• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

CART: BELIEVE IT OR NOT

Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is the last hurrah for Championship Auto Racing Teams/Champ Car World Series (1979-2008). So, it's time for a little truth telling. I was CART's first full-time communications director (November 1980-December 1983) and spent many years after that involved in some aspect of the organization or series on pretty much a daily basis. I take no one else's word for anything below -- I write from first-hand knowledge:

* One of CART's five founding concepts was "a greater emphasis on media visibility." When I submitted a routine planning memo for approval of CART's first media guide (December 1980), Chairman John Frasco wrote me back: "Why do we need this?"

* At the 1980 awards banquet, Frasco decided while standing at the podium -- literally -- to honor Mexico City race organizer Gustavo Hellmund as "Promoter of the Year." This had not been discussed in advance and so there was no award to present. Frasco loved the parties and fireworks Hellmund put on and wanted other track operators to do the same.

* After Frasco thought he had a deal with Hellmund for a street race in Acapulco, he confidentally told Board members on a conference call, "We're going to have our own Monaco." Of course, the event never happened.

* When Hector Rebaque won the series' first race at Elkhart Lake, in 1982, there was no trophy for him. The track thought CART or PPG provided such hardware.

* When any unsuspecting new CART secretary would ask, "Who's calling?" Pat Patrick would say, "John Cooper." And that's how the secretary would announce the caller.

* When CART's offices (in a building owned by Patrick) were among several burglarized in the early '80s, insiders immediately wondered if another sanctioning body was responsible. But no files were taken and it turned out to be local criminals stealing typewriters, etc.

* When owners decided to replace John Caponigro, it was Barbara Trueman's idea to put John Capels in charge.

* CART's first marketing director quit before his first day on the job. The second marketing director spent his first morning reading files, went to lunch, called in his resignation, and never returned. The third marketing director -- who worked from Frasco's law office, not CART's -- lasted a few months then left under murky circumstances.

* Whatever mistakes he made, Bill Stokkan was right -- and ahead of his time -- in establishing a business office in New York City. Of course, owners eventually closed it down as "too expensive."

* When I introduced myself to new chair Andrew Craig and mentioned I had worked on the staff, he replied: "Oh, you're one of those." That's how he looked-down on most of those whose efforts made it possible for there to be a job for him.

* When Craig was bounced, ESPN2's old rpm2night committed journalism suicide, by agreeing to give Craig the questions in advance of the interview.

* After driver-owner-director Bill Alsup stood up at a Dallas Board meeting and expressed concern that individual team owners were giving conflicting instructions to staff members, Frasco told us not to discuss organization business with Alsup.

* When Steve Weiss came over from Philip Morris with the too-New Yorkish title of "managing director, communications," Weiss told everyone he made the move "because I see the potential in this form of sports entertainment." We all rolled our eyes, because we'd heard the same thing from various here-and-gone staffers for years.

* Robby Gordon described the cheap plastic awards given to drivers at the 1995 banquet as "ice scrapers."

* With Michael Andretti returning to Newman/Haas for the 1995 season, plus Paul Tracy and Budweiser joining the team, Kmart wanted to host a reception before the 1994 banquet. Even though all the details had been reviewed with, and cleared by, CART's banquet coordinator, Craig objected and insisted Kmart's function be canceled. He said it would "interfer" with his other activities. I agreed to take the blame, since Carl Haas didn't want to embarrass Craig with his sponsors.

* Fawning media praise for Craig's "leadership" at the start of the IRL overlooked the fact that, already, some owners had concerns but didn't take action because of not wanting to look weak to Tony George. When I pointed out to several big-time writers that Craig appeared strong because "the most powerful unifying force for any organization is a common enemy," the typical answer was, "Oh."

* Craig's "presentation" at the 1999 Homestead drivers' meeting was well known to media -- drivers came out talking about it. When I asked one media biggie if he was going to write the story, the answer was, "I would if I thought it would do any good." If that had been Mike Helton, the story would have been written faster than Rick Mears got around the ovals.

* Randy Dzierawski. Tara Scott. Mike Hadley. Rena Shanaman. Kim Parker, et al.

* After I introduced the ESPN announce crew at the 1980 Milwaukee drivers' meeting -- the network's first live race telecast -- Al Unser pulled me aside and asked, "What's ESPN?"

* At the 1982 pre-season promoters meeting, Frasco announced: "We'll have two foreign races this season. One in Mexico City. And one in Riverside." Les Richter didn't look amused.

* I struggled for one week to get one telephone installed in the Mexico City press room before the 1981 race. As soon as the checkered flag waved, workers pulled it out. "The race is over. You don't need it anymore," was the explanation.

* During a live interview on a Mexico TV network before the that '81 race, register Barbara Russell dead-panned: "Oh, I love it here. I haven't had this much fun since the last time we raced in Trenton."

There's countless more, to be revealed another time, another day.

-30- CART/Champ Car.
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Here are links to some of my Arizona Republic stories from the last week's NASCAR at Phoenix --

Dale Earnhardt Jr. feature:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/04/09/20080409dalejr.html

Nationwide Series feature:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/04/09/20080409nationwide.html

Could Tiger Woods have been a great NASCAR driver?:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/04/10/20080410tigerdriver.html

Friday notebook:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/04/10/20080410racingnb.html

Saturday notebook (Jeff Gordon says no Indy 500 for him):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/04/11/20080411pirnb.html

Roundtable with Mike Helton, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Ray Evernham and J.D. Gibbs:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/04/12/20080412pirroundtable.html

Drivers aren't the only ones from open-wheel to go NASCAR:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/04/12/20080412openwheels.html

Sunday notebook (Dario "sad" Jeff's not going to Indy 500):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/04/12/20080412pirnb.html

I'll be doing occasional Business of Drag Racing columns for the monthly Drag Racing Online. Here's a link to the first one:
http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/x_4-1.html

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]