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

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 4 of 4

Q: Mr. Pook, thanks for all your help in continuing to straighten the series. My question for you, Tag, congratulations on your podium finish. Is there any specific moment in your life when you remember that you decided you wanted to be a race car driver? Can you tell us about that?

Tagliani: Actually, I don't think for anybody in the room that wants to be a driver that there's any rule to follow. I think if I tell my story, I don't think anybody should follow my path because it's a question of timing. I'm sure you need to be fast, to prove yourself, to get into a car, but you have to be there at the right time.

I raced go-karts for 14 years and I didn't have the money to go in Formula Ford and Formula 2000. What I did is I saved up and I rented a car for the last race of the season, no testing. I showed up there, qualified third, so people looked. It was okay. Then in Formula 2000, I ran one race, and I decided to race in Canada. I heard Player's was going to do a driver development program. I was thinking of showing up there, do something good. I qualified sixth. I was third on the first lap, then I lost all my wings and I finished like a Formula Ford, I finished sixth. It was good also.

I got some phone calls. I decided to save even more. So I continued to run in go-karts. I got a ride in Formula 2000 in the Spenard school. I decide to take the money instead of going to race there. I tried those cars and I thought they were kind of slow. I decided to continue in go-karts. What I did is very strange. I decided to run 100 ccs and 125. I did two classes in the same weekend. I trained physically to get more fit. Next year I raced only seven races in Formula Ford. After that I ran in Atlantics by raising $300,000 doing a lot of benefit dinners, selling a lot of T-shirts. I know that that year I raced in Formula Atlantics, the minimum budget was $600,000. With $300,000, I was really low. I had one engine. Lucky my engine lasted very long. I could run the series like this. Then I end up at Player's in Atlantic. If you look at my past, I don't think you want to follow that (laughter). It was very difficult.

Kendall: These kids down here are like, "Oh, crap, I got to sell T-shirts?"

Tagliani: There's a lot of things I don't say. My family was good to help me and provide support to race go-karts. My dad had to create a business to be able to support me for go-karts. Then when I was doing my first Atlantic race, when I came back with the bills of the rental car and hotel, all we do is like start fighting in the family. I'm crying all the time because my dad was saying you can't win your own bread that you eat at the house, and you want me to pay to go to hotels and rental cars? Is there a bus you can take to save some money? Hard times, things like that. It was tough, very difficult (laughter).

Gentilozzi: I'm going to hire your dad (laughter).

Tagliani: The last thing I want to say, I already told them, to get money to pay for tires and things like that, I was thinking of dancing. It was like really, really bad. If I would have be at different timing, probably I would have had it easier. But I end up in Champ Cars. I'm very happy now. For other guys that I support also in karting, I have a couple of kids that now race, and I pay their ride. My dad supports them also at the go-kart track in Canada. I mean, I cannot tell them what to do because it's all a question of how much they want to put effort in.

Q: SPEED, any chances of high-definition broadcasts for CART races? We talked about driver development. Is the message to the current crop of Toyota Atlantic and Barber Dodge that for the next two or three years they have to look to Formula 3000 in Europe to get their experience in order to come back and do CART then?

Pook: No, I don't think that's the message. We're sensitive to the issue of Atlantic and what we've got to do. But if you can go to 3000, it's not a bad place to go. It's pretty intense over there. It's much more intense than Atlantic Series because in 3000 basically they get two 20-minute qualifying sessions, they don't get practice. You get two 20-minute sessions, then you race. You learn to adjust pretty quickly. If you can go there, great.

There's a young American over there, I don't know his name, he came from go-karting, he rolled up to 3000 the other day and asked for a test drive. Somebody had said, "You should really test the kid." He jumps in the car, never been to the racetrack before, never been in the car before, and he was second quickest of all of the 27 guys that were there that day. He was 3/100ths off the fastest guy. So when you hear Paul say, "If you can drive, you're going to get it..." He's going to be in 3000.

Atlantic is very good. Don't get me wrong. When you come from Barber Dodge up, there's a very good learning curve. There's a young man in Atlantic this year called AJ Allmendinger out of central California, he's pretty damn good. He's being watched by a lot of big teams. We have a responsibility to a lot of young people to make sure we create the right environment for them to learn our sport. That's our job as the sanctioning body.

Kendall: In Atlantics or Barber or whatever, you need to dominate. Alex in Atlantics, it was so clear he was the guy. If you're in Barber Dodge, you need to focus on not winning two races, you need to win six races like AJ did last year. That's kind of the message. That's what Paul keeps bringing it back to is: Can you pull the trigger and get the job done? F3000, probably because of the environment at this moment, tends to produce better guys. There's no reason that a guy can't stumble in out of go-karts. More than likely it's the guys out of Atlantics that have better training. A guy like me, my education, my brother went to Stanford, he has a real paying job, I don't.

Liberatore: The high-definition question, we did two in high definition last year. I think it's a perfect format for us obviously. To be honest, it's expensive. We are still in the block-and-tackle phase of our careers and our lifespan right now. Someday we would love to do it, but it's not a real major priority right now. So everybody knows, Formula 3000 is live on SPEED Channel.

Q: Chris, some of your most popular races were in Canada, Australia, but they still call themselves Indy car events. It's really upsetting to me. What are you doing? Why have they not called themselves Champ Car events?

Pook: The reason we can't call ourselves Indy Car anymore is simply because of the settlement made about four or five years ago with Tony George and the Indy Racing League. My predecessors continued to call them CART events, took over the name CART. That doesn't do much for us when we're in Europe or the Pacific Basin. We decided that Champ Car was the heritage of our sport, this is where it came from, we are just going to keep moving the brand forward and call it Champ Car.

Q: Can't you get them to call themselves Champ Cars?

Pook: We're working on it. Molson invested a huge amount of money in Canada in that name, Indy Car, up there. We're trying hard to move them to Champ Car. Same thing with Australia. It will probably happen in the next two or three years. You have to be delicate about that. We've got to recognize that there are companies making huge investments there. We have to move them over very gently. Changing brand names is not an easy thing to do. If you remember there was an airline called United, changed its name for a while, silly name, went back. It cost them a fortune. We're sensitive to this issue. We get of e-mails about it, believe me. We get a lot of phone calls about it. We're working on it.

Where I am in the process with the company now, I really have to prioritize my issues, really get them in line. It's not that that issue is not important, but it's not a critical, vital issue for me today. I have some other ones in front of me that are critical and important to move on, then come back and look at that one tomorrow. You raise a very good question. I thank you for it.

Michaelian: As a promoter, to assist you in how you want to approach that, name recognition and branding is quite important. Quite frankly the guys in Canada and Australia have both done an excellent job of creating a lot of excitement around their event. I think it's difficult to ask them to make a major transition at this particular time because they're still at the stage where they are trying to create as much excitement around the thing as they.

Keep in mind, I don't think it's confusing to people who watch the event or fans that are attending that it's not an Indy Car event. Obviously, it's running on a street circuit. It symbolizing all of what Champ Car is all about these days. I think that's the story you're telling. In those key venues, both Stateside as well as the other NAFTA countries, as well as Australia, you're starting to key the formula if it's applied in a successful way. To tinker with that right now would be more detrimental than it would be positive.

In Toronto, they say, "Are you going to the Indy?" They call it the Indy. That's a function of how well they've done. Obviously for the people that are hurt by the split, they have strong feelings about that. It would be like all of a sudden changing the name of Coca-Cola to something that was not what they were used to. The real key is when people are leaving the facility, if they have a smile on their face, they're satisfied with the product.

Q: How are you going to market this for television because I know it's a problem, the ratings, even SPEED Channel, God bless them for what they do, but there's still not enough promotion it seems for the television audience to know there's a Champ Car race on. Could you two speak to that?

Liberatore: I will tell you, I came into the business, I actually still haven't been to a NASCAR race, so don't tell anybody. I really knew nothing about it. It was really interesting to me to see the passion associated with the racing, then see how that translated into no ratings. I still think that's strange because the passion is greater than any sport out there by a longshot.

But open-wheel racing is struggling right now. What's interesting to me when I got in here, CART was kind of looked at differently than IRL. Like IRL is in good shape and CART was in bad shape. I'll tell you, the TV person, they both need a lot of work to get where they want to go. The difference is Champ Car gets it. They understand. We have a lot of work to do. I get the feeling some other people may not understand that.

It comes to your point about marketing and promotion. The environment that we are in, SPEED Channel, now Champ Car is in, is all motorsports fans. That's all we are, motorsports fans. I know to a lot of people NASCAR is the evil empire, I know that. What we've seen happen, this doesn't happen overnight, when we have a NASCAR event that leads into a CART event, there will be a huge percentage of those people stick around. That is what we offer.

We take out USA Today ads, do a lot. But it really is a struggle for us. We had a karting meeting about how to get kids involved. You look around the room. If this were a NASCAR person, there would be a hundred children in this room. How do we get this to the next generation? That's the thing we are thinking of. The only reason I share that with you is because I don't want you to think we put a race on, run three spots, we're done with it. That's why we do Saturday, that's why we do prerace, that's why we do podium. That's why Chris is on Wind Tunnel. Our news this week had five of the drivers interviewed. We did segments with them. That's what's going to grow the sport. We're talking to the motorsports audience. That's what our goal is. Then I leave to Chris and the rest of his guys the greater audience because that's where we feel we can help is in the motorsports audience.

Pook: One of the things we're doing in this administration, is to help grow this sport we are going to more urban events. I was in Houston today. You'll see Houston back up on the schedule in 2005. But we're going to the mass markets. It's kind of what Pete Rozelle did when he took over professional football in the early '60s. He took it to the major markets. When he went into the major markets, even though there were only 50,000 or 60,000 folks that went to the game, everybody in that market knew there was a professional football game going on that particular day. So when we go into urban markets, the market size may be five, six, seven, eight million people. We'll maybe only be putting 70,000, 80,000 folks into our event, but rest assured the entire market will know about it. Then the next challenge for us is to connect that market, the greater market, even though they're not at the event itself, with the television set. The more we go into it, the more we drive people towards the television set, then the ratings will come along together, then Jim and I will be happy and we'll go and have a beer together.

Michaelian: One of the advantages I think will be the night races. You're going to be able to establish an identity with an audience that might not be available because so often Champ Car finds itself being programmed opposite NASCAR and some of the other motorsports. It really demands that the viewer develop a real following for a variety of different kinds of motorsports activities. Quite frankly, after a while, people have other activities in their lives. It's difficult to devote the amount of time they need out of a weekend day to watch a whole variety of motorsports. So hopefully the night programming that will emanate from some of these night races will be able to start to build an audience and a following and that will precipitate a following that will lend itself toward greater ratings even in the non-night events.

Kendall: A dream would be a live night race. Obviously, what it did for football. You know, I know that doesn't really work in your world, but it would be really neat if there's a way that you separate Champ Car from everything else on the weekend. That's probably a pipe dream, but it would be pretty nice.

Q: What are the chances of Road America in 2004? Is it gone forever or is there in a good chance?

Pook: It's one of the most beautiful tracks in the country, one of the most challenging driver tracks in the country. You won't get any opposition from any of us about the race circuit. However, that having been said, we are in a business, and when I do a business deal with somebody, I expect the other party to keep their side of the bargain. If they don't keep their side of the bargain, I'm not prepared to go down the road again. Catch me once, if you can. Catch me twice, no ma'am. Till we fix that little issue there, I doubt we'll be going back to Road America. It's not that we don't want to. We realize it's a great racetrack. I'm just not prepared to step into the hot house the second time.

Q: My second question.

Pook: Easier than the first one (laughter)?

Q: Merchandising, you talk about NASCAR. You can go to almost any store, any sporting store, and find NASCAR galore. It is impossible to find CART. I have a party when I find something CART. It's hard. What's the possibility of more merchandising just so we can get it for our kids? You can find 10-year-old stuff on eBay.

Tagliani: You can go to Tagliani.com. I have clothes. (Laughter)

Pook: It's very much on the to-do list. It's up there. If you saw my to-do list of priorities, it's pretty horrific. One of them is Casey coming home to Long Beach. It's very much there on the list. We're aware of it, painfully aware of it. We were in Monterrey this last two or three days. We had merchandise down there, one trailer. You know, you couldn't get near the place. The line was so huge. It's on the fix-it list. We are addressing it with some level of intensity.

Q: I sincerely hope Road America will come back. She got that covered. I certainly hope it doesn't become an IRL race. The other question I came up with while I was waiting, is there any chance to get a Champ Car video game going for the PC? The recent forays of Champ Cars, when it comes to video games, particularly the arcade stand-alone game, dying thing for most people, was a really embarrassment. I played the game once, just never again. The most recent Champ Car game that was for PC was the Microsoft game, which was good. That's about six years old now. The question is if there will be any future Champ Car video games for personal computer? Second of all, is there a chance of a full race on the Brands Hatch circuit? I've seen the Indy circuit. It's really a very short loop on the infield of the circuit.

Pook: Thank you for your question. The licensing situation, yes, the licensing has been -- a deal has been cut in that area and you will see games coming out with a very, very sophisticated software program whose name you mentioned just recently. You'll see that shortly.

Secondly, at Brands, there are some huge safety issues with the long circuit. No doubt about it, it's a wonderful racing circuit. The guys would love to run on it, I'm sure. Alex would love to run on it. Paul is beating me up daily to run on it. However, with that having been said, we have a huge responsibility to our drivers in the area of safety. I'm certainly not prepared to wave the rules on the safety issues for them. If the safety issue gets fixed, we'd be delighted to go there and run on the track. In the meantime, I can assure you, if you want to see something incredibly exciting, you watch these guys perform on the short track at Brands, because it's going to be truly spectacular.

Those of you who remember when Champ Cars were at Phoenix, these guys were doing 19-second laps. It was truly a remarkable show. You're going to see something very similar at Brands. One particular corner, the paddock, which was very, very famous old corner, it's downhill, off camber, it's hang-onto-your-hat time in that one. The entry speed is about 175 miles per hour, according to the computer, the exit speed is 165, 155, excuse me. It's going to be very, very interesting.

The one thing about Brands, as with Phoenix and Nazareth, 95% of the spectator area at Brands Hatch can see the entire circuit. I can tell you, these guys, when they are on a tight, close circuit like that, they get going, their skill is absolutely remarkable. You develop a terrific level of respect for when they're running hard and fast, how close they run together and how exciting it is. Brands on the short track will be one of those shows where the people will be on the edge of their seat the entire time.

Part I

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Alex Tagliani , Paul Gentilozzi , Tom Kendall , Chris Pook , Jim Michaelian , Tony George