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Foundation is old, but is it crumbling?

The CART series, an idea germinated by disaffected team owners in 1978, has steadily lost ground in recent years to the Indy Racing League. Now some of its founders speak out.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Maybe they just looked in opposite directions and didn't realize it. Maybe they just saw different futures through their rose-colored goggles. What the founders of Championship Auto Racing Teams didn't envision 25 years ago was where the road has taken it.

"I envisioned a racing class all its own -- road courses, street courses, ovals -- and we've accomplished that. We've got the most versatile racing series in the world," said Pat Patrick who, along with Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Roger Penske and a handful of other car owners, created CART.

Foyt disagreed, vehemently.

"When it was first formed because we couldn't get our way with (the U.S. Auto Club), CART was really a good organization," he said. "Then you had people like Penske and Pat Patrick. All of them wanted to start representing themselves. Then suddenly they all wanted to go road racing. That's not what CART was formed to do. . . . Now I'm very embarrassed I was ever associated with it."

Interesting, then, that what went around has come around:

In 1978, Gurney, Foyt and the rest of the car owners felt they had little or no control over the direction of USAC's championship series. They broke away, leaving USAC to sanction a few races including the Indianapolis 500. USAC now sanctions primarily sprint-car and midget-car racing.

In 1994, Tony George, owner of the speedway and grandson of former owner Tony Hulman, announced the formation of the breakaway, all-oval Indy Racing League because he felt "foreign drivers and too many road-course and international events are diluting the meaning of American open-wheel racing." He also said the cost of putting together a CART program was becoming prohibitive for most owners. In the IRL, which sanctions the Indy 500, everyone pays the same price for an engine and chassis.

"It's 'Welcome to the world of big politics, big corporate wars, and grandsons,' " Gurney said.

The IRL held its first season in 1996. CART boycotted the Indy 500 then and for the next three years. "When (CART) turned on Indianapolis, that's when I walked out," Foyt said.

He and some other team owners stayed with George and his IRL; most bigger names -- Penske and Patrick, drivers Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. among them -- remained with CART.

When CART returned to the Indy 500 in 2000, Juan Montoya, driving for Chip Ganassi's team, won the race. In 2001 the top five finishers were CART drivers; the closest IRL driver, Eliseo Salazar of Foyt's team, was one lap down. Helio Castroneves has won the past two Indy 500s, but the CART-IRL lines are being blurred with the shifting teams.

With its younger, less well-known drivers, the IRL initially struggled for acceptance by fans and sponsors. But it still had the Indianapolis 500. Over time, CART seemed to lose power and prestige in the form of departing name drivers, team owners and sponsors, many of them to the IRL.

Patrick, whose car will be driven in Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg by Oriol Servia, said CART "used to be in the same shape as NASCAR (with highly recognizable drivers) until the IRL was formed, and we've been going downhill ever since. I'm very disappointed that we've backed up so far instead of going ahead.

"We went from the top of the heap to the bottom. . . . That's a direct result of a lack of (previous) management. Now we've got to turn it all the way around. It's going to take us a year, two years, to get (CART) back where it was," Patrick said, "but we'll get it there."

Gurney was far more critical than Patrick of CART's former top executives. "What are the really successful sports entertainment businesses? The National Football League, professional golf, NASCAR. Most have had very, very good leadership. I don't believe CART has had that from Day 1.

"They never went out and got a Peter Ueberroth (who ran the hugely profitable 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics) or a Pete Rozelle (the former NFL commissioner who led its emergence through the 1960s and '70s). CART sort of hired a bunch of people that were no threat to the team owners."

Penske, formerly one of CART's most visible and successful owners, defected to the IRL last year. The reasons were twofold. He said he saw more stability in the privately held IRL than publicly held CART, and Philip Morris USA, his primary sponsor, wanted all of its Marlboro brand exposure in the United States. Nine of CART's 19 races are on foreign soil.

"I never would have believed I'd be running IRL," Penske told the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida after the 2002 season, "but we're in business. And business changes. Circumstances change. People change. Environment changes."

Foyt said he thinks Penske "also finally got fed up with fighting (the IRL), knowing it was an uphill battle, and he pulled out. It's like a bunch of horsemen trying to go up against the Kentucky Derby. . . . I don't feel sorry for them at all 'cause they're getting exactly what they deserve."

Much speculation these days is not about how successful CART can become once again but rather whether it will survive the next few years. The perception is that it is running out of time to resurrect itself.

"I'm concerned about that," Patrick said. "I'm concerned that more remaining (CART) drivers think the IRL is the way to go. I think we've tried to counteract that," he added, praising CART's hiring last year of Chris Pook, its latest president and CEO, and criticizing previous bosses for mismanagement.

But he added there might be times CART has difficulty filling a starting field.

"In this economy, it's very difficult to get sponsors. ... Our success depends on the economy, war and how we are perceived by the advertising business," Patrick said. "If we don't put on a good show and don't run a good business, the ad folks won't get involved with us and we won't be able to sell sponsorships."

Penske has said he believes within a year or two there will be one major American open-wheel series, and that it won't be CART.

"That's fine, if that's his feeling," Pook said, "but it's not going to deter us from continuing to grow our series."

Gurney, owner, CEO and chairman of All American Racers, a race-car manufacturer he co-founded in 1965, left CART in 2000, unable to raise enough sponsor money to fund a team. He was reticent to knock CART; his son, Alex, drives in one of its minor leagues, the Toyota Atlantic series.

"I should say only positive things about (CART)," Dan Gurney said, reflecting on its history even earlier than the birth of the IRL, "but not everything I feel about CART ends up being that way."

Foyt's allegiance always has been to the Indy 500, which he ran from 1958-92 and won four times. That's why he has been an IRL man since its inception.

"You don't know me from winning the Daytona 500, Le Mans, Pocono four times, Sebring, the Daytona 24 (hours)," Foyt said. "You know me from one place. No disrespect to Mario (Andretti) and those other guys (who stayed with CART), but when they say they made the Indianapolis 500, they're full of it. Indianapolis was there way before me and it's going to be there way after me."

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