This Week in Ford Racing May 4, 1999 FedEx Championship Many of today's premier figures in their respective sports have recently retired forcing the respected leagues into asking the question, "who's next?" Athletes such as Michael Jordan in...
This Week in Ford Racing May 4, 1999
Many of today's premier figures in their respective sports have recently retired forcing the respected leagues into asking the question, "who's next?" Athletes such as Michael Jordan in the NBA, Wayne Gretzky in the NHL and most recently John Elway from the NFL. Team Rahal owner, Bobby Rahal, who falls into the above category, expresses his thoughts on the current state of the CART series, it's future, who will take it there and what the great untold treasures of this series are.
BOBBY RAHAL - Owner -Team Rahal - YOU LOOK AT THE CART SERIES AND APART FROM GREAT RACING NAMES SUCH AS ANDRETTI AND UNSER, CART, AS A SERIES SEEMS TO BE IN A STATE OF FLUX RIGHT NOW. WHO DO YOU SEE AS THE DRIVERS THAT WILL TAKE CART INTO THE NEXT CENTURY? "First off it's going to be a long time before (Andretti and Unser) are gone. Secondly, they are here now. For some reason guys like Bryan (Herta) and Jimmy Vasser are not quite looked on in the same light. Jimmy Vasser has won a championship so I don't understand why those guys are not mentioned in the same breath. I think some of it is that the press tends to hang on to names. Although I will say that in NASCAR people make a big deal about Jeff Gordon when he came up and now it's Tony Stewart. The (CART) series is so young it's natural that John Q. Public has not heard of some of our drivers because they are so young. In NASCAR most of those guys are in their late 40's so it's easy to latch on to something that has been around as long as some of them. Let's face it, when you have guys like Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett with the name recognition they do, it helps. Jarrett is a name like Andretti that has been involved in that sport for years. I don't want to make Ned (Jarrett) any older than he is, but he was racing 30 to 35 years ago so that name has been around. I think that this is the heyday of CART. The players may have different names but in terms of competitiveness there is such parity now that it is difficult for any one person to dominate. As a result the media attention that CART gets is not focused on one guy.
"In NASCAR, when Earnhardt was winning everything he got the attention. In the 60's in the 70's when you had Foyt and Unser winning all the races and you had Mario (Andretti) and (Gordon) Johncock having success it was a situation where there were a few names that the series could focus on. Now you have 20 teams where one guy wins one weekend, a new guy wins the next and yet another wins a third. I think the future of CART is here and has been here. You have young American drivers like P.J. Jones, Vasser, Herta, Richie Hearn and of course Michael is still a young guy. So naturally the attention is directed toward the guys with the names and the guys who have been here a bit longer. But there are always generational changes and racing has gone through that and is going through that now. In our type of racing I have retired, (Rick) Mears has retired and really over the last fifteen years it's been me, Michael, and Al who have really been the majority of it. Now you have (Alex) Zanardi, of course he left, but now you have Vasser who is here. So as you can see, there is a generational change coming on just as it did when I came in on 1982. I was the new boy on the block and nobody really paid much attention to me because there was a Rutherford and a Johncock and guys who have been around for 25 years. It takes a little while for that focus to shift to the next generation.
BECAUSE DRIVERS ARE NOT DOMINATING TO THE DEGREE THAT THEY HAVE IN THE PAST WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR THE SERIES? IS THE COMPETITVNESS OF THIS SERIES A NEGATIVE IN SOME ASPECTS BECAUSE IT MAKES IT MORE DIFFICULT TO PROMOTE ONE OR TWO DRIVERS? "That's why we rely on (our sponsors). NASCAR did not promote NASCAR; RJR and the sponsors promoted NASCAR. You rely on the people who participate in the sport to help make the names. The name is created by their success on the track, but the constituents who are in the series need to talk about their involvement. The series relies on it. So that is why CART depends on companies like Miller who do a fantastic job of doing that. Max Papis is in just about every grocery store, bar and off-premise site that they are at just like I was and that's a wonderful thing for a driver. You need that kind of support to create the names. It really depends on the level of promotion that is out there. The greater the level the quicker you create those names and the less the level (of support) the longer it takes."
YOU TOUCHED BRIEFLY ON ZANARDI. HOW MUCH OF A PROBLEM IS IT THAT FOR THOSE TYPES OF SITUATIONS TO OCCUR? HOW MUCH OF A PROBLEM IS IT FOR CART TO LOOSE ITS TWO-TIME DEFENDING CHAMPION? "I think you have to realize that for Europeans this is not their home, this is not their ideal way of life. As wonderful as we may think it is, their families are there and it's a long way from home. You don't see many Americans competing or living in Europe who compete in soccer or other sports. It's just a different environment. For us to think that people such as Zanardi would not want to go back to his homeland is not realistic. It's only natural that he would want to do so. I don't think Zanardi would have gone if it were not the right offer. His situation was just like Jacques Villeneuve's. Now because there is such an international aspect to the sport you are going to get people that, if given the opportunity, may take it. If a company like Ferrari calls, even a person like Jeff Gordon talks about going to Formula One. He is going to listen. So, given the right opportunity they are going to go no matter who they are. If Ferrari knocks on you door, or Stewart, no matter where you are from, if you are a race car driver you have to think seriously of going. Because of the international flavor of CART you are going to have a little more of that changing here and there. But I think that is a reflection of the value of the series. I consider it a positive, not a negative."
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE BIGGEST STORIES ABOUT CART AS A SERIES THAT ARE NOT GETTING THE FOCUS THAT THEY DESERVE? "The fact that a person like Jacques Villeneuve can go over to Formula One and become world champion, I think, speaks volumes. That's what should be talked about, not that he left. Everything is so negatively portrayed about CART I think. I feel that there are a lot of stories to be told here. Like the Villeneuve story for instance, the fact that he won this series and then he went and became Formula One world champion. That's something to hang your hat on but somehow that is spun to be the opposite and that somehow CART as a series is less because of that. The fact of the matter is that CART does have an international aspect. What made Indy and racing in this country so great in the 1960's was the international aspect of it and that's what we have here right now and yet somehow that's a negative. You know, it's okay in soccer, it's okay in hockey, it's okay in tennis, it's okay in baseball, the most American of all sports to have an international flavor, but for some reason it's not okay in motor racing. In hockey we love it that there are Swedes, Russians, Norwegians, Canadians, Americans, the whole nine yards and somehow that makes it better. Or a baseball game where you have Japanese pitchers, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic, Venezuelan center fielders, Puerto Rican pitchers, Cuban pitchers, and somehow that's wonderful. But, if you listen to people in the racing industry, that's bad. The knock on CART is that it is international and I find that interesting. That's what should be written about. CART represents the world's best, not just the provincial best."