CHAMPCAR/CART: Houston Friday Forum Transcript

Transcript CART Manufacturer's Forum Grand Prix of Houston: Team Owners Houston, Texas (Sept. 24, 1999) - The following is a transcript of Friday's "Manufacturer's Forum" news conference held here at the Grand Prix of Houston. This week's...


CART Manufacturer's Forum Grand Prix of Houston: Team Owners

Houston, Texas (Sept. 24, 1999) - The following is a transcript of Friday's "Manufacturer's Forum" news conference held here at the Grand Prix of Houston. This week's conference featured team owners representing each of CART's four engine manufacturers.

The Participants: John Della Penna, Della Penna Motorsports, representing Toyota Carl Hogan, Hogan Racing LLC, representing Mercedes-Benz Bobby Rahal, Team Rahal, representing Ford Derrick Walker, Walker Racing, representing Honda

QUESTION: Let's start out with a softball: Can you tell us about whether or not the Hawaii race is on?

Carl Hogan (Mercedes-Benz):  Bobby's planning on going, but John and I are
not!  (laughter)

Mike Zizzo (CART moderator): Kirk Russell (CART vice-president of competition) has made a preliminary [race weekend] schedule, and our CART staff is making flight arrangements now through the promoter.

John Della Penna (Toyota): As far as we know, this race is going to happen.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about any changes as far as equipment for your teams next year?

Bobby Rahal (Ford): We're staying put (Ford Cosworth engine, Reynard chassis, Firestone tires).

John Della Penna (Toyota): No changes (Toyota engine Reynard chassis, Firestone tires).

Carl Hogan (Mercedes-Benz): No comment.

[Derrick Walker arrives at the conference at this time]

QUESTION: Can anyone give us a preliminary schedule of events for the year 2000. Will there be any major changes next season?

John Della Penna (Toyota): I think the schedule is going to essentially be the same as what it was this year. A couple of dates may shift a little, but I don't think there's going to be much different. I know there's been a few schedules flying around on the internet but I wouldn't put a whole lot of faith in that.

Bobby Rahal (Ford): I think, as John said, that dates you see on the internet, like that on 7G or 7th Gear, whatever - oh, is that you guy's column? - we all see the rumors and unsubstantiated speculation.... I think the dates are still open. There are a lot of issues, TV and you name it, there's a lot more that goes into it, but I think there will be something to announce in the next couple of weeks.

QUESTION:  Were there any other issues come out of (today's) owner meeting
that you'd care to  discuss?

Bobby Rahal (Ford): I don't know if there really, other than confidential things, but I think we can talk about the package we voted on, the aerodynamic package for the short ovals, which I think makes a lot of good sense. I think that's a real positive step, for all of us. I think the manufacturers and aerodynamics people did a hell of a job. From everything I have seen, understand, and have read about, I think we'll have a very good aerodynamic package next year. Because as you know this year was a little bit of a, they had to make a little bit of a 'silk purse' on that front - maybe not to the satisfaction of everybody. I think it had the desired effect of making it much safer but maybe the racing suffered a little bit more. But I think the new aerodynamic rules are going to be very, very good.

QUESTION: Let me try and rephrase an earlier question. Is an effort being made to keep Memorial Day weekend clear on the CART schedule in 2000, in case anybody might like to do a 'side venture' of sorts?

Carl Hogan (Mercedes-Benz): You know, if I could comment on that. It's not just that simple because the people at Gateway want to change that date. They're very adamant about changing the date. We didn't have quite the [turnout] there last year that had been there in previous years, so it's a situation of keeping them happy, and television, whether we get an alternate date or not. I don't think there's been a final decision made on that, yet. There's been discussion, I can tell you that.

Bobby Rahal (Ford): I'd just like to add that it was free - it was clear - this year. The actual day. It was possible, like Robby [Gordon], to run both. But like Carl said, I think you always tweaking the schedule each year and, just the way things fall. I don't want to get into it too much, it's really Andrew's (Craig) doing, but I think, from what we've been told, in the next couple of weeks things should be solidified, the dates for everything.

QUESTION: To Bobby and Derrick, are either of you at liberty to comment on the state of talks with Tony George at this point?

Bobby Rahal (Ford): Go ahead, Derrick.

Derrick Walker (Honda): I don't know if you've got enough time, have you?

QUESTION: Oh yeah, we've got all afternoon....

Derrick Walker (Honda): Well, I'll just say this. This isn't CART's position, this is just one of the people that have been involved in some of the discussions. The discussions, and the intent which was started, still go on. You might not hear about it every day in newspaper articles, but the movement is still there, the interest is still there. It didn't happen overnight, the split, and it's not gonna be solved overnight. So it's going to take time to sort out all the issues. All I can say is it's still a positive objective from the part of CART, and there's not been any change in direction. We're still on track.

QUESTION: If Bill France Jr. intervenes, not intervenes, but is part of these discussions because he has now an interest in open wheel racing with his additional tracks. Do you get any indication which way he may be leaning, technologically, considering he has some CART races and some IRL races at his new tracks. Do you get any indication from him where he seems to be leaning in the technological difference of ideas between the two series?

Derrick Walker (Honda): Well, I don't think any of us are here to talk on behalf of where he's leaning, and I certainly personally haven't heard him voice an opinion one way or the other. All I can say is he is supportive of our attempts, and still is. I don't think he's splitting hairs like 'technology or no technology'. He has said publicly that he wants to see both series back together again and he has been pretty supportive all along.

QUESTION: Concerning the schedule for next year, you said it was going to be pretty much the same. Have you guys talked at all about the testing schedule? I know some of you maintain some pretty heavy test schedules. Any talk about cutting those back, or making them open tests, or doing any kind of change in that department?

Carl Hogan (Mercedes-Benz): Yeah, what's up for discussion are the various proposals that have been put before the board, that's one of the things we're discussing right now. And I think it's probably fair to say that everyone would like to curtail some of the testing, particularly during the season. There's a proposal on the table, and it's a subject that I think will be addressed when the CART schedule is released.

QUESTION: Can you discuss, or comment on the thought processes that go on when you're looking for a driver. I know you, Derrick, and Bobby, are looking for drivers next year. Do you reach a point where you want the best driver out there, or do you take a driver who might not be the best driver out there, but can financially help your team. Can you talk a little bit about how you reach a decision, who's going to be the best for your team and who's going to be the best for the series?

Derrick Walker (Honda): I don't know why everyone is looking at me! The first position when you look at a driver, I'm sure from everybody's perspective up here, is that, really, the driver is not the first choice you make to go racing. You've got to find a sponsor and as much as it's about money, it's also about what the sponsor's - you know, what he's getting and what's important for him. You have an American company (sponsor), would they want to have a Brazilian driver or an American driver? You always start from where the money comes from and what drives them, why they are involved with you. If you don't have something, then it's purely a simple issue of you've got to stay in business and you've got to find the money. And if a driver or a sponsor walks in the front door with it, then you have to go with where you get the money which keeps the business afloat. It's a numbers issue, just that. It's not like you just go get a sponsor, then go get a driver. It could be the sponsor's demographics or maybe he wants the most competitive guy and how much money he's got to spend. There's a number of issues like that, that all have to come together.

Bobby Rahal (Ford): I guess the only thing I've got to add is this: if you have the program, and the money, and you have the option, then the most important thing is to win. And to me it doesn't matter where he comes from - or she, for that matter. Companies want to be associated with winners, and I believe that is the first criteria to fulfill. Whoever it is has to have the ability to win races. And of course off track capability is very important as well. But the nicest guy in the world, if he's not winning, the sponsor loses patience very quickly, no matter how nice he might be, or no matter where he might be from. Sponsors want to be associated with a winner, or at least someone who shows he can run up front and be in a position to win. That holds true in NASCAR, in Formula One, and here.

QUESTION: Bobby, you drove with Max (Papis) through the end of last year. Did that experience help you as an owner in dealing with him, already knowing his personality and characteristics as a driver?

Bobby Rahal (Ford): For me, for Max, I think some people maybe thought I was taking a big chance. I thought, having been around him, on the race track and what have you, I felt he was, you know, a pretty good guy. And to their credit Miller Brewing never questioned me. I'm sure they might have, behind closed doors, you know 'who the hell is this guy?' Now of course they think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. But they have to have faith in you as a team owner and realize you want to win, too. It's not like you're just out there to win for them. Ultimately, you have to want to win for yourself.

QUESTION: Assuming that any accommodation or what have you is at least two years away, can each of you just address that if there was one specific area in CART that you would like to see changed or somehow improved?

Bobby Rahal (Ford): Honestly, you become a little bit defensive. There seems to be a lot of negativism about the future of this sport. And I went to Elkhart Lake this year and I saw a record crowd. I went to Mid-Ohio and there was a record crowd. I went to Toronto and there was a record crowd. Yeah, there were a couple of places that didn't have record crowds, that didn't do very well for whatever reasons. But I think there's a perception that isn't quite reality. I think this series is the most competitive form of motorsports in the world. We've had what, 10 winners in 16 races, 17 races. I was counting up NASCAR winners and I think there have been 10 winners there in, what have they done, about 20 races. So all the talk you hear about lack of competitiveness, or this or that. I think the reality is, certainly there are shortcomings, challenges we face, but I think ultimately the core product we have here is above question. That's not to say we're not trying to make it better, whether it be testing rules or this or that. But you go out there and I'm telling you, the reason I retired is I saw what the reality is. That these guys are unbelievable. And this series and this sport has changed dramatically in the last five years. And I'm not sure that really gets out. Yeah, there's Indianapolis and that seems to be hanging over everybody's head but the reality is this series is going from strength to strength in a lot of respects. And I'm not sure that ever really gets out. Maybe that's just human nature, that you always dwell on, you know, the challenges. But suffice to say, in trying to meet those challenges, things don't happen overnight. If anything, I'd like to see some recognition for just how truly good this series is.

Carl Hogan (Mercedes-Benz): I think that what Bobby is saying is right, and I think that sometimes the criticism of television (ratings) and everything doesn't take into consideration the impact the internet has, that 500 cable stations and things like that. We sometimes address how that really affects us instead of saying 'yes, they're down, but they're down almost everywhere but NASCAR' and I personally don't want to race 36 weekends of the year. So, I think we definitely have a good product and we're constantly trying to make it better. As for the rest, most of those are internal issues, but as far as the product that we put on the track, we get all these cars qualifying within one second and you've got to say the product is right."

Derrick Walker (Honda): Well, I certainly endorse everything Bobby and Carl have said. There's a lot of issues with CART that one can see can be enhanced - building the series, and the feeder series. And if you look at how you're going to get there, you're only going to get there if we have the money to be able to do it. If I had one wish, it would be that CART had a lot more resources, like some other series that we put up on a pedestal that have acquired a lot of money and has gotten big enough to go out and get all these things done. CART, as an organization, we're only 20 years old and the one that is grabbing all the 'numbers' is 50 years old, and has had a tremendous amount of funding that has helped it do what it needs to do. And CART has never had that luxury. So I guess if I had one wish, I'd love to see us be able to be in that position to show that the sport could be promoted as well as it should be. It is the best open wheel series in the world.

John Della Penna (Toyota): I think it's all be said. I think the one thing that sticks out in my mind this year has been the race in Chicago. That was unquestionably a real good race and great promoting. A lot of times we look at these races and we wonder why the promoters maybe don't put a little more effort into promoting them. Everybody sits around and think that CART can't fill up the place. What Chicago says to me is that if you do the job promoting the race you'll get the people there. And so, I think the product is good. We're always working on new things to make it better. Testing is being looked at, and cost containment is being looked at. Safety certainly is an issue that constantly is in our minds. And I think the (CART) board's done a really nice job of making the series more competitive every year. And I don't know how much you guys get a sense of it but I know for me, from a competitor's standpoint, every year we come out here with great expectations and the field is just that much tougher, that much closer. The drivers are that much better. I know this year was tougher for us than last year, and so forth. I think the product is unquestionably as good as it can be right now, and it will get better in the future. But I think the perception out there is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, some of these cases where there's a lot of negative talk. I think that we've got everything in place and we need to succeed in the matter of getting the word out.

QUESTION: Indianapolis next year, it's still going to be an IRL race. Do any of you have plans to participate in it?

Bobby Rahal (Ford): Not at this time.

Carl Hogan (Mercedes-Benz): I think it's still too premature, while talks are going on. Not that we won't, down the road, possibly. But right now I don't think it's really time to be considering that. We're still hoping that the negotiations going on will come up with some kind or a solution to that problem.

Derrick Walker (Honda): I'd be at the Speedway in a heartbeat, but we've actually turned down sponsors' requests in the past. And the main reason, I guess, is that we all want to be at the Speedway, it should be part of the series. But I think the thing you continually come up against 'is it going to help the situation, or is it going to hurt the situation' if we all start turning up at the Speedway. And that's the question that I don't know the answer for, but in our own case, that's the dilemma. You've got business interests, sponsorship, all the guys on the team want to run there. But is the long-term future of the sport helped or hurt by taking part in one race in another series? We're talking to the sponsors, and we're talking to the Speedway, and we hope to resolve it that way.

John Della Penna (Toyota): I'm in the same boat with Derrick. You look at the costs for that one race, and they're very, very high. But is the return there? Is the Indy 500 today the same Indy 500 we all left in '95? So, the best way to solve the situation is to make the race what it (once) was, when everyone was there.

QUESTION: Without trying to sound like a Republican congressman or something, is there any consideration of backing off the sanctioning fees that may be several times, for example, those of Winston Cup, and sort of letting the individual venues keep their money to do this sort of intense local promotion that you're looking for?

Bobby Rahal (Ford): Well, I've never seen a promoter if he has the opportunity to not spend money, generally, they won't. Let's face it, there's almost a contrarian relationship between a sanctioning body and a promoter. The sanctioning body wants to make as much money as possible for the teams and the promoter wants the money for him. I think that, like John said, you see what they did in Chicago, you see what they did in Toronto and I think that to me you'll more than make up the difference. More people will come. That's how you grow your sport, grow your track and make more money. By investing it. I don't think these people would've re-upped, frankly, if we were driving them out of business.

John Della Penna (Toyota): I think there's two factors we need to look at. First of all, we have turned down venues at our board meetings that are willing to pay even higher sanctioning fees than we have right now. That's number one. So the demand is basically there. Then you to a race and 30% of the seats are empty, and they're looking at us to lower the sanctioning fee. I think if the seats are full, and they're having a problem making money, then maybe we should sit down and talk. But until the seats are full, and they're sold out, then I think the problem really lies with them. Since CART's become a public company they've taken a lot of criticism on the sanctioning fees, but they really haven't changed much over the years that I've been an owner. You know, everybody needs to stay in business and make a profit and go on. Honestly, though, I've been to a few events this year, one very close to home, which I think the promoter can do a hell of a lot better job promoting than he's currently doing. You don't see (ads) for the race on TV, nobody even knows the race is going on. Then they come to us and say the sanctioning fee is too high well, I have a problem with that.

Carl Hogan (Mercedes-Benz): I think you also have to understand that the cost normally escalates but I believe our costs have gone up higher in proportion to our budget than the promoter's have.

QUESTION: Also on the subject of costs. I believe our friends in Indianapolis have made a big deal about the cost of competing in the CART series. As team owners, how do you see the bottom line? Can you talk about the value that you or your sponsors get out of CART racing? Do you think it is reasonable, or an issue that needs to be addressed?

Derrick Walker (Honda): Let me try to answer your question. If you took the IRL costs, I don't really think you know what that number is. And I say that because of two things. One, they don't have, with all due respect to them and I'm not trying to trash them, they're a five-year-old organization. But for an organization that's been around as long as they have, they don't have the competitive field, in my opinion, and cost is driven by competition. The more competitive it is, the more it will cost, and the harder it will be to do it. That's one factor that I don't think they put in when they compare their numbers to where we are. The other thing is, if they raced 20 races and tested, and did as many things as we do to stay up with each other, I think their prices would be quite a bit different, too. So they're not doing obviously, the same things as we are. So their price lines I think at the end of the day, we raced in their series, the same number of times, with the same costs involved, would be pretty close. But as long as I've got 100 grand more than Bobby Rahal I'll try and do something with it. I'm not going to put it in my back pocket. Racers keep on spending it. That's probably why they're not good businessmen. They're terrible. The answer to the second part of your question, 'is it too expensive?', I think we always keep an eye on the costs. But we've got to look at what's it all about. Is the problem with CART that it's too expensive, or are we not promoting the series well enough? Or are we looking at the income side instead of where it goes out? You know, are we doing enough to make the series as attractive as it need to be to obtain the fans and sponsors to come and participate in our series. I'm not saying that's where we want to go. But when you look at CART's bottom line, you need to keep an eye on some of the costs. But there was a point mentioned earlier about the new rules for short ovals. We don't want to say exactly what it is, because there will be an announcement coming out of CART, but it is as big a step as the Handford wing was in terms of a step that introduces simplification in the rules, a cheaper 'template' if you like of aerodynamic pieces that we can use to slow the cars down. But it's inflation that you want to slow down, because you're never going to make it the same for everybody to go racing, 'cause you're never going to get that.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Bobby Rahal , Tony George