CHAMPCAR/CART: Heitzler, Andretti, Gugelmin, Herta interview, Part II

Participants: Joe Heitzler Michael Andretti Mauricio Gugelmin Bryan Herta Part II: One other thing, you said you're looking at things to slow these cars down. What are some of the ways you're thinking of it, or is it too early to talk...

Participants:

Joe Heitzler
Michael Andretti
Mauricio Gugelmin
Bryan Herta

Part II:

One other thing, you said you're looking at things to slow these cars down. What are some of the ways you're thinking of it, or is it too early to talk about that yet?

Joseph Heitzler: Prior to this new phenomenon, we have as chairman of our engine committee, Mr. Jim Henderson, and we have a member from each team that represents each engine manufacturer on the engine committee, we feel that Mr. Henderson's most immediate past position was chairman and CEO of Cummins Engine Company. He and I have met with all three of the engine manufacturers, and in a guidance phone call to Wall Street three weeks ago, I listed the five objectives of the pending engines decision facing CART, and the first one was to reduce the speed of the cars to the point where it's more competitive racing, more lead changes, more passing, et cetera. And the engine manufacturers are all in agreement with this.

But once again I have to reiterate that all the systems associated with speed, all of those issues were addressed by Texas Motor Speedway and by CART. It was this unexpected, unprecedented phenomenon with the G forces that came into play.

And there are precedent-setting issues in other applicable industries to point to what responsible companies do when they arrive at these thresholds, be they a space program, be they an automotive testing program. So we felt that with these unchartered waters, this was the best decision for our drivers, our sport, our sponsors and our fans.

I was wondering, compared to a series like NASCAR, is there a certain sense of pride in taking into account driver safety? And this is a question for everybody on the call. Do you look at it that way, where you compare one series to another?

Joseph Heitzler: I could answer that first. I am proud to say that from the very first time that I was announced as CEO of this company, my first meeting with the drivers in Fontana was a closed-door meeting between the drivers and myself. And in that meeting my objective was to express to them that they are the stars along with their teams and their cars of our sport and of our product. And that there was nothing more important than the relationship between the drivers and management. And it was that atmosphere that allowed this decision to be made. And it's an atmosphere where the drivers trust that their management is listening to them, is taking their input and putting it in with other valuable resources and input.

And so when a Dr. Steven Olvey and a Dr. Terry Trammell see a phenomenon occur that professional athletes trust, and I must say on behalf of the management of CART, to be in a room and ask a very difficult question of professional athletes and to see the honesty among themselves as to what they were experiencing is the essence of professional. And they have an obligation to the fans, too. I've never seen such agony amongst our drivers as I've experienced in the last 72 hours, as to the inconvenience that this phenomenon has caused their fans that have adored them, followed them, watched them over all these years. We are where we are because of the fans, and yet professional enough to understand that they didn't want to hurt any of those fans. And so I say that the trust between the drivers and management that started in Fontana was personified in this environment.

Michael Andretti: I agree a hundred percent. This showed a lot of trust of what I think the drivers have -- over the years because of the way the series has been and the way it's paid attention to safety, we as drivers feel very safe and very -- and get the feeling like that the sanctioning body cares about us as drivers and will do whatever they can to take care of us. And Joe showed that for sure this weekend. He took the driver's safety first over anything else.

And from a driver's standpoint, I can tell you one thing, that makes you feel very good because that was a very difficult situation. And if I was told to go racing, I was going to go racing, but I'll tell you what, I didn't sleep very good the night before. I mean, it was just the worst thing to agonize over. The decision like should I get in the car? Is it being responsible for my wife and kids and all that? It was a very tough decision. And I felt like I was going to have to make it.

But I didn't have to make that. And I know in the end I would have been in the race car, because I'm a race car driver's driver. I'm a racer. And that's what it's all about. But it would have been a very, very difficult situation, and I thank CART for what I they did, so we didn't have to go through that.

Mauricio Gugelmin: I'd like to add a little bit, if I may. If our group goes on into racing, especially since Joe has joined CART, and I have read some comments that mentioning boycott and strike, and I want to make it very clear now that's two words that doesn't belong on the driver's vocabulary. We are part of CART. We feel very comfortable with their decisions. We sometimes make our recommendations and those are welcome, and most of the time Joe wants us to participate in every single detail of the company, even when it's not driver related, which is something that we really admire from this new management, and what happened last weekend was just an example. We all felt that if CART decides it's safe for us to race, we would race. But they made a decision that it wasn't and we totally support them. And that is something new for the sport.

I don't like to compare different sports, but in this case I think there is no comparison.

Bryan Herta: I think Mauricio and Michael have so far just done an excellent job of trying to get the drivers' points across, and I think that's why you see myself and Michael and so many of the drivers doing so many interviews and things these last couple of days, because it's really important to me, it's important to us that our fans understand what happened and why we couldn't race, and that we wanted to race and that we didn't do this because we didn't care that they drove out or flew out to the track, that like Joe said, we agonized over it.

Our fans are everything. Without them we don't have a sport. So I think just trying to hammer that point home, that we owe the fans one, and we know that. But hopefully I think after you hear the situation, and I think 24 drivers or something talking about having these dizzy symptoms, I think if you don't have a head on your shoulders, you know that you can't go racing thinking I might pass out or black out or the guy I'm running next to at 240 miles an hour might pass out. In a place like that you're probably not going to wake up.

So there was really no -- there was only one decision to be made, and CART made it. But it wasn't made hastily, and I think that's why some people have had some criticism is because everybody was trying to not have to make this decision, but in the end it was the only one left.

This is for Joe. Somebody had touched on the Vegas issue, and I was just wondering what is the status of your negotiations with Las Vegas Motor Speedway and how confident are you that there could be a race here starting next year?

Joseph Heitzler: Understandably I've been focusing on the Texas Motor Speedway and CART issue. I have not raised the issue since about a week ago with Chris Powell at the Las Vegas Speedway, but I will be talking with him prior to me going to Nazareth, and I anticipate because of the public nature of both of our companies that it's in the best interests of both of our firms to see racing, see CART racing at these facilities under the right conditions, and as you know, that your track there in Vegas is significantly different than the track at Texas Motor Speedway. We feel that that time zone and some interesting broadcasting options that we have available to us necessitates that we work closely with Burton Smith and Chris Powell to see a race in Las Vegas.

Mr. Heitzler, I just was wondering, right about now people are anticipating a big boost in popularity for CART with the release of the movie Driven. Do you think this incident will take some of the steam out of the boost that you were anticipating from that film? Also I've heard that people in CART are quite upset that there's no mention of CART in the movie. Do you feel that way?

Joseph Heitzler: Let's deal with the first part of the question. And I think that what you're saying is would there be an adverse effect to the movie by what we did at Texas Motor Speedway? I must tell you that I have been tremendously enthused by the number of e-mails and phone calls that I'm getting that are complimenting us on taking a stand for the safety of our drivers and the safety of our fans and for the reputation of a publicly traded company and addressing specific issues in its responsibility to the publicly traded company. Those have been running 4 to 1 in our favor of the decision that we made at Texas Motor Speedway.

Its negative effect on Driven obviously is not there, because I receive daily financial printouts -- financial printouts is probably an overstatement -- I receive a number of theaters that are showing it and the revenue that's being derived out of that, which is available in the publications of I think Hollywood Reporter and Variety, and it shows that Driven was the No. 1 movie over the weekend. And we expect that that's a very competitive environment.

I know that Warner Brothers is concerned that the debut or the premiere of the movie, Mummy II, and Pearl Harbor are coming up, so those are the marketing environments that those products have to matriculate in. And I'm not a movie producer. I hope that Driven continues to show its popularity.

As for the fact of the reasons behind why CART was not mentioned in the movie, I think there are two issues that we need to address there. The first issue is that this particular negotiation happened on somebody else's watch. And the particular skill set in that decision-making process looks and appears to me that it didn't have as heavy of an entertainment broadcast, managerial environment that my administration has, and therefore, we probably could have put ourselves in a position where we could have, with that expertise on hand, brought pressure to bear to be mentioned more as CART in the movie.

It also has -- the second issue is financial overtures. Hollywood doesn't do anything for free. If you want a bottle of Evian in front of Jay Leno, I think it's going to run you about a half a million bucks. You can only imagine what Warner Brothers was asking from CART for it be to a CART documentary. I think Warner Brothers and franchise pictures should be complimented on the tremendous exposure for the fans that follow CART. Because it's obvious to everyone in this that it was the CART series that the movie was based upon, and that at every location Warner Brothers focused on the ambiance and the entertainment contingent to the racing. And so the fact that it wasn't mentioned in there had an expertise issue and had a financial issue.

But the bottom line is that what we're trying to do is to foster and expose our brand of racing to those that have not experienced it. And so from CART's perspective on the premiere night in Los Angeles, we had 176 members of the media there who traditionally don't follow auto racing. So we think for the betterment of auto racing, the movie serves the purpose well. I'm sorry I took so long to explain that to you.

Did you like the movie?

Joseph Heitzler: I've seen it seven times, and each time I go, I like it more. And it's escapism, and I enjoy the movie, and I'm most appreciative of all the people that have supported it to date. I think it's going to help our racing and our drivers and our sponsors see the benefits of their relationship with our company.

Joe, the drivers have said they couldn't -- they didn't experience these conditions in testing because there wasn't enough cars there. Okay. So it seems to me you need to go back there with a full complement of cars to test. Have you spoken to Eddie or got anything going in the direction of putting together a full, open test somewhere, at some point this summer or wherever, before you even come back and race?

Joseph Heitzler: I'm going to let one of the drivers answer that, but I would humbly submit that I didn't hear anybody here say that. I don't think that that's -- the first part of your question -- if you can repeat that for me --.

Well, it seems before you can race here, you need to come here with a full complement of cars to test whatever you try to do to make the car slow down so you don't run into the same problems again. If these problems only appeared with a full complement of cars, seems to me you need a full test.

Bryan Herta: Could I just jump in? Because of the way the development goes on our cars and is an ongoing process, say that we even had an open test with all the cars present two or three months prior to the race, I know from my experience the Ford engine I have now has a pretty significant amount more horsepower from the development they've done than it did two or three months ago, and also aerodynamically the Reynard, we've got a lot of development that's just in the last couple of weeks that took a lot of the aerodynamic drag out of the car, which increased the speed.

So there's a lot of things that happened in the development that made the cars faster. There's no assurance if we had been there at a group test that this problem would have manifested itself. It may have. But for people to assume that if we had tested here three months ago that we would have known this, I think that you're jumping the gun a little bit, because of the nature of the type of physical, physiological problem we're dealing with in that we don't know where that line is. We know that the IRL ran at a certain speed and none of their drivers had this problem, but nobody knows how far above that is okay. Maybe they were one mile an hour away from starting to create this problem or maybe they had a six-mile-an-hour cushion. But it's really now I think it's a lot of conjecture after the fact.

But I think that you can't assume too much that CART could have done a whole lot that would have necessarily prevented this from happening.

If I could ask Mauricio the comment about going back there to test. How critical is this in your eyes as the president of the CDA?

Mauricio Gugelmin: First of all we have to sit down with all our departments and see what are the viable solutions that we can come up with to implement to our cars to slow them down enough to be able to go there and test. The other thing is, correct me if I understand wrong, but Texas is a pretty busy place in terms of racing schedule. They're very busy. And the other thing as I mentioned before, weather is another factor. We tested there early in the year. When I ran there, it was about 40 degrees. The air is a little more dense. That creates more drag; the car doesn't go as fast. So you have a lot of variables that we still haven't sat down with to decide which changes we can implement and when can we go and put everybody together to see if we can see the window that Bryan mentioned that we can physically support the race of the distance and nature that we are planning to have.

Joseph Heitzler: The other complication, to follow up, is that we were just informed yesterday by Eddie Gossage that the track will be closed between 6-9 and 9-15 for changes that need to be made to the track by request of NASCAR. Some sanctioning body has asked for some changes to the track. So I'm looking into that. But 6-9 to 9-15 the track is being closed for upgrading and repair.

It's probably too hot to race there anyway.

Joseph Heitzler: Yeah. When would you like to see it?

Let's do it in the third week of September. Probably be cool by then. I don't know. I know it's very tough. But it seems to me you need to come there and test full bore there this time with more than just a few cars, but I know it can be difficult.

Joseph Heitzler: John, our priority now is to come and have a race that is safe, and also to reiterate with our fans there in the Dallas, Fort Worth and Texas area that all of our energies right now are being exercised to research all the issues that allowed that to happen.

I wanted to talk to Michael a little bit. Michael, you had discussed a long time ago actually about going to that track, and you expressed some concerns, I think the banking and it just didn't seem maybe like a good CART track, that should have been a red flag maybe. Also the dizziness of 22 drivers, the vertigo on Saturday, it just seemed like a no-brainer to call this thing off then. And I don't understand what the delay was?

Michael Andretti: Let me try to explain that to you. The delay was we were still trying to figure out how could we put a fix on this thing to try to slow the cars down enough that we would be out of the danger of it, to bring it down in between the 220 and 225 range. But unfortunately we just couldn't come up with -- every time we came up with an idea, there would be another reason why you couldn't do it, most of the time because of safety reasons.

To give you an example one of the suggestions was let's just put a rev limit on the car and rev them around 13,000 rpm's, but it puts you in a torque curve of the engine, which would put more stress on the crank, which in turn could lock the crank up and lock the engine up and put cars in the wall another way.

So there was all kinds of inside like that going on, all through the night to try to figure out how can we try to save this show, but in the end there was no way to do it. But you've got to give everybody credit for at least trying to still make this thing happen, because we didn't want to have to cancel it. But in the end we had to cancel it.

To answer the other part of your question, yeah, I was critical about going to this place, and I still don't think it's the greatest place in the world to race at, from a safety standpoint. But that wasn't the issue here. It was more an issue of a physiological issue, whereas we're at a point where physically the drivers were not going to be able to perform. And so it's a different thing. It's not because of going too fast, because I can tell you reasons why we shouldn't be to Michigan and Fontana, as well. But those are my opinions on the speed and the things like that. And that's all it is, is my opinion. But it's not because of the physical element where we're at a point where we can't do it physically. Does that answer your question?

Yeah, it does. Except what were your other safety concerns?

Michael Andretti: I think it's a very, very fast track. And I had safety concerns like with a place like Michigan as well, which is an area that Joe told you they know they need to try to address this with the engine manufacturers and still to figure out how to slow these cars down. This is not a new thing. Ever since I've been in this sport it's been a game to try to slow these cars down. But it's called technology, and you're always up against technology. And as soon as you come up with a rule to slow them down, the engineers figure out a way to make them go quicker. It's something we're trying and striving to fix.

But the problems with the track are it's just a very fast track, and our cars on high banked tracks are just extremely fast, and in my opinion very dangerous. But this is not the problem. I was going to race there with the dangerous side of it. But when the physical element came up, then it's something that you just can't mess with.

Now, I got to say that we as a group put in a long list of changes that we wanted to before we did race at Texas, and I've got to say Texas did every single thing we wanted to do and more. So I commend them for what they did in terms of catch fencing and things like that, that they did, in actually a relatively short period of time. And they did a really good job of it.

So I guess to answer your thing also, it was not the racetrack's fault for this. This is just something that could not have been foreseen as a problem. Now we know. Now we have data. Now we know. Next time we go to a racetrack, we know what we need to do and look at to try and not let this happen again.

< Part I >

-CART-

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Michael Andretti , Mauricio Gugelmin , Bryan Herta