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Sunday, April 22, 2012

F1 NEEDS 'AMBASSADOR' ANDRETTI and GURNEY

This is supposed to be the season when Americans are reawakened to Formula One. That, of course, is because the world championship is scheduled to return here in November at the new -- and still controversial -- Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

So far, I can't say I've seen much interest. (Too bad since there have been an unusual four different winners for four different constructors in the first four races.) The news out of CotA has been at least as much negative as positive, what with management issues and construction delays. Bernie Ecclestone buddy Tavo Hellmund got the rights to the event but then had a falling out with the CotA main investors and -- surprise! -- a lawsuit followed. The track's money men worked out their own deal with Bernie and work is said to be "on schedule." (Whatever that means.) This much I'll bet you on: For the opening F1 race, the facility won't have nearly all the upscale features heralded in those heady early days of the project.

What with the early season GPs happening in places like Australia and China, the time zone differences have left U.S. TV viewers with the choice of watching in the middle of the night, or replays up against other motorsports programming. Bernie and the FIA went ahead with the Bahrain GP last weekend, taking a big check despite internal political turmoil. There were protests and at least one team, Force India, was affected. As I wrote last week, it was a mistake for F1 to go. I'm writing this before everyone and everything is scheduled to be packed-up and shipped-out. I'm hoping that happened safely. If so, Bernie and Boys will say "Told You So!" as they smile at the nice fat bank deposit. Sorry, that doesn't make it right.

A bit of welcome good news filtered out of CotA last week. The track has teamed up with Pirelli (and are "excited" about it according to the lead of the "news" release) in a much-needed promotional partnership.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is a road show featuring the Lotus show car and driving simulator. According to CotA, the tour will include visits to Montreal, the Monterey Classic Car Show, Denver, Chicago, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Cleveland, South Florida and Austin. A Formula Expo has been announced in Austin for June 16-17 and is supposed to include the chance for the public to meet some F1 drivers.

Considering America's ticket buying public knows as much about the drivers as they do rugby stars, and that the U.S. media has precious little access to interview the likes of Hamilton, Vettel, Schumacher, Alonso, Rosberg and friends to build name recognition here, I'm surprised and disappointed CotA hasn't taken what -- to me -- is an obvious step.

Why not hire Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney as official "ambassadors" for the event? Both are household names everywhere. Both are legends. Both are respected figures in the history of Formula One (Mario, of course, being the 1978 world champion.) Both are great with fans and the media. Mario is based on the East Coast and goes to most of the IndyCar races. Dan is on the West Coast and heavily involved in the DeltaWing Le Mans project.

Mario and Dan would give potential ticket buyers credible people to deliver the sales pitch. They'd give media legitimate spokesmen to interview. The list of positives stretches from Monaco to Melbourne.

I can't believe CotA hasn't already brought Andretti and Gurney into the fold. Now's the time. It should be part of Austin's Formula for Success.


Fred Rhue -- a name you might not know or remember but should -- died last week. It was Rhue, as vice president of automotive finishes for PPG Industries, who helped make Business of Racing history by authorizing a then-unprecedented $1 million point fund for the 1981 CART series. It was Rhue who also was wise enough to hire Jim Chapman to run PPG's CART series sponsorship. That business union resulted in landmark things like the PPG pace cars, the all-female PPG pace car driving team, the PPG hospitality tent (where deals were made and relationships formed) and a major sponsorship with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As CART's first communications director, I got to know Fred well. I liked him a lot and respected him even more. He was a gentleman and a very smart business guy. His daughter, Becky, married driver Scott Brayton, who she met as Scott was racing in the CART series at that time. Thanks, Fred, for all you did. God Bless.


FAST LINES: The Long Beach Grand Prix and NHRA's 4-Wide Nationals are supposed to be two of the most important races of the year, yet both were covered only in USA Today's notes column. And ALMS' round in LB got zip -- not the way to start for the series' new PR director . . . Interesting timing -- NASCAR's visit to the White House last week came on the same day President Obama took on the oil industry. Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet was displayed with prominent Mobil ID. It was also tax day . . . Congratulations to Corinne Economaki, the former National Speed Sport News publisher, now executive director of the North Carolina Motorsports Association. The NCMA Board chose well and chose wisely.

[ more next Monday . . . ]