GK on CART's last curtain call at Nazareth

As CART heads to Nazareth in Pennsylvania for the first oval race of the season, Autosport's American Editor Gordon Kirby looks at Champ car racing's fortunes in the north east of America

GK on CART's last curtain call at Nazareth

After last weekend's fiasco in Texas, CART moves on this weekend to its last race at the contrastingly tiny Nazareth Speedway in eastern Pennsylvania. CART's Champ cars have raced at the 0.946-mile Nazareth trioval since 1987 and the place has always been a little too undersized for Champ cars, both physically as a racetrack and stadium, and as a market - too far from Philadelphia and New York City to really count.

Nazareth of course, is Mario Andretti's hometown. It's a small town, just over the New Jersey state line, where Mario and his family emigrated to from Italy in 1955. Andretti started his legendary racing career at a quarter-mile dirt oval located just a few hundred yards north of the current racetrack. The modern Nazareth Speedway was built in 1965 as a 1.1-mile dirt track and staged a couple of USAC Championship dirt car races in 1968 and '69 before falling into disrepute. The derelict track was bought in 1985 by Roger Penske who rebuilt it, transforming the place into a paved trio-oval, a little under one-mile in length, and CART brought Indy car racing, as it was then known, back to Nazareth in 1987.

It takes less than 20 seconds to get around Nazareth and the place was always too tight and confining for Indy or Champ cars. In the first CART race on the track back in '87, highly-respected veterans Al Unser Sr and Johnny Rutherford were involved in separate accidents with other cars coming off the long, diving and then climbing last turn onto the fearfully short frontstraight. Had it not been a track built by Roger Penske I doubt that CART would have given Nazareth a second thought, but they persevered and the race carried on until this year.

Andretti hometown or not, the race has never been very successful. It enjoyed its best days in the early Nineties before the deeply damaging CART-IRL split of 1996, and in recent years the crowd has steadily tailed off. Things weren't helped by a rain-out two years ago, pushing the race back to Monday morning, and a snow-out last year which delayed the race a full month.

Last year CART decided it wouldn't continue with Nazareth after this year and a deal has already been struck for 2002 to bring the IRL to Nazareth instead. This weekend will witness a sad departure for CART therefore, not only from Nazareth but from the entire northeastern United States. Over the years, CART has staged races in the northeast at the Meadowlands, Pocono, Nazareth and New Hampshire, but all have gone by the boards so that after Sunday CART won't have any kind of presence in the most populous region of the United States.

Nor are there are any real prospects of any CART races taking shape in the northeast. The only possibility appears to be Watkins Glen, but many millions of dollars would need to be invested in the track itself and its system of crash barriers and run-offs. Owned as the Glen is by the France family's International Speedway Corporation with August's NASCAR Winston Cup race as the track's biggest draw, I can't see any reason for ISC to invest so much money for a race that isn't likely to draw much of a crowd.

Meanwhile, Champ car racing has vanished from the New York media. On the rare occasions that Champ car or Indy car racing is referred to in the New York press, it's called 'open-wheel racing'. While everyone around the world - even in New York! - knows exactly what Formula 1 refers to, CART has no identity at all in New York, or elsewhere across the USA. After losing the Indy car name in the split with IRL, CART has totally failed to redefine or rebrand itself, and has no presence at all in the media capital of the world.

CART's vanishing role in America's sports pages is dramatically evident in the tiny press corps that covers most CART races. Fewer than 12 writers cover most Champ car races, compared to more than four hundred who crowd the press room at most Formula 1 races. Of the 12 writers who attend most Champ car races, three are Canadian and three are Japanese, and there's not a single American newspaperman who covers more than half the races. This is the essence of CART's fast-failing position in the domestic market and until CART's new CEO Joe Heitzler can find a way to attract some serious traditional media coverage back to Champ car racing, CART will continue to go backwards.

As the Champ car drivers and teams prepare for their last hurrah at Nazareth then, CART's conundrum remains very clear. How could such a great racing series have allowed itself to debilitate to such a low level of popularity and media coverage? The problem runs so deep that I don't believe Joe Heitzler or any other man can find a cure. It might even elude Bernie Ecclestone!

Frankly Franchitti
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