An Interview with
Chris Pook, CART President and CEO
and legendary drivers
Michael Andretti and Mario Andretti
MERRILL CAIN: Mario, thank you for your comments. Let's move on to the next question.
Q Chris, I just wanted to ask you, I'm sure you're aware that the perception around the country pretty much is that CART is in serious trouble. And whether that's the reality or not, how do you go about changing a perception that is years in the making at this point before it does become the reality?
CHRIS POOK: I think that, you know, you have to put changes into effect, both changes in personnel and management, and changes in presentation of your product, and changes in how you deal with people. You have to put them into effect.
And when you say something, you have to back it up with action. It's as simple as that. There's no -- I mean, the tough thing about perception is that perception often occurs without basis of fact. It's kind of like rumor, you know. How do you deal with it? You've got to be sensitive to it. You've got to recognize that it's out there, but you can't let it get in the way of what you're trying to achieve in your plan, in your vision.
So all I can do here is affect change. We've put a management change in the company. The first thing, we put the people in place to move the company forward. We've addressed the issue of rules and indecision and all this stuff that you and your colleagues in the media thrive upon because it gives you great areas of speculation to write about. And we're, one by one, if you look at what we've achieved here in the last two and a half months, taking away all of those elements of speculation.
We will move on. And we'll be in Monterrey, Mexico the weekend after next, and you will judge us in the media at that time. You'll judge us whether we put on a good race or a bad race; you'll judge whether the crowd is a good crowd or a bad crowd. Some of you will say, "Oh, it's a second-year race, the crowd will be down," all doom and gloom, similar to what was said at Indianapolis this year after the F-1 race. That's what happens sometimes at motor car races or any other major events.
Others of you will look at it and say, "Gosh, it was a great race, a great crowd, the whole standard of presentation was better and things are changing." Neither I nor Mario or Michael have any control over what you see through your eye or you write about. But we do have control over our own actions and what we do every day. And we, as a company, will go out there and do our best to demonstrate to you that it is not all doom and gloom as some would have said, it's very positive in going forward. Michael will go out and push the pedal as hard as he can push it to win the race, and Mario will be being the cheerleader and giving good counsel and advice not only to his son, but to me here as I run this company.
So, you know, I don't know quite how I give you a very, very definitive answer on how to answer this perception issue.
Q Do you feel, Chris, a sense of urgency, that you don't have the luxury of a five-year plan or a three-year plan or whatever, but --?
CHRIS POOK: Yeah, I do, actually. I'm 61 and I want to stop when I'm 64, so that's a sense of urgency (laughter).
Yeah, of course I feel a sense of urgency. I think those people that know me will tell you that I'm a pretty hard-driving character, that I don't have time to mess around with all the niceties and the semantics. We've got a great product here - a superb product, as Mario has articulated to you, and we want to let you and your colleagues in the media know just how great it is. And folks like Michael are going to go out there and demonstrate just how great it is.
I mean, you know, you've got to look at the product and say to yourself, you know, "Steve, just look at this product. I mean, where else can you find this product?" I ask you that question. In the standard and quality it's presented. That's what I would ask you.
Q Let me ask you one last quick question if I could. If you could just update on the status, there's been a lot of talk about perhaps CART headquarters moving here to Indianapolis. If you could tell me where that stands right now.
CHRIS POOK: Well, it's in the business discussion process at this time. I think we're getting fairly close to a decision. As you know, I'm on record as saying that I believe we need to be in Indianapolis alongside our teams. We also need to be in Indianapolis because it's the home of Open Wheel Motorsports. Just like NASCAR is based in Daytona Beach, opened a huge office in Charlotte because that has become the home of stock car racing.
We think we need to be there. There's a lot of good people in Indianapolis that have indicated they'd love to go to work for us if we move there.
It's a very nice city, good quality of life, good schools, good housing, all the things that a CEO needs if he's going to have a successful team of people around him.
So that should give you a hint (laughter)...
Q Question for Michael. With the relaxation of the fuel restrictions, is that going to change the strategy in how you drive a race?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Oh, no question. I think it's going to be more -- the way racing has been the last few years just, to me, has not been racing. You know, we've been going out, and whenever you're not driving 110%, to me, that's not what racing is all about.
But now with the fuel restrictions lifted, we're going to be able to go out and, you know, just drive as hard as we can for the whole race, and I think that's going to make for a better show.
So I'm really looking forward to that, the new rules. I think that's one good example of what Chris is trying to do as well to try to help improve the show and things like that. Because I don't think people come to watch a fuel conservation test. I think they come to watch us out there driving 110% all the time.
So this is a good example of what Chris has been trying to do.
Q Will that spur you on, Michael, to do the best on the track, as you always try to do all the time? And, what other changes would you like to see Chris try to do?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I don't know. He's made a lot of changes right now. I really haven't thought about other things. I know Chris is trying to figure out a way to help limit yellows. I think that's another problem we do have, and I think there's a lot of it in the road courses mainly.
So those are things that I know Chris is looking at, and we'll see what they come up with. Right now I don't think they have a 100% answer yet. So, hopefully, they will be able to come up with something to make that better, because the yellows do definitely hurt the show for sure.
Q For Mario, if you were in Chris' position, what other changes would you like to see in CART?
MARIO ANDRETTI: I think I'd like to see the changes that are in place, I'd like to see the effect of those quite honestly. And I think the plate's pretty complete in that direction.
I'm able to comment on these things because even sitting on the sidelines, the frustration that I've experienced knowing what these guys have to go through and how the drivers have been evaluated, let's take the fuel situation first.
A lot of guys, you know, the biggest premium they were putting on some of these guys was how capable they are of going fairly quick and saving fuel; not how fast it can really go.
And, quite honestly, as you say, it was just watching some of the 500 mile race in Fontana this last time, nobody wanted to lead because you wanted to be on the slip screen to save a considerable amount of fuel to put yourself at an advantage in that respect. So all of a sudden, you know, at the end, you got enough fuel, you know, to just really go 10-10s with your horsepower. Well, again, I think it's behind us, which should be huge.
And the other part is the road courses. I've been, you know, trying to preach a long, long time that you don't run a road course event like you run an oval. An oval, obviously anybody sneezes somewhere, you don't want to wait to see if there's a cold somewhere. (Inaudible) you go, no matter what, at a constant high speed.
But that's different. On a road course, the cars disappear for several minutes under the yellow, and it's a disruption that should not prevail. There are ways, better ways, of handling that.
The international community does a lot better job than us, and that's an area that Pook is very familiar with and he has addressed that.
And so local yellows must be maintained. And if there are corner workers that are afraid, this and that, then you got to pose severe enough penalties to the drivers out there that disregard that yellow. And all you have to do is have one or two of these penalties out there, and then the whole thing will quiet down and you will implement that properly.
The other thing is about ending wonderful races under the yellow. I mean, I'm sure NASCAR is going through a lot of these things. And, for a paying public, there should be no race unless, you know, something happens the last lap. They shouldn't end under the yellow.
And these are all important aspects of having people walk away after paying for an event to witness something exciting; not to go home, "Oh, gee, the most important part of the race, the finish, was a blah and a yellow." That's criminal.
It's about time that someone that has the authority and is really addressing this. That's the reason it's never been addressed - because we did not have anyone who had any sense of the sport who was leading this parade before. That's what I said from day one, from John Frasco on down.
So, finally, I think we have people that understand, and that's the exciting part. I can't wait for the season to get underway just because of that.
Q Along that line, Chris, NASCAR goes with red flags. Is that an option for you, or alternatively open up the pits so everybody can get some more fuel? Any idea of which way you want to go?
CHRIS POOK: We're not going to end up on the yellow. If we have the red flag, we'll end up on the red flag and we'll look at the fuel situation.
Wally will be up there making sure that happens. But if we red flag it, and we start again, you know, the challenge is going to become, you know, we red flagged, how many laps do we do behind the pace car before we go green.
These are some of the things that Michael was referring to that we still got to get right. I mean, you know, we go through these scenarios, we're going to give our chief steward the leeway to make sensible decisions here. He absolutely knows that these races are not going to end up on yellows, and we will address those issues one by one.
Will we make a couple of mistakes on the way? Absolutely, we will. But, you know, we're going to get it right. We're going to do what's right. We're going to do what's right by the drivers, what's right by our fans, and right by television and the media. And we're not going to be shy in making decisions. We're going to not make hasty decisions. We're going to get input. We're going to listen.
And we'll get through with our new qualifying procedures at Monterrey that we put in. In the drivers meeting, I will ask the drivers for their opinions. We want the input. When we get done with the race, if we have a situation with the yellows that's bothersome, we'll listen to the drivers. I mean, the opinions will vary, but we will get a sense of balance and we will address the issues.
And we will refine the product until we get it right. We've got to get it right for the guys sitting in the cockpit. Those are the guys that put it on the line every week and try 110% to get home to that checkered flag first. We got to make sure it's the right environment for them to do their job in.
I think you'll find that when we create the right environment for them to do their job in, we will have sold the issues for the other constituents - that's the fans and the television audience.
Q First of all, I want to say, Mr. Pook, congratulations for everything you guys have done so far in preparation for this year. You guys have done a lot. It all seems to be on the right side of the ledger. I'm curious as to there was a lot of talk at the end of last season about some of the track promoters that were unhappy with the way things were going and were threatening to pull out, this, that and the other. I wanted to get an update on how you're dealing with them.
CHRIS POOK: We're all a loving bunch (laughter).
You know, sometimes you get a driver that steps over the edge a little bit, and Michael will tell you this, but sometimes the other drivers go have a chat with him, go talk to him and find out what his issues, his problems are, talk them out.
I'm an old promoter. I had a visit with some of my colleagues. I don't think you hear them complaining too much. They've become very silent, which I hope is a good sign. I hope it's not the sign of a tornado coming (laughing).
I think we're solving them, addressing them. Just like the previous question that was asked by Steve Mayer, we will be tested every inch of the way. There will be different situations after different racetracks that we will have to address. But we will address them, and we'll address them in a cooperative, constructive manner, and not in an arrogant take-it-or-leave-it manner.
Q Quick question for Michael. We just talked about how they're not going to end the race under yellows this year. It's good for fans, good for television, and everything like that. There are a couple tracks out there, I mean some of the street courses, Vancouver comes to mind off the top of my head, where having a green and white checkered kind of thing with five guys in the lead on a racetrack that's really tough to pass might not be the most fun place to be in for a driver. Just curious to hear your thoughts about that.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I think it all depends where you're sitting (laughter).
If you're sitting second, you know, you're salivating. If you're the leader, you're swearing at these guys with their new rules. It's just the way it will be.
But in the end I think we all have to take the responsibility that, "Hey, we've had to make this Series the best it can be for the fans, because they're the reason why we're out there." So we have to do what's best for them.
A lot of times it might not work in your favor, but I think you just have to realize why these rules are going to be put in place and what the reasons are, and just accept it and know that it's for the best of the Series.
Q Thank you and good luck.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Thanks.
Pook, Mario and Michael Andretti interview.
Part III Chris Pook, Mario and Michael Andretti interview.