CHAMPCAR/CART: Champ Car Columbus Town Meeting, part V

CART Champ Car Columbus Town Meeting Transcript with Derrick Walker, Bobby Rahal, Sebastien Bourdais, John Lopes and Danica Patrick ADAM SAAL: On our website, on CART.com, you can download complete race broadcasts on SPEED. To be honest with...

CART Champ Car Columbus Town Meeting Transcript with Derrick Walker, Bobby Rahal, Sebastien Bourdais, John Lopes and Danica Patrick

ADAM SAAL: On our website, on CART.com, you can download complete race broadcasts on SPEED. To be honest with you, John, I don't know if you know either, I don't know if that includes our CBS races. We can check that out. That is something else that is fairly unique. It's very difficult to go on a site, just download it for free. You need to have a high-speed Internet connection to make it worth your while. Please check that out if you have it. Cathy, I think we have the race, do we have a copy of the race here? We'll cue it up at least until Derek falls for you. We'll be able to show it. As an Ohioan, I understand why they did that. It happens on occasion and so forth. John went to Duke, so I don't know if you can relate to it.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: I'm not a technician. Actually I have a question for you. My parents missed two races this year, Cleveland and Milwaukee, because it was in Europe not live because of the changing time by night. Do you think there is a chance at some point on the website we will have the races live?

ADAM SAAL: Live on the website, I don't know if you can do that now out of respect to your television broadcast rights. Most television entities, they consider the Internet, quite rightly, another form of broadcast medium. I don't know if anybody is doing that now. You may have some sporting events that are only shown on the website. I think it would have to be a fairly popular, like maybe the Super Bowl you could probably show live on the Internet, then live without hurting your television audience. But we're probably a long time away before that can happen. I'll give you some tapes to bring back.

Q: My name is Heidi. Thank you for making an effort to be here with us again. I see a lot of familiar faces from last year. It's very good to have and be honored to support and have you here. I don't really have a question. We went over the Derek Daley. I'm glad he's okay. Hope there's nothing wrong. I just want to say thank you for CART allowing Alex Zanardi to finish the last few laps of the race. I think that was wonderful. It's a team effort. The support and love from CART, the safety team, everyone involved, was tremendous. Thank you.

ADAM SAAL: Thank you.

CALVIN FISH: Sebastien is working on his. The ones in Cleveland were probably the best yet, right? He was down to the cords on those Bridgestones. Not much left at the end.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: Actually, I think the team was pretty upset with me because I burned the differential.

CALVIN FISH: Did Carl take the prize money check? I'm sure he will.

ADAM SAAL: Before Steve cues up the next question, the lady right here quite correctly mentioned on SPEED Channel you won't have a break-in if something happens at Ohio State. It's one of the advantages. You also don't see people rushing to get off the air, lose a driver interview. We get complete coverage. It is outstanding. I was happy when a lot of you raised your hands about the qualifying show. Sounds like you're getting the SPEED Channel here. If you're not, call the cable channel.

Q: I'm Curt from Lancaster. I wanted to know, this is addressed to John, I realize the situation is delicate, you can't do any disclosure or anything right now, but we've followed CART, Champ Car, a long time. Derrick has had the luxury of going with everybody, know both sides of the fence pretty deep. In the past two or three months, though, it seems like, does CART have a sense of urgency of getting through these negotiations and establishing a title sponsor? It feels like we're being disillusioned a little bit, like we're kind of going off, fading away from an internal fan's perspective. It's hard when I have other people questioning. You see some pretty good sponsors to the other side. Does CART have it on a priority as far as once we get this worked out in the next week or two, to sit down and let's get some title sponsorships?

JOHN LOPES: Well, title sponsorship is always, always a priority. The company's been working very, very hard on it. There have been some recent changes in marketing at the company. David Clare, our chief operating officer, is now overseeing the marketing. He came back from South Korea where he headed up the whole Asian sports marketing side of things. That part of our business is in good hands. We have some very talented young people in marketing. I can tell you, they're beating feet all over the country.

I should point out, we're not void out of new sponsors. Sebastien decided to win Cleveland with McDonald's. McDonald's is a great new sponsor. We actually had to pull Ronald McDonald off the truck. He wanted to take a ride with Sebastien.

It is a priority certainly. To go to the heart of your question, we're going to be here talking in the future. I mean, Champ Car's not going away. We're going through a tough couple years. We're going through a tough couple years, but there's a lot of very, very successful drivers, owners, sponsors who have all hunkered down for the fight. You know, we're going through a fight right now.

But we've pushed off the bottom of the pool.  Certainly we're on the way
back.  The crowds are coming back.  New sponsors are starting to sign
up.  We're going to be around for a long, long time.

CALVIN FISH: Great news. Steve, a question on that side?

Q: One major question. Has it been looked into setting things up like Formula 1 in that you start the race with the tires and the fuel that you qualified with? Might throw a little more strategy into things? I like how that has improved Formula 1. Instead of watching the red cars run away, it's more of a chess match. The other thing is, gee, I'd really love to see CART approach Zanardi about running the whole 500 next year in Germany. There's some guy named Gordon who has open-wheel fever since he drove Montoya's car.

CALVIN FISH: Derrick, would you like to address the first one.

DERRICK WALKER: I don't know. I mean, there's a lot of work to be done to really get everything in place for next year. We're obviously working on all of those issues. Improving the racing is very high on the list. Certainly what Formula 1 is doing has not gone unnoticed in our group.

Probably, without embarrassing some of the folks that are here today from CART, probably haven't been around through them all. In the history of CART, I think the CART front office collectively as a group, is working together and looking at the issues and tackling the issues are probably the best group we've ever had in CART.

So when you look at some of these issues, title sponsorship was one that was brought up there, there's a tremendous lot of work being done behind the scenes on all of these issues.

The guy that seems to have got a fair amount of flak here tonight, Mr. Pook off and on, he's like a bull in a china shop. But he is a leader, and he is a visionary. I think probably CART wouldn't be as well off, not that we are well off right now, but we wouldn't be where we are today without Chris Pook actually jumping in the deep end when he didn't really need to. He could have moved on down the road and gone over to Montana with his camper or something. He stayed and fought the fought.

There's a lot of issues being looked at. Improving the racing is definitely top of the list. Certainly Alex Zanardi, who wouldn't want him back in the series? He's everything that CART is. I think what he represents is the spirit of racing. And CART I think, when you look at what they did in putting that car together and the Eric Bachelart Team Conquest did a great job in getting him out there, for those of you who weren't there, I'm sure a lot of you weren't, it was a special moment in racing. That's more of the spirit that CART needs to showcase because it's there. It's just being trodden over the years from abuse from, you know, a lot of turmoil, a lot of money along the way.

We've hit bottom and we're sort of rallying around and starting to focus on, "How do we turn this thing around?" The issue about Mid-Ohio is just one of the many, where we go, what we do, how do we get there. It's a tremendous amount of work.

But I can promise you, there's nothing not on the table right now that's being looked at by the group. Just the enormity of the issues and the job at hand is huge. I know it's a bit off of your question, but I took the liberty to rabbit on a bit for a while.

CALVIN FISH: Sebastien, you were certainly there that weekend in Germany, winning the race. I believe Alex presented you with the pole winning flag. I'm not sure if you've known Alex for a long time or not. Put into perspective the emotion of that day when he did those first few laps.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: This guy is completely amazing. I met him the year before in Monaco for a go-kart race. I was driving actually. It was pretty amazing, too. I hope he's not going to drive because he's going to win this event.

CALVIN FISH: He's too fast. I think the fourth lap he was flat out.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: It was really intense. I think Jimmy and all the drivers who were there when he had the crash in 2001 were really, really touched. You know, everybody got caught in this moment. It was a lot of emotions. I just, yeah, think this guy is completely amazing.

JOHN LOPES: Alex was actually supposed to do his 13 laps and stay out and lead the pace lap for the race. And we were actually going to have Alex be the pace car. But in the meeting he said, "Guys, if I'm on the track when they throw the green, I'm going to go." And we said, "No, Alex, come on." He goes, "No, I'm going."

But then after he came in, and the night before, Daniella, his wife, said to him, "Alex, do you know what the checkered flag means tomorrow?" And he said, "I think so." She said, "That means it's a checkered flag, that's it." She said this to him at dinner the night before the event. He's like, "Yes, dear." But he'll forget about that.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: Actually, I mean, it was even more a surprise because he's been on the track the first with this new package and he had no idea how it was going to be. He was flat out with more power than us. I'm not kidding; he was flat out after five laps. He did 13 laps. So, you know, it's the kind of idea just to show you how talented this guy is.

ADAM SAAL: Just to add to that, what we did a couple days before he made the actual run to complete his race is we did a top secret shakedown in front of 300 people, but it was supposed to be top secret. I think he was even quicker in that one. He came out of the box swinging. It was at the end of the day on Thursday or Friday or something like that. It was incredible. He literally for his first time going at it on the track, he never put a wheel wrong. He probably could have contended in that race there, no question.

JOHN LOPES: In that session, he went out, hadn't been in the car since the incident. He went out, did a couple laps, came in, said, "Give me one turn in the front wing." He went out, he would have been position six in qualifying.

ADAM SAAL: Outstanding. Actually, you all can relive that moment next Tuesday, I believe. Check your listings. On HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumble, Bryant came over to Germany and did a whole feature. I don't know how many of you are familiar with that show. It gets behind the scenes. Bryant himself said, "I want to do this story." So he joined us. We worked with that group. That airs on July 22nd, which I believe is next Tuesday. It's definitely coming up on HBO. Let us know how you like it and definitely let the HBO people know how you like it. We know there's a lot more stories in our paddock that need to be told on these shows. They'll go after them with your help.

Q: I'm Peggy Scott from Plain City. Thank you for being here. I have a question. You talk about wanting to make it exciting for the fans. What I like about Champ Car is the diversity of the different tracks, the road, the street. The street courses sometimes can get just follow-the-leader. Is there anything you can do to widen some of the areas of the street courses so there can be more passing, so it can be more exciting for us to watch?

CALVIN FISH: Certainly we had some new events last year. Being honest with you, they got their fair share of criticism, both Miami and Denver in terms of the overall layouts. Very bumpy in Denver.

Obviously, you're restricted by the width of the street. You can't go in there and knock down buildings. Normally the local council doesn't like that. We have some great street circuits on the agenda right now, Surfers Paradise which Sebastien hasn't been at yet I believe. Toronto is certainly a great street track, as well. You ran over in Europe. How did the circuit this weekend compare?

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: I think the US tracks are a bit more bumpy. Monaco and Pau are really smooth layouts. But it's not easier to pass. Street courses will always be street courses. I do believe that it's very, very difficult to pass because the line is narrow and if you push a bit too deep on the brakes, you're going to crash. You cannot really afford that and lose the race. So it's always a big problem with street courses.

But I expect the view and the cameras in the walls and the way that the car is behaving on the track is also at least as interesting as on a road course. For sure, you're never going to see as much passing as on a road course because it's just simply way harder to make a move.

CALVIN FISH: Certainly a great atmosphere and spectacle for the fans on these street circuits.

Q: Chip Ashinger from Columbus. Is sponsorship getting easier to sell? Are you getting more money? To me the series is getting better if that's happening. Also I'd like to comment, the off-shore races, I read this past week we might lose the European races. I've been to Mexico City, Monterrey, Toronto, Vancouver, Brands Hatch this past year. There's a ton of people there that attend those races. I think that would be a unique opportunity to sell more sponsorship. How come more people go to a CART event and not the Evil Empire? You look at their broadcasts, no one is sitting in the stands. CART races are packed. Got to be something there. My third comment is in regards to the safety team. A lot of people here don't know, but I'd like to thank Carl Horton of Columbus, Ohio for starting that program about 10 years ago. We don't mention him much at all. I know he's retired, but thank you, Carl.

CALVIN FISH: Derrick, the first question was talk about the series and how easy is it. I know it's not easy, but are the doors starting to open a little bit?

DERRICK WALKER: I don't think sponsorship finding has ever been easy, to tell you the truth. Certainly it's gotten harder since the economy took a bit of a sag and since open-wheel has two series now. It's not that the money - contrary to what you might believe, I'll explain in a minute, but it's not that the money has gone all over to the IRL and we're sitting here with nothing. The IRL, if you look below the surface, is still in the same situation as it was, which is it's struggling to find money, as well. And the competition has changed a little bit, so the price has gone up there. They're running roughly about the same price as it costs us to do an average program.

You know, sponsorship is really driven by the fans. Whenever we get the fans and we get an event, then we have companies who want to advertise in front of them. When we have TV numbers and great TV slots, great shows, people watch it, that's where the sponsors want to be.

So when you look at some of the lack of sponsorship we've had, it's been because of the money that's gone somewhere else because the fans have dwindled in certain places. It's directly proportional to that, I believe.

But talking about the money, the IRL particularly, the Evil Empire as you call it, the story behind the story on what's happened over the last couple of years, if you look at sponsorship, one series versus the other, my personal theory is that when I used to be sponsored by Valvoline and Cummins, we used to go out and buy the best drivers, we had Gil de Ferran, Robby, guys like that, we could go out and do our business because we had the money to do it, and we had the typical sponsors.

After a period, the price went up. The guys that really replaced them were the engine manufacturers. They came in, spent a lot of money on the series, and we all thought, "This is great." This is income, subsidies that came in and filled a lot of void in our sponsorship needs. Probably if you were adding it all up, between Toyota and Honda, I'm sure conservatively they were pumping in about $150 million a year into CART, one way or another, whether it's paying for drivers, paying for teams, putting signage up or paying for advertising. All of a sudden one of them and the second one decided the other side of town would probably be more an advantage for them so they moved to the other side of Indianapolis. Certainly there's a gaping big hole.

So when you look at CART's problem or the difficulty to get back on track, we have to go back and fill in that hole there. We have to go back and put value back into it and entice the traditional sponsors to our series, and they're going to come if they see us putting on responsible events. If we put on good TV shows, we have great TV production, now we need to get it on in time slots where you guys want to be in front of the television. We need to be in front of fans where they want to see our racing and see good racing.

So the job is not that complicated. It just takes time. It takes a lot of resources. You can't change over night what happened. Over a period of time when the manufacturers really did a lot for our series, put a lot of money into it, they moved overnight, we can't replace that overnight, so it's going to take us a while to get back.

It's a long answer to your question, but that's the story behind the story. You'll probably pass it over to somebody else with the other question. Old-timers has kicked in and I can't remember what they were.

Part VI

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Gil de Ferran , Bobby Rahal , Alex Zanardi , Sébastien Bourdais , Chris Pook , David Clare , Danica Patrick