CHAMPCAR/CART: Long Beach Champ Car Town Meeting, Part I

Champ Car Town Meeting in Long Beach with host Tommy Kendall along with panelists CART President Chris Pook, GPALB Prsident Jim Michaelian, Jim Liberatore of SPEED Channel, Champ Car driver Alex Tagliani and Rocketsports Racing owner Paul ...

Champ Car Town Meeting in Long Beach with host Tommy Kendall along with panelists CART President Chris Pook, GPALB Prsident Jim Michaelian, Jim Liberatore of SPEED Channel, Champ Car driver Alex Tagliani and Rocketsports Racing owner Paul Gentilozzi.

Part 1 of 4

Tommy Kendall: Welcome, everybody, thank you for coming out to the second 2003 Champ Car Town Hall Meeting. I'm going to do my best Bob Varsha imitation - the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford Town Meeting. It's meant to be an exchange of ideas and thoughts, just to spend some time with you guys. We've assembled a panel some of the most accomplished people in the world of motorsports, and me.

It's appropriate, I think, to have it in Long Beach because a lot of what's going on in Champ Car today was started right here with the Long Beach Grand Prix with Chris Pook. Chris had the crazy idea at the time to put big-time auto racing on the streets of a major urban city. After 28 years, don't let this get out, but I think this event might make it. You all know what Chris did with the Long Beach Grand Prix, and one of the things you might not know is how the model for this race is now the model for Champ Car racing and what they're trying to do to bring Champ Car racing back to the level that it was before and beyond. That's something I know you guys are very excited about.

Very exciting times in Champ Car racing. As long as there are Champ Cars driven by guys like Alex Tagliani, Sebastien Bourdais, Paul Tracy, there will be very exciting times. Really if it wasn't for guys like you, and the word "fan" comes from the word "fanatics." I think that word is misused in the world of sports, but the Champ Car fans have shown themselves to be fanatical. Without you, none of us would be able to make a living in the world of sports. Give yourself a round of applause.

Tonight we're just going to try to get into it pretty quickly with free-form straight question-and-answer format for 90 minutes with this great panel we have assembled. Afterwards we'd like you to stick around and have a chance to come up and talk to us individually. If you're too shy to ask your question, come up, we'll be hanging around afterwards.

I'd like to invite the panel up. First, the president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, Jim Michaelian. The president of SPEED Channel, and my boss, Jim Liberatore. One of the hot new breed of Champ Car drivers, he's been a participant at Long Beach, driver of the Johnson Controls Rocketsports Lola/Ford on Bridgestone, Alex Tagliani. The next guy, a three-time TransAm champion and a guy that I hate, new Champ Car team owner, Paul Gentilozzi who won his first TransAm race here in Long Beach.

Paul Gentilozzi: We've got some special Tommy video later.

Kendall: Last but certainly not least, the founder of the Long Beach Grand Prix, current CEO of CART, Chris Pook. We have a lot of people here. We'll try to get to everyone. The way we'll do this, we have my assistant Carol Merrill, no, vice president of communications for CART, Adam Saal, I'll be working the other side of the room. Get our attention. I will start a question to get things kicked off. Jim, last time I saw you, you were heading backwards over a guardrail at Daytona. You've been part of the Grand Prix here at Long Beach since the very first days. If you could, kind of share some stories from back then, maybe some stories that weren't so funny back then, but some of the odd jobs that Chris did, funny stories you could share with us from the early days.

Jim Michaelian: It certainly was a challenging time in the history of the company. I don't think we're going to be included in the proverbial song "Those Were the Good Old Days," for sure. Back in 1975, to his credit, Chris put together and led a very small but energetic group of people who really didn't know a lot about what they were doing, but were intent on trying to run a street race here in Long Beach. We were successful in actually getting the first event off the ground. For those of you remember, that was the Formula 5000 race in September of 1975. Some of you might have been there that day.

About 2:00 on that Sunday afternoon, we had the opportunity to look out over the crowd. We thought maybe we had a success on our hands here. All the stands were full. People were lining the fences all around the circuit. Used to go down Shoreline, up Pine, onto Ocean Boulevard. We put up like 45,000 seats. We figured all those are full, there's probably another 10,000 or 15,000 people wandering around. Maybe 60,000 or so. For a Formula 5000 race, that wasn't bad. We could see ourselves being able to make a little bit of money. We are also celebrating having a good time.

Little did we know that we had basically hosted the largest free motorsports event in the history of mankind. A little later on that afternoon, we got the grisly details. There were 37,900 people that paid, meaning there were a lot of people there that afternoon that were our guests. To this day, I still run into a lot of people who tell me, "Yeah, I was there for that first race." I ask them, "Were you our guest or did you actually pay?" The numbers decidedly are a lot of free people who got into that race.

That made it a little tough for us. We ran the Formula 1 race in March of '76. Whatever little money and goodwill we had left over we used up then. We went into the 1977 race with not a lot of anything left. But through some rather creative financing, legal but creative, a lot of energy, why, we got to '77, managed to get the race underway. That started us on our ascendancy. We've been going up ever since. This year we'll be doing the 29th version of it next month. Hope we all have a chance to see you out there.

Kendall: Jim, you've been with SPEED Channel since the transition when FOX purchased and made the transition from Speedvision to SPEED Channel. The second year of the Champ Car World Series has been on SPEED. Last year you received a lot of acclaim. Tell us about the numbers, what you think about Champ Car racing.

Jim Liberatore: I'm really here because I see Chris trying to defend us all the time, so I figured I'd come here and defend us ourselves. It's funny, because we are only a year and two months old. We're actually the fastest growing network in the country. What's happened is we started with about 33 million homes. At the time we said we're hoping to get to 60 million in three years. This is U.S. we're talking about. We're up around 58 million right now after one year. It's just going to keep taking off.

I think the thing that has really been most encouraging for us is in this past year, besides Champ Car, we've added F-3000, we're doing vintage F1 races, added some extended World Rally, ASA, the list goes on. Right now SPEED has every series except IRL and NHRA. Hey, I had to mention it once, at least, just to say we don't have it. I get even heckled for that. (Laughter). I hope I can get into this later. I know with this panel here I should be the one speaking the least, I should probably get off after I'm done here. I give CART and now Champ Car a lot of credit. The way we look at this, when we were starting, it would have been very easy for them to continue going with the safe road, which was ESPN. I tell a lot of people that I compare it to a relationship. ESPN was the sexy person to be in the relationship with, but it was someone that wasn't treating you right, it was going to cheat on you, it has a heck of a lot of other priorities besides you.

Then there was us, who isn't quite as attractive, but we still think we're pretty attractive, getting more so every year. But we care. You are a priority. You're as important as anything else we're doing on the network. We want to see it grow. I think immediately you saw that after the first race last year. We received 16,000 e-mails after the race in Monterrey thanking us for showing the entire race, if you can believe that. We have prerace, postrace, podium, Saturday.

Chris is looking down the road. He's not looking today. The ideal for us would be a few years down the road. A lot of races are on CBS. Champ Car is getting the right mix. That's the vision. You're not going to do it by showing green flag to checkered flag. You have to know the personalities, know what's going on. That's why we have so much coverage. We can get into it more. But I really give Chris and everybody an enormous amount of credit for really taking the longer term. For us, it was great, obviously, because it was the first thing out of the box for us. We can talk more about that later if you want to, probably not. I'll turn it back to you, Tommy.

Kendall: You don't give yourself enough credit. You're talking about ESPN, kind of letting themselves go. You are hot. Speaking of hot, every time I look at this guy, I want to know how long it takes him to do that whole thing. Looks like one of the Back Street Boys. Is that guy smoking? Alex, fresh off a podium finish, your first one of the year. A lot of people were questioning why a guy who has been with an established team like Player's would go with a new team. Your comments from the get-go were very positive. You were quick at St. Pete, great result already. Talk about your result yesterday and joining Rocketsports, Johnson Controls.

Alex Tagliani: I should start when I met Paul (Gentilozzi) the first time. I was thinking I was having a business meeting. That's normally what you have when you're trying to get a ride and you meet a team owner. He was in Las Vegas. I live there. I go to his room. Right away I went in there. It's like 2500 square feet room. I'm like, "Holy shit, he's going to eat me alive right here." I sit down, and my hands are all wet. Five minutes later we're talking about shocks and wings and setups and everything. I felt really comfortable. When I left, I really wanted to drive for him. The deal came along.

Later on I went to the shop, I molded the seat. I met Jeff from Johnson Controls. I didn't even know the guy was from a big company like Johnson Controls. The big story is that I felt really in a family right away when I started to work with the guys. You know, I was really happy yesterday when we finished on the podium because what I've seen for the last two, three months is a bunch of guys working six days a week and sometimes even Sunday to put this team together. It was really hard for them. At the end of the race, I was really happy for all of those guys. I think it's going to be a great boost going into Long Beach.

Kendall: Next up is a Champ Car rookie, Paul Gentilozzi, who really shocked a lot of people when he announced he was going to give up the driving full-time and launch an ambitious program to launch a Champ Car team. First of all, why did you decide to expand your business?

Gentilozzi: There were two reasons. There were a couple people that were absolutely instrumental in turning me around. One is sitting next to me, Chris Pook. His staff, they were fervent. They smelled blood and came after me, they did. No, I mean, it's not a secret. In October we had decided that Johnson Controls needed to move on to another arena other than Trans-Am. We looked at how much money we had, where we could go. We said we could do a limited schedule. We need to pick a significant event. So we looked at another series because that's what we thought we could do.

Then I really started talking to the CART staff, and they laid it out in a fashion that made it obvious that the right thing for Johnson Controls, the right thing for Rocketsports and Paul was to consider the CART family. So we did that. The momentum, it really was unbelievable. We knew we would be modest in our ability to have the resources that it takes to be a Newman/Haas or a Player's or some of the other great teams. We said that we would lower our sights and try to get by with competency and hard work. Of course, those of you who have been involved in motorsports, you spend everything you have, anything you can get, anybody you can convince to give you something because you have the disease, and the disease is to be competitive. That's all.

We started it.  I'm so proud.  98 days ago I owned nothing related to a CART program.
I had 98 days.  Our guys that we put together, took two people from our Trans-Am
program, moved them to the CART program.  But all of those guys worked hard.

Kendall: There's a number of reasons I hate Paul, but one is because he's such a tough competitor. I told him Saturday, when he hired Andy Borme away from Roger Penske, I'm like, "Why did nobody else think of that?" That just showed me the kind of thinking that's gotten him where he is in business, and racing. The other reason I hate him is the 2500 square foot suite.

Gentilozzi: It's actually 4,000.

Kendall: They flew in from Monterrey last night on Paul's jet. I went to Paul Tracy's bus, Paul was sick as a dog yesterday, started cramping on lap 30. He asked Paul Gentilozzi if he could hitch a ride back to Vegas with him. Alex and Paul had gotten into it on qualifying on Friday. Alex told Paul, "You can't bring Paul Tracy home on the jet." Paul was in his bus puking and all this stuff while all these guys were jetting off to Vegas.

Gentilozzi: We were over at my place having a pity party for him.

Part II

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Alex Tagliani , Paul Tracy , Paul Gentilozzi , Sébastien Bourdais , Chris Pook , Jim Michaelian , Tommy Kendall