now than it has been for the last 10 years."

It's Pook's job to spin things in a positive light. But is he really on to something? Consider:

* CART has adopted a marketing plan in the North American Free Trade Agreement countries, which Pook says will be twice as large as any other market by 2007.

* With the addition of races in Tampa-St. Petersburg in 2003, and Houston in 2004, CART will be racing in 11 of the top 25 U.S. markets. It also races in Canada's three largest markets, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, and Mexico's top two, Monterrey and Mexico City.

* By 2005, Pook says, there will "definitely be 15 races in NAFTA markets, three in the European economic community, and two in the Pacific Rim." CART must add one more Pacific venue -- it extended its Australia race over the weekend though 2008 -- and two more in Europe.

"At the end of the day," Pook says, "manufacturers want to be in those markets, and we want to be the company that provides that."

CART can also better market its strength, which is the diversity of its tracks and drivers, by creating the NAFTA Cup -- a series within the series linking a road race in Monterrey, a city street race in Toronto, and the oval race in Fontana -- to create additional in-season interest. Pook has other cards up his sleeve. While in Europe last month for CART's race in England, he said, he spoke to half a dozen car manufacturers. By 2005, he added, CART could be racing cars powered by Maserati, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Nissan Infiniti, Hyundai and Jaguar engines.

That would appeal to CART's strongest demographic, affluent men between the ages of 17-34 and 45-60. But the bridge to 2005 is critical, and that's why Pook -- who started on the job last Dec. 18 -- has focused on creating a stable business platform. That's where Cosworth, the engine manufacturer owned by Ford, plays an important role. It will provide detuned -- from about 800 to 700 horsepower -- turbocharged engines for the series, thereby reducing costs to teams, for the next two years.

Cars won't have traction control, which should allow for more passing, and aerodynamic packages are being developed to create the kind of side-by-side oval racing common in the IRL.

And in 2005, assuming CART lives that long?

The series then will have new engine and chassis specifications. Pook wants normally aspirated gas-powered V-10 engines, the power plants used in Formula One.

Did somebody say, "Formula One?"

Last February, Pook reached out to the IRL, offering to use a common chassis and adopt the IRL's basic engine formula, a precursor, perhaps, to the merging of the two. The olive branch was broken, though, by IRL President Tony George, who demanded IRL chassis exclusivity. Thus, the racing leagues seem destined to go their separate ways.

But might Pook be taking a similar approach to Formula One? In Europe, he talked with friend and Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, which heated up the rumor mill. The Toronto Sun recently reported that CART's board of directors would consider selling 51% of its shares to Ecclestone. Among other rumors are that Ecclestone is one of several investors who want to buy the publicly held company and privatize it.

CART champions have long made a habit of skipping off to F1, to the point where critics consider CART racing little more than a development series for Grand Prix racing.

"It would be a huge compliment to be a development series for Formula One," Pook says. "Some of our predecessors in CART had the mistaken impression that we could challenge Formula One."

If you can't beat them, join them?

Pook, though, says there is no immediate end in sight for CART as a separate entity. At Fontana, about 140,000 are expected over three days. Last year's race produced a record 73 lead changes before Cristiano da Matta edged Max Papis by .007 of a second before a caution flag came out for the final five laps. No one dismisses the success of CART's street events in major cities, which will make up at least half of its scheduled 20 races in 2003. Chicago, currently the site of an oval race, may eventually be added to that list.

If things are looking up, however, problems remain:

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