CART, MIS agree to disagree

CART and International Speedway Corp, the operator of Michigan International Speedway didn't get into a war of words over CART's future at MIS over the weekend. But they had an unusually candid and public exchange of views through the media

CART, MIS agree to disagree

MIS president Brett Shelton addressed reporters on Friday morning to clear up what he perceived as inaccuracies in comments that CART CEO Joe Heitzler made at a press conference three weeks ago.

Heitzler said that CART had "exhausted every option that was available to us" in its negotiations to renew its contract with MIS, which served as a CART venue since the organisation's inception in 1979. Heitzler stated that the possibility of CART renting the track and promoting its own race was presented to ISC but "was not an option."

Insiders believe ISC is still angry about the way CART handled dropping races at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Nazareth Speedway from its schedule. Both tracks are operated by ISC, which is forming a growing alliance with CART's rival the Indy Racing League.

Last month, MIS announced it was replacing its CART date next year with an IRL race, scheduled as a 300-miler. The track's contract with the IRL is for the 2002 season only.

"I think the Indy Racing League will serve us well," Shelton said. "They have a plan and they're sticking to it. They're bringing a consistency to open-wheel racing that is badly needed."

Shelton disputed Heitzler's notion that CART offered to reduce its sanctioning fee and also dismissed several of Heitzler's other remarks at MIS on Friday.

"I was not in Cleveland, so I don't have a true sense of the environment or the mood, but I felt like that there was a picture painted that CART was on their knees begging us to come back while we were in the corner with our back turned with our fingers in our ears," Shelton said. "That can't be more inaccurate. An accurate assessment of the situation is that it was very mutual.

"The last meeting I had with Joe was at Belle Isle (in June)," he added, "and I felt that we sat down and had a very mutual agreement that our long term strategies, at that point in time, did not line up and that it was a good time to step back and take another look at it. That was the point the whole time, and I've never strayed from that."

The Michigan CART race has suffered dwindling attendance in recent years. It topped out at 110,000 when CART promoted its U.S. 500 in direct competition with the Indy Racing League-sanctioned Indianapolis 500 in May 1996, though many of those tickets were acknowledged as giveaways.

Still, Michigan 500 attendance held steady at about 75,000 until the
CART/IRL split of 1996. This year's race attracted an audience of around 40,000, according to local media estimates.

When informed of Shelton's remarks, Heitzler quickly sought to provide clarification of his own. He wanted to be accompanied in his session with the media by ISC Senior Vice-president of Operations John Saunders, but he was unable to make it to two scheduled attempts. After a private meeting between Heitzler and Saunders, Heitzler met the media while ISC later issued a press release quoting Saunders and Shelton.

"The sanctioning fee is always negotiable," he said, "But I didn't deal with Brett. So when he tells you he didn't talk to me, he's telling the truth; when I say I didn't talk to Brett, I'm telling the truth. I talked to John Saunders.

"I'm the chairman of CART," he continued. "It's not a title I like, but I have to get accustomed to it. And I talk to the highest source I can in another organisation and that higher source right now is Jim France and John Saunders. That's who I have my relationship with; that's who I deal with (at ISC) - John Saunders.

"We've got race cars, and they've got asphalt and race tracks. It's a
natural combination."

Like he did at Nazareth and Detroit's Belle Isle, Heitzler left the door open for CART to return to MIS in the future if it can work out its apparent differences with the track management and ISC.

"I think eventually someday we're going to come back here," Heitzler said. "If you walk through this pit and paddock area, there's such a rich history and tradition here, and I don't want to be the person that interrupts history and tradition. I want to be the person that perpetuates it.

"We have a differential that no one else in the world has and we're not going to abandon that differential," he added. "The differential is, we're the only racing series in the world where drivers race on all four track formats. And Michigan is a very integral part of the tradition and history of CART."

Saunder's statement read: "We continue to have productive conversations with CART, including one this morning with CEO Joe Heitzler. CART continues to be a healthy, viable, and competitive series that will fit well at ISC facilities in the future. ISC is proud of the season-ending CART race at our facility in Fontana, California and we will continue to explore opportunities to partner with CART in 2002 and beyond."

On Saturday, MIS' former owner Roger Penske spoke to the Toledo Blade newspaper, and he too criticised CART for its handling of the Michigan race.

"I think it's a huge mistake for CART not to return. I think they just opened the door for the IRL," Penske remarked. "All these temporary road circuits and all these international races. They talk about continuity. Those tracks can come and go. Permanent tracks have the infrastructure and the capital to spend the money on safety and other things.

"I understand ISC's position," he added. "What I don't understand is CART's. One minute we're talking about strategy that has differentation, meaning road courses and ovals, and to walk away from what I consider one of the biggest tracks in the country in regard to potential, I don't understand it."

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