St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Pook needs savvy to get CART going

The man who made the Long Beach race a success has a bigger task now.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Christopher Pook, savior-in-waiting for Championship Auto Racing Teams, saw a sleepy little community with a naval base, offshore oil wells, and a commercial port it shared with its overshadowing big sister, Los Angeles.

It was Long Beach, 1973. "I was sitting in my (L.A.) travel agency on Memorial Day, listening to the Indianapolis 500," he said, "and all of a sudden I was thinking, 'auto racing ... marketing a city ... Monte Carlo.' "

What he envisioned was a festival of smoking rubber, checkered flags, screaming engines -- and screaming fans. Sort of like what he expects Sunday along the St. Petersburg waterfront.

From that epiphany has come Pook's newest challenge: trying at age 61 to turn around CART which, from most perspectives, appears to be running second to the Indy Racing League -- and maybe running out of fuel -- in the riven world of American open-wheel racing.

"I wish him all the luck in the world," said Dan Gurney, one of CART's co-founders, sounding very much as though he was thinking He's going to need it. "Chris Pook is bright and energetic. He has to be. It's not an old man's sort of job."

It would seem to be a daunting one for CART's president and CEO. But the British-born Pook, an entrepreneur almost from birth, said he never has met a challenge he didn't like.

"My parents always used to remind me that when I was 6 years old I held a dog-jumping show on the village green in Durley, Hampshire, on Easter vacation," he said. "There was a perimeter fence and everyone had to pay sixpence to watch." He turned a tidy profit.

Not a turnaround guy

Long Beach was building a convention center. Pook felt the city deserved more visibility. He hooked up with government and tourism folks. Yes, the city had the Queen Mary, the ocean liner turned permanently anchored hotel. But it wasn't exactly Niagara Falls, the Eiffel Tower or the Sphinx.

"Do you want to try to put yourself on the map by spending $20-million a year in advertising," Pook asked, "or do something absolutely outrageous?"

His audience was intrigued.

"I said, 'Close the streets and run motor cars.' " The way they did in Monza and Buenos Aires -- and Monte Carlo. "After they tried to lock me in an asylum they decided it wasn't a bad marketing idea."

In 1975 Long Beach ran its first grand prix. Now Pook is charged with resuscitating CART, which has run at Long Beach since 1984. "I've never turned a company around in my life," he said. "I'm not a turnaround guy; I'm a marketer."

Pat Patrick, another CART co-founder and a car owner in the series, said Pook is exactly what CART needs to heal its self-inflicted wounds. "It was the arrogant attitude of our management in the past that made promoters very unhappy," Patrick said. "Finally we have a man coming from the ranks of promoters who knows how to make things work and get things turned around."


In 1978, Patrick, Gurney, Roger Penske, A.J. Foyt and other car owners banded together and wrested control of U.S. open-wheel racing from the Hulman family that owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and ran the U.S. Auto Club.

But CART's directors were the owners trying to beat each other. The executives they hired, Gurney said, "were a bunch of lightweights that they didn't have to pay attention to."

For years CART was the unquestioned power in U.S. open-wheel racing, the Indy 500 the zenith of its season. Then speedway owner Tony George, protesting CART's infighting and ever-increasing costs of fielding teams, established his cut-rate IRL in 1996.

Foyt sided with George; most big-name owners and drivers left -- locking themselves out of the Indy 500 in the process. Within a few years they were migrating back to Indy. CART's prestige headed south. It is fighting an uphill battle not just against the IRL but also the NASCAR juggernaut. To some observers, it is only a matter of time until CART crashes and burns.

"A lot of these teams are (in CART) because their owners want to have a hobby," Gurney said. "They can afford to run a business that never makes a profit and never has trouble making payroll because they'll just dig into their bank accounts for more. That's not my idea of a really good business."

Further, said David Clare, CART's chief operating officer since December, those executives were neither marketers nor experts in staging events on a grand prix scale.

Clare and Pook have known each other for 15 years, since Pook was head of the company running the Long Beach race and Clare was right-hand man for Bernie Ecclestone, who runs predominantly European Formula One racing.

"Chris is the first person who has been involved in actually putting together racing events rather than just being involved in race teams," Clare said. "He understands what goes into putting on an event and growing things from the ground upwards.

"He is used to dealing with the various elements and he has a very in-depth knowledge of the race teams, the history of the series. He has been around almost from its beginning. He knows all the players and all the issues."

Or, as Gurney put it: "Pook's the first one with the potential to save CART's bacon."

The kid needs a job

That assumes CART isn't taken over by F1.

CART has lost champions Jacques Villeneuve (1995), Juan Montoya (1999) and Cristiano da Matta (2002) to F1. And the Toronto Sun reported last year that Ecclestone was interested in buying 51 percent of CART and turning it into a training ground for F1. Pook said he spoke with his friend, but only to ask if he was leading CART in the right direction.

Pook said he has "always been an auto-racing guy. I started off wanting to be a jockey, but I grew, which is a problem. So I got into motorcycles. I was very bad at that. Then I got into cars. I was equally bad at that. Then I came to America."

Pook's father, an inventor, "probably where a little bit of my creativity comes from," encouraged his son to move to the United States, "a place of great opportunity. I accepted that challenge."

In 1963, Pook, 22 and multilingual, was hired by a New York bank. "I arrived after five days on the Atlantic. It was 90 degrees, 90 percent humidity. After two days I said, 'I can't take this place.' "

The bank let him out of his obligation. He flew to Chicago, "spent two hours riding around the city in a taxi, went back to the airport and headed to L.A."

Pook had no job, no prospects. But he did have friends who took him to dinner. When he said he was looking for work, "they went across to another table and brought back a guy three sheets to the wind. They said he was a general contractor and told him, 'This kid needs a job.' "

"When can you start?"

"Any time you want."

"I'll pick you up 7:30 tomorrow morning."

By 8, Pook was pushing a wheelbarrow for $2.60 an hour. "Those days, good money," Pook said.

Three months later he was managing his boss' 2,800 apartment units. In 1965 he started a travel agency, sold it in 1968, became a marketing consultant in the air-charter business, got bored by 1971 and opened another travel agency.

Then Long Beach beckoned.

'People challenge me'

Pook started with a Formula 5000 race in 1975. Its moderate success was noted by F1. The next year Long Beach was one of its two U.S. races. Again it was reasonably successful, then flourished when popular American Mario Andretti won in 1977, beating F1 ace Niki Lauda. After the 1983 race, Ecclestone sought a major increase in F1's sanctioning fee. Pook passed and turned to far-less-expensive CART. When Andretti, having left F1 to race full time for CART, won in 1984, Long Beach was on its way to becoming CART's most popular open-wheel street race in the United States.

Pook ran the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach until Dover Downs Entertainment bought it in 1998, then became a Dover Downs director while continuing to run the Long Beach operation. When CART offered him its top job in 2000, Pook declined, uncomfortable with the composition of its board. The next year, CART asked again; this time he accepted -- in part, he said, because he believed if CART died, the Long Beach Grand Prix (and St. Petersburg's) would go down with it.

Since then, he admitted, he has had some what-have-I-gotten-myself-into moments, "two or three when the proverbial manure was close to my chin." But his smile and enthusiasm rarely seem to fade. "People challenge me and I figure out what the challenge is. And if I think I've got the right plan and can put the right team together and make it work, then I do it."

Can he do it?

"He's going up against the draw of NASCAR, which is like a vacuum cleaner sucking in all the sponsors, and the IRL, which still has a very formidable war chest," Gurney said. "But if there's a plan that makes sense, Chris Pook's probably got it."

Chris Pook

WHAT: President/CEO, Championship Auto Racing Teams.

BORN: April 1, 1941, Somerset, England.

EDUCATION: La Sorbonne, France (modern languages), University of London (marketing and sales promotion).

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Raced in amateur events in England; emigrated to United States in 1963, settled in Los Angeles, worked in travel industry before founding Grand Prix of Long Beach, 1975; was its president/CEO, retained that position when race was bought in 1998 by Dover Downs Entertainment; member of the board of Dover Downs until Dec. 18, 2001, when he took over as top executive at CART.

PERSONAL: Wife, Ellen; three adult children. Is fluent in Spanish and French.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.