By Patrick Jennings - Motorsport.com Just as Roger Penske has been invaluable to the growth of the CART Fed Ex Championship Series, he has also been indispensable to the transformation of Nazareth Speedway from a dormant, dirt track into a state...
By Patrick Jennings - Motorsport.com
Just as Roger Penske has been invaluable to the growth of the CART Fed Ex Championship Series, he has also been indispensable to the transformation of Nazareth Speedway from a dormant, dirt track into a state of the art racing facility. In a Saturday afternoon news conference, Penske discussed a number of issues concerning CART and Nazareth Speedway.
Fifteen years ago, the site of the present facility contained sinkholes large enough to swallow human beings. In fact, when Penske and a group of investors, including racing legend Mario Andretti, first considered acquiring the speedway, they encountered a man hunting groundhogs in the infield during one of their first visits to the track. Since then, the track has undergone a whole host of physical improvements. Presently, the speedway seats over 44,000 spectators.
Despite the location and size of the present-day facility, it seems unlikely that CART will return for a 16th edition of the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix. As a result, CART will lose its east coast anchor and leave it with virtually no media presence in two of the nation's largest media markets, Philadelphia and New York City. Presently, CART runs nine races in the Midwest and seven on foreign soil. Consequently, CART's decision to ditch Nazareth means that its schedule will not feature any races east of Ohio.
Clearly, this does not please Penske. He believes that CART needs a balanced schedule that features a distinct East Coast presence. In fact, Penske claims that he never attended a meeting in which the future fate of Nazareth was discussed. According to Penske, he had absolutely no input regarding the decision to eliminate the Nazareth event from the 2001 CART schedule. Apparently, someone from CART called him up one day and told him that CART would not return to the Lehigh Valley venue. As it stands now, CART appears as if it is on a mission to look at other venues like Las Vegas, Texas, and several foreign locations. But not everyone is happy about this decision. CART's domestic sponsors want domestic exposure. Similarly, its foreign sponsors do want to cannibalize their international marketing programs. Thus, the question revolves around the future viability of CART as an entity.
Penske claims that scheduling difficulties always plagued the Nazareth event. As a result, the speedway was never able to establish any "date equity" with regard to the Nazareth event. "It was always a question of where to stick Nazareth," stated Penske. CART tried running it in the fall and in the spring, but nothing ever seemed to work out for the series. Penske asserts that a date in early May would work well for all of the teams, but it may be too late for that. "It's not over 'till it's over," Penske remarked, "And it's not over yet." He sees as it a question of continuing to support a permanent track that has supported CART from the beginning and is located near several major markets.
Finally, Penske continues to maintain that there is only room for one major open-wheel racing series in North America. He thinks that the future rules package is essential to accomplishing this goal. Penske would favor the creation of a format that would showcase the "best of the best" in several combined events. He believes that this would allow the teams to attract much-needed sponsors and rebuild a fan base that has continued to decline in response to NASCAR's growing popularity. Whatever happens, Penske stressed repeatedly that CART must attempt to establish some kind of consistency with regard to its schedule.