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

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 2 of 4

Kendall: In the world of Champ Car racing, the most significant announcement of the last year and a half is bringing Chris Pook on as the president and CEO. He's been spending a lot of time plugging holes in the boat, but hasn't had a lot of time. He's finally got those holes plugged. Tell us about how you see things, what you have up your sleeve going forwards.

Chris Pook: Before I do that, I think I would like to say thank you to some people, particularly Jim Michaelian who has been here since I started in 1975. You can't do these things alone. You need a really strong right arm. He was really outstanding from the word go with our event and continues to run it extremely well. Long Beach is in very, very safe hands with Jim. I can assure of you that.

I also want to thank Jim Liberatore. When he and I chatted in New York back in January of last year, it was obviously a concerned Jim Liberatore that had breakfast with me because CART was literally in intensive care at that point, concerned it would not come out of intensive care. We got it out. I really want to congratulate Alex on a terrific drive over the weekend, and Paul, to get on the podium in our second race in this series, you have no idea how competitive it is, it's brutal, a tremendous accomplishment. For Alex to have a team owner like Paul, I think that put as real platform under Alex and he can demonstrate what a great racing car driver he is, and he will even get greater. I want to congratulate them both on a terrific performance. 98 days and you're on the podium. That's virtually unheard of. Gentilozzi is no easy guy. He wants to win all the time. If you watch him drive a Trans-Am car, you'll get that understanding real fast.

Where we are with the series, Tommy, I truly believe in this product. It's a great product. There's a combination of streets and road courses, ovals. It certainly makes for the best teams and best drivers in sport. It creates an unbelievable training ground for not only team owners and teams themselves, but also for drivers. It is the best and quite candidly I took the job because I was damned if I was going to see somebody that just wanted to stomp this thing underneath because they couldn't get their own way in life. So that's why we're here.

The future is very, very bright. The critical decision obviously last year was staying with the Ford-Cosworth engine. That was a tough decision that had to be made, but we made it, started to go forward from there. Bridgestone and Ford, God bless them, they came forward when it was needed for them to come forward. They were under huge criticism, huge heat everywhere they went not to do a deal with us. But they did the deal with us and they stood behind us. It created a tremendous platform underneath us for the next two years where we have solid relationships with tires and engines. You don't go racing without tires and engines, folks, let me tell you that. We're very happy there.

I'm looking forward now. I'm very fortunate again to have another tremendous right arm that joined me in David Clare who worked for Bernie Ecclestone for nine years. You can't have any better training than that. David runs now the day to day of the company. I'm able to go back now and do the things that I really like to do, which is put deals together for the future. So I'm working really on 2005 right now, engine manufacturers, tire manufacturers, gasoline companies, all the bits and pieces that we need to take the series right up to the very top of the ladder again.

We will always be No. 2 to Formula 1. That's where we want it. That's where we'll always be. We'll certainly be the top open-wheel series in this country once again. We have the talent to do it, we have the team owners to do it, we have the drivers to do it, and we are a very attractive place for new young talent coming in. I'm sure you're going to see some of that testing our older talent, older in the sense of having been with the series, not older in years, with the series now. That's where we are. I'm pumped about the future. I'm excited about the future. From my perspective, I just want to get the bits and pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and turn it over to someone who is slightly more energetic than I am.

Adam Saal: We'll open it up for questions.

Q: Jim, we miss Friday Night. Tommy needs to supplement his income so he can get a better suit. Chris, my real question is, we need to know, what's going on with Bernie? Is he going to take over? Go private?

Pook: Well, you know, one of the problems of being a public company is I can't give you answers when you want answers like that. I can just tell you he's doing well. Looking good and is healthy and all that (Laughter)

Q: What about this scenario? If you do merge and he does take over, is CART going to become a feeder series for the F1? If so are they going to run the races on the same weekends or different schedules?

Pook: First of all, I don't think we'd ever be a feeder series. I think where we want to be, we want to be a series that develops tremendous talent in racing car drivers and be a breeding ground, if you will, for youngsters to come to our series if they want to demonstrate their skills. By the same token, if there are drivers that are unhappy with Formula 1, want to come back down through the series like Nigel Mansell did, we would be delighted to have them here. It would be healthy for our series.

As far as scheduling is concerned, we're both in the open-wheel business together. They're obviously in a league far, far higher than ours. It wouldn't make sense to go head-to-head on the same weekend with each other. You try and make sure that one weekend will be Formula 1 someplace in the world, and we'd be someplace either in the NAFTA countries or occasionally we'd go to Europe or the Pacific Basin. That would be the ideal situation. We'll see what happens as we continue down this road.

Q: I'm from Victorville, between here and Vegas. Last year I watched the Atlantic and Barber Dodge. We had a talented crop of guys, yet Ryan Hunter-Reay is the only one we see here. I look at that and say, what steps can we take, how can we get some of those guys like Jon Fogarty, I don't know where he is this year, how do we get guys into the series? I miss Friday night qualifying.

Pook: I need to defend Jim on this. It was not Jim's decision not to do Friday Night Live, it was our decision. We know that, we recognize that. We'd like to have it back, but it was a decision we made from a production point of view. We probably in retrospect know it was a mistake. We'll try to get it fixed next year for you.

Gentilozzi: The driver thing is a thing that happens every year. It's easy to say, "Why aren't the Atlantic champions here?" There's only X number of seats that become available in the economy of driver opportunity. It's a combination of dynamics from the owner's view. I talk to young drivers, old drivers, and you evaluate from the owner's side: What does he bring to the table? What does he cost me emotionally and physically, technically with the car? There aren't a lot of new seats. If there are three or four new seats, you evaluate in every series, whether it's Formula 1, CART, what does that driver bring and how do we use him?

I think the complexity of a series like F3000 where Bourdais came from, means that the drivers are more technically advanced. Those cars are more difficult to drive. The Atlantic series is a great series. It's been around a long time, but it isn't perfect. It doesn't necessarily relate. It's under-powered and over-tired compared to CART. The 3000 guys race a lot more and they race in the rain a lot more, under adverse conditions. The level of engineering is different, so they come with more technical expertise.

Liberatore: One of the things we looked at is: How do we support the series? Like I said before, my feeling is this country is personality driven on what they follow. We had dinner, David, Chris and I. We are trying to figure out what we can do that will introduce the drivers to the fans. Really in this country again that's what it's all about. That's what makes NASCAR so successful. You go to F1, you see the Ferrari, McLaren. You go to NASCAR and you see the Dale Earnhardt Jrs. And Dale Jarrett flags. This is a personality driven sport. We haven't abandoned that. You have to look at what is the right thing to do.

Q: I think we like the full package about CART, but also we like to see the new drivers. Last year Casey Mears, Memo Gidley, I didn't like them to leave the series. My question is, what are you doing in order to hold those new American blood so we can identify with them? The second question is about going after different manufacturers. Right now you have only Ford. You are making some deals ahead of time to work again with Mercedes, Audi, Volvo?

Pook: We're clearly working on manufacturers, but you have to also understand that we have a relationship with Ford and we must respect that relationship with Ford. Don't forget that within Ford there are other brands within that family. There's Mazda, Jaguar, Volvo, things like that. We are clearly working with Ford on those subjects. But we're also working with other manufacturers, as well. We have to open the whole game up for everybody in 2005. That's what we're doing. I'm sure that sort of towards the end of this year, maybe the middle of this year, towards the end of this year, you'll start to see one or two cars slipping out, you'll understand what the brands are going to be in 2005.

Gentilozzi: I talked to a reporter earlier about why aren't their more American drivers. Certainly nationalism is a great thing, but CART is really more than just a United States series. It's a North American series that participates in other places in the world. We're a country with great representations of all kinds of nationalities. I'm a little offended sometimes when people say, "We need more Americans." I think we need more good race drivers. Alex is French-Canadian-Italian. We have some problems communicating because his English really isn't that good (laughter). But it doesn't matter. You have 19 or 20 seats to fill. You want 19 or 20 of the best guys that you can find that can work within the structure of your team. Alex's parents are Italian. Does that mean the 20 million people in the US that come from Italian heritage should cheer for Alex? I think they do. They absolutely do. It doesn't matter.

We were in Mexico last weekend, yesterday. We had a huge following. That's a phenomenal country, and they love racers from America, just like the Canadians love the racers from there. It's our job at the other series like Trans-Am, Atlantic, World Challenge, to make good race drivers. We'd love to have Memo Gidley and Townsend Bell, the Mears kid who is out practicing to come to CART, those guys will all get here when they deserve to get here. We want the best guys, then the rest of it will happen.

Kendall: I'd like to speak to that a little bit. I was one of the guys that beat my head against the wall. Part of the problem with not having Americans, we're experiencing late-stage symptoms of the prior mismanagement. If the series was healthier, the teams would not have to consider as many different things in their choices. What I mean by that is funding, to be quite honest. A lot of funding comes from the places where the fan base is expanded. I don't have to preach to you, you guys love this stuff, but there aren't enough of us that feel that way in America right now.

This new model, as it gets stronger in this country, that will start to take care of itself. To explain and say, "Well, these guys are great," they are great. But you say you like Memo. I'm a huge Townsend Bell fan. We might see him back again with couple years. As the series gets stronger in this country, I think that problem will fix itself both with the support series and with guys having more support to get into some of these seats. I think as the series gets stronger, everything emanates out from there, and they're having to undo a lot of the stuff. Everything that we're seeing that needs to be addressed is somewhat a function of the years of poor decisions. Now those are being undone and it will take a while for it to come back.

Liberatore: We air F3000, Toyota, Atlantics, we're airing all these series that have not gotten much TV play at all. Now they're getting a lot of TV play so you'll start to know who these people are as they start to come up one way or the other. That's all part of the thinking, as well.

Q: What are you doing in the feeder groups to bring in new talent? I come from South Central or Long Beach, you put your race on, yet we still see a non-diverse series of drivers in 28 years. Is there anything to be done about that or is this something we have to live with? When I look at the war, I see the diversity of who is fighting. When I see this race, this grid, it's not very diverse.

Pook: Let me just say to you your timing of the question is quite interesting. I was on the phone today with a young African American who can drive a car fairly well called George Mack. George is a kid that came out of go-karts. He participated in the Indy Racing League last year, in the Indianapolis 500. He basically called and said, "Is there an opportunity for me in your series?" The answer is, "Absolutely."

What I said to George was, "The first thing you have to do is you have to come around the paddock and start introducing yourself to our team owners and start to tell them who you are and what you've done and ask for a test drive. You get a test drive, then an owner will evaluate you." I guarantee you there's not an owner in a paddock that if a young man comes along, doesn't matter if he's black or Mexican heritage, Italian or German or American, if he's got the tools to get the job done, he'll get in the race car.

George I believe certainly has the ability to drive a race car fast.  For our part,
we will open the door for him.  As with all young drivers, the sanctioning body can
only open the door.  At that particular point, the driver has to strap it on and get
the job done.  If he does it, succeeds, he'll be there. We are sensitive to this.  We
are also sensitive to the fact that we don't have females in our series.  Danica
(Patrick) did a good job this weekend, she finished third.  That bodes well for her.
But we hope she'll be able to grow and come to our series as well.  This is not a
question of us turning our mind off on this subject at all.  We are sensitive to
these issues.  On the other hand, we also have to ensure that the talent is there.

Part III

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Casey Mears , Memo Gidley , Alex Tagliani , Jon Fogarty , Paul Gentilozzi , Townsend Bell , George Mack , Ryan Hunter-Reay , Chris Pook , Jim Michaelian , Bernie Ecclestone , David Clare , Tommy Kendall