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Sunday, August 3

Series plans to stick around for '04, '05
By Robin Miller
Special to

Robin Miller ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. -- Last year here at Road America the CART paddock wore a universal look of concern because nobody could figure out how there would be enough cars to field a series in 2003.

This weekend, the drivers, mechanics and some owners in Champ Car have a new worry: will the CART series itself still be standing in 2004?

"That is the big concern for everyone, for sure, and I've been asking that question since last month but I don't get any answers," said Patrick Carpentier, a seven-year veteran whose primary sponsor, Player's, is being forced out of motorsports by Canadian tobacco legislation.

Scott Roembke, general manager for Team Rahal, claims he knows nothing about CART's pending sale or its future plans but "assumes there is going to be a CART" in 2004.

Stefan Johansson, ex-CART and Formula One regular who now co-owns a Champ Car team for Jimmy Vasser and Ryan Hunter-Reay, concurs with Roembke.

"I have no idea what's going on but I'm hopeful and CART keeps saying they're planning for 2004 and 2005," said Johansson.

Derrick Walker, longtime CART owner who campaigns two rookies (Darren Manning and Rodolfo Lavin) this year, is also a member of the Delaware Board, which governs CART.

"People keep saying 'why doesn't CART say anything' but we're under a massive gag order," said Walker. "If there is good news, nobody can talk about it right now."

Bruno Junqueira, who won the pole position for Sunday's Mario Andretti Grand Prix here, sums up the feelings of most people who work in this 24-year-old series. "I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen."

That atmosphere of uncertainty has created countless rumors and speculation, not to mention planning problems for 2004 and beyond.

In a nutshell, CART managed to answer the bell this season because it dug into its kitty and is funding more than half of its 19 cars. It's also promoting races and buying air time on CBS and Speed. A conservative estimate is that it's costing CART some $80 million to exist in 2003.

Paul Tracy
CART is confident that its Champ Cars will be on track next season.

By the end of '03, its cash reserve will likely be under $25 million and that's where the math doesn't begin to add up for 2004. Two weeks ago, the publicly-traded company announced the obvious -- it didn't have enough money for next year.

That came on the heels of CART confirming it was for sale.

With its stock price at an all-time low of $1.50 share (the high was $38 a share in 1999), CART is primed to be purchased but that doesn't begin to solve the impending problems.

Finding a buyer might not be hard. Gerry Forsythe, co-owner of the Player's/Forsythe stable of Paul Tracy and Carpentier and CART's No. 1 stockholder, is thought to have a group assembled that has made a bid to buy CART and take it private.

Bernie Ecclestone has looked over CART's financial records during the past year and supposedly met with CART CEO Chris Pook a few times about the possibility of buying into a series he once loathed because it was his direct competition.

But Bernie's name hasn't been mentioned lately and nobody can figure an angle that would make sense -- or cents -- for the F1 czar's involvement.

And buying CART is the easy, and cheap, part of this equation -- maybe costing $21 million. What remains for a new owner is ponying up millions and millions of dollars to keep Champ Car on track in 2003.

The buyer or buyers have to be passionate about the product and very well-oiled, since it's easy to see television costing $20 million, another $20 million for operating/staffing and maybe twice that to keep at least 18 cars running.

And the teams trying to score sponsors are being bogged down by all the questions surrounding CART's future.

Tom Anderson, who co-owns and manages Fernandez Racing, says Tecate Beer, Quaker State and TelMex need some answers -- soon.

"They're asking questions we can't answer right now and I think we're testing their loyalty," said Anderson, whose partner, Adrian Fernandez, is the lone owner/driver in CART. "I think Adrian's association with them is buying us some time but we're getting into the last hour as far as budgets go.

"The longer is goes, the bleaker it gets."

Thanks to longtime sponsor finder Ralph Hansen, Newman/Haas Racing added PacifiCare and McDonald's to Eli Lilly this year, and they're already on board for 2004.

"They all love CART racing and they're delighted with the venues and activities," said Hansen, who also brokered the Texaco and Kmart sponsorships for Newman/Haas.

That situation is a rarity, however. Most open wheel teams are scrambling to find dollars.

"It's very tough to get sponsorships right now, whether it's Formula One, IRL or CART," said Emerson Fittipaldi, the two-time F1 and Indy 500 champion, in his first year as a CART car owner. "Our situation looks uncertain right now and that makes it even more difficult.

"The last few weeks we've had some bad news in CART but I'm confident it will be good news in a couple weeks."

The drivers want to share that optimism, but it's not easy.

"Hell no, I don't have any answers. You need to talk to all the smart guys that are calling the shots and a lot of the guys that put us in this position," said Vasser, the '96 CART champion who has dabbled with Busch stock cars this year. "Personally, I think the best thing for open wheel, Indy-style racing, I said it before, somehow, both sides need to get together. In my opinion, one guy dying and the other guy picking up the pieces is not the way to do it.

"It's not good for the fans, momentum or the sport.

"Maybe if we had a united series we could lure back some of the sponsors like Valvoline, Shell and Budweiser."

Carpentier, who like Tracy has a contract with Forsythe for 2004, isn't averse to the IRL or NASCAR, but that's not his preference.

" (Sponsors) are asking questions we can't answer right now and I think we're testing their loyalty. I think Adrian's association with them is buying us some time but we're getting into the last hour as far as budgets go. The longer is goes, the bleaker it gets. "
Team co-owner Tom Anderson

"Sometimes I think everything would be better with one series, but I love CART. It's a fantastic series," said the 30-year-old Canadian. "The IRL is dangerous and it's hurt quite a few guys, but I run well on ovals and it could be a good option for me.

"NASCAR really interests me too but that would only be if CART goes away."

Tracy says he's concentrating on winning his initial Champ Car title and hasn't thought about 2004 but can't imagine life without CART. "I've spent my whole career here. I love the cars and the different types of tracks.

"We've got a lot of loyal fans in North America and it would be very, very sad to see this series go away. There's none better for a race driver."

Junqueira, who came to the CART in 2001 after winning the F3000 title and being a test driver for Frank Williams' F1 team, isn't sure what he would do if CART closed its doors.

"I always think I could do well in Europe but I don't think I could get a quality ride there," said the pole-sitter of the 2002 Indianapolis 500 who is currently chasing Tracy in the CART standings. "I really like living in Miami and the challenges CART presents.

"I could spend the rest of my career here and I think Paul (Newman) and Carl (Haas) want to stay in CART."

Pook, who wasn't here this weekend, managed to keep Champ Car afloat this year by striking a deal for spec engines with Ford/Cosworth and paying for cars, races and television out of company coffers.

While it remains the most diverse racing series in the world with several strong venues, it's also an economic enigma. It's going to require millions of dollars to just operate in 2004 but there's almost no money coming into CART.

Tony George has run the IRL on that same flawed business premise the past eight years but his pockets and resources are much deeper than CART's. He's paid a big price to try and rule open wheel racing but this war of economics may have finally cost CART its very existence.

Robin Miller covers open wheel racing for ESPN and

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