Rahal Q&A

Interim CART CEO Bobby Rahal held a press conference on Saturday morning to discuss some of the latest issues that CART has to tackle in the immediate future, such as falling crowds at certain oval races, hopes for future engine regulations, the Indy 500, racing in Europe, and television deals. Gordon Kirby heard what Rahal had to say

Rahal Q&A

Rahal: "If you look at the quality of the racing I think this track has produced some of the greatest Champ car races in history. Two years ago there were 62 lead changes at the start/finish line and last year there were plenty of lead changes as well. Here you have such great racing and you wonder we aren't people attracted to it. I don't know. You look at open wheel racing on any of the major speedways and it's not very well subscribed, so you wonder is there a lesson in that, particularly when you go to places like Toronto or Cleveland or Long Beach and you see the unbelievable crowds and excitement. It's almost like two different worlds. So without question it gives pause for a lot of thought and to be honest I really don't have the answer to that at this stage."

Rahal: "Well, I can't believe they're happy about it either. I don't think it's an issue of not wanting to be here. It's great racing, as I've said, but there's a disconnect somewhere on open-wheel racing of this type because it's not happening anywhere else. You wonder, has our fan base changed dramatically? I don't know the answer."

Rahal: "One of my first visits in this job was down to Daytona. I met with everybody at ISC and expressed to them our desire to work with them in the future. I think they felt the same way. They have some circuits that we feel it's important to be at, particularly Phoenix. I think there are some opportunities out there and I feel they want to work with us. It's not a matter of us not wanting to work with them. They're very good operators and good people to be associated with. It just makes sense for us to do business with them.

"I firmly believe that the publicly held racetracks cannot afford to have any loyalty to any one sanctioning body because they have to have races. They have to have events for them to maintain the stock price they have and to continue to show profits. You see in Dallas there are two IRL races and a CART race next year as well as a Winston Cup event. I firmly believe that you'll see IRL events maybe here and at California someday. These publicly held tracks have to events. They have to have fans in the stands. That's the challenge they face. So I firmly believe that we'll be here and we'll be at Fontana and maybe in a few years IRL will be here. So we just want to make sure that our events for ourselves, for our series and for our promoters."

Rahal: "I think that we are the fastest cars in the world and you can't make that claim unless you race at tracks like this. I think that states the case as far as circuits of this nature."

Rahal: "It is part of our attempt to create better racing for our fans and for the growth of the sport. Nobody likes to make change I don't believe. Certainly nobody likes to spend money although there are always dollars that are committed to development on the engine side. But I think there's a higher calling or goal than anyone's narrow self-interest and that is to produce the best racing we can. When we go to events like this we don't need to be going 240 mph to prove we're the fastest series in the world. We had some of our best racing when we had 750 horsepower and big wings in 1992. You go to a place like Milwaukee and it was two and three abreast because it was the right formula or relationship between power and downforce compared to what we have now.

"The reality is we have tried aerodynamically to govern the speeds over the years and in some cases it's been successful because if we didn't have the Handford device here we'd be going 250 mph, maybe even faster. On the short ovals that solution has not been successful. Our obligation is to produce the best racing we can because that will drive the fan base and the TV ratings and all the issues that seem to confront us. I will say that in private meetings I've had a lot of support from the engine manufacturers for proposing what we're doing."

Rahal: "No, because everybody has their narrow self-interest at heart. I will say that some of them get it and there are some that have their narrow self-interest at heart."

Rahal: "Somewhere around there. That's going to happen. And that has to be in concert with other changes, aerodynamics and other changes. The solutions that we will probably go with are the ones the engine manufacturers suggested.

"There are two issues that confront us right now from an engine standpoint. One is what do we do over the next two years? The other is what do we do for 2003 and beyond because there is a stability agreement in place so whatever we do we need to keep for two years. We have the power in the event of safety to make any rule changes we want. We've always had that power. So we can probably make a strong case that we need to slow then down.

"But we also have, as I said, a higher obligation to the sport to create the best racing we can. So what's being done is being done in that light. But the way you keep any constituency connected with the series and with whatever you're trying to do is by reaching out to them and including them in creating the solution, which we have done. As I say, nobody likes change or to spend money but you cannot complain about weaknesses and not be willing to participate in the solution to those weaknesses."

Rahal: "All I'm going to say is we're close. Every week I think next week is going to be it, but next week we have a franchise meeting in Chicago and I expect we will have approval for the schedule then."

Rahal: "Our race is on Saturday and the Italian Grand Prix is on Sunday so that should solve part of that issue. How many Germans go to the Italian Grand Prix? I don't know. I'd say it's mainly Italians. I'm sure a few Germans drive down there but having been to Monza over the years I pretty much can tell you it's an all-Italian affair."

Rahal: "Several years ago we asked the engine manufacturers what they would propose if we wanted to have 725 horsepower and maybe even a little bit better costs structure for the teams. We said, that's the goal. How do you achieve that? They came back with the 1.8 litre V8 turbo. We have noise issues for our city events so a turbocharger acts as a muffler to some degree. They're still loud but if you compare it to a Formula One car you can see the difference. So for 2003 and beyond we will certainly work with our manufacturers to create the best solution.

"One of the reasons the 1.8 formula was not embraced immediately was because of our continuing effort to create a solution with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway which has an engine rule package that's totally different. So that's why that wasn't embraced at the time. Whether that will still be a factor, I can't tell you."

Rahal: "As it was announced a few weeks ago, we've contracted with SFX Entertainment to act on our behalf in our TV negotiations. I met with Mike Trager yesterday. He's an extremely impressive guy who did the NHRA's deal with ESPN. I feel very positive about our situation for the future. Who that partner will be I can't tell you because it's up for grabs right now. I'm confident that with Mike's leadership we'll have the right situation."

Rahal: "As I've said all along, we'll certainly leave Memorial Day weekend open so that any of our teams who want to go can. Going to an extended month of May definitely makes it difficult for us when we have twenty-two races. If I want to kill my teams it's not an issue. If I want to put races on top of races it's not a big deal. But I don't want to do that. Our teams don't want that. Our suppliers don't want that, the engine and tyre people. Nobody wants that kind of schedule. So we have to create a solution that enables our teams to qualify and be at Indy for the race but we may be forced to schedule a race sometime in the middle of May just because we've got to fulfill our goals too."

Rahal: "There's no question that the concentration of events in the midwest has always been an issue for us. Everytime you think you've got control of it then a great opportunity like Chicago comes up. You can't say no to the second or third largest market in the United States. There are areas we want to be in that we're not in now--the southwest and southeast. We're looking at the Denver area. Anyway, we certainly have enough concentration in the midwest. There are plusses and negatives to it. This has always been a midwestern-based sport but certainly for our sponsors sake and for our fans we have to have a little more of a widespread geographical area."

Rahal: "In the short term certainly there's nothing else in the oven."

Rahal: "It's still interim. It's been very hard on my family. They understand, but that doesn't mean they like it. I will tell you I think we have a 150 day window of opportunity to take our strengths and enhance them and to take our challenges and solve them. I've expressed that to all the people in CART. There aren't a lot of challenges. We seem to harp on them. There are really more positives than negatives. Having said that, change doesn't come easily and yet there has to be a momentum and a timeliness to it. The goal in that period of time is make the changes that need to be made, find the solutions that need to be found and go forward, and then what happens after that we'll see as far as I'm concerned."

Rahal: "First of all, I have to say that Toronto is an unbelievable event. If I took somebody who had never been to a CART race before to Toronto they'd think this was the most successful series in the world. If you said we have problems, they'd say, 'Are you kidding me?' There's something right there. A lot of things are working in Toronto and you ask what do you have to do to duplicate that at other races. I think we've got 14 or 15 good races. We've just got to work on the others.

"Certainly Montreal is very interesting to me and I think to all of us. It's a great city and great area. I think that decision is really up to the promoter. We want the best events we can have no matter where they may be."

Rahal: "Yes I do. I have nothing against Canada but I think two races there are the maximum."

Rahal: "Yes."

Rahal: "There will be Spring Training next year. It will be under a different guise. But there will be a very good, very exciting opportunity for the press to prepare for the year, not with just the Champ car drivers but with the Atlantic and Indy Lights drivers and our sponsors and suppliers. We're going to restructure the way we do Spring Training to enhance what the press is trying to get out of it. I think you'll like it."

Rahal: "I think frankly you have to look at what else is out there. There's enough separation in the schedule between the two. One year they were on top of each other which isn't good, but they're very different tracks. If they were both road courses I don't think we need two of them within 60 miles of each other. Historically it's been done and I see no reason why it can't. You have to look at the schedule and look at our opportunities."

Rahal: "I think the most important thing we want to make sure that whether it's ABC-ESPN, or someone else, there's got to be a real investment to grow and merchandise the series. NASCAR benefited greatly from TNN and ESPN, and CBS with the Daytona 500. There were a lot of moves by those networks as an investment in that series to take it to another level and we have to ensure that we have the same kind of relationship in the future."

Rahal: "We have a two-pronged strategy. We're going to continue to do everything we can to find some type of a resolution. Now that just may simply be the ability to run Indy. It may go beyond that. To be honest, I don't know what that ultimate form may be but there is an interest on our part to pursue part A of that strategy.

"I think it enhances the Indy 500 to have our teams there. I think it did that a little bit this year. I don't think there's any question of that. Maybe some of it was the competition between the two series. No matter what the spin afterwards all you have to do is read the letters to the editor and it's clear what came out of that. I think it enhances the Indianapolis 500 to have a Penske or a Ganassi or Newman-Haas at that event.

"By the same token we have an obligation to continue to grow this series. We have a very different philosophy than the IRL. We have very different attributes than NASCAR. We need to take our attributes and make them better known-why we're unique and special and built our aspect of the sport up. I don't want to be another form of the IRL. I want to be CART which is road races, street races, short ovals and big ovals. I think our formula is the right formula and so we have to do everything that we can so we just don't survive but grow.

"The Superbowl was originally conceived as a way for the AFL to battle against the NFL and I'm just speaking out loud but why couldn't the Indy 500 be the Superbowl? The only thing that's different is that rules of the AFL were the same as the rules in the NFL. So it made it very easy. We have to find some resolution to the rules so it's reasonably inexpensive for CART or IRL teams to change their cars or engines so that you can easily compete against one another.

"I think one of the mistakes that has been made is that we have almost been apologetic for who we are over the last several years. Everybody's talked ad nauseum about how can we create a solution and the reality is I don't know if we can create a solution. While we will always continue to try we can never take our eye off the ball which is to build this series into the best series possible."

Rahal: "We have talked to ISC about the Glen. I believe that what makes the sport viable is its past, its history. That's what legitimises it today and I think that open wheel cars at Watkins Glen would be a huge hit, and I think they feel the same way. Unfortunately, there has to be a hell of a lot of work done there from a safety standpoint which in my mind should be done anyway because there's all kinds of racing there. But it's a big price tag I believe. I will say there's interest but that's probably a long-term project I would say.

"As far as Road Atlanta, I was just down there not too long ago and it's a fantastic facility. Don Panoz has done a tremendous job. I could hardly recognise the place and without question that's a very interesting place for us particularly as our TV ratings in Atlanta are generally some of the highest ratings we get. I think we've got a great core of permanent road racing facilities and certainly I would like to see us incorporate a Watkins Glen or something like that in future because I think it would be huge."

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