Saturday, August 16, 2003

IRL pulling away from rival CART


Series gaining stature, fans

By Colleen Kane
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As the Indy Racing League was getting ready to speed into town this weekend for the Belterra Casino Indy 300, open wheel competitor CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) sputtered away from last weekend's Mid-Ohio's Champ Car Grand Prix with bad news.

The publicly traded CART released its recent financial losses Monday - $43.5 million for the first six months of this year (to June 30), with a $34.5 million loss in the last three months alone.

The numbers are an indication of CART's faltering share in the racing market as more drivers and teams move to the IRL.

CART officials said in a statement Monday that "projections beyond 2004 are, in management's viewpoint, very speculative" and that they don't expect to have positive cash flow "any earlier than 2006." ESPN.com even reported a possible owner buyout to make CART private.

On the flip side, the IRL, which is privately owned and doesn't release financial reports, said this week it was "really excited" about the league's growth in its eight years and likened its start to NASCAR's beginning.

The Indianapolis 500, a long-standing television agreement with ABC and ESPN, and the support of American sponsors have helped the league to blossom. CART has lost more than $5 million in self-promoted events in the last quarter, and TV revenue, in its relationship with CBS and the Speed Channel, has decreased.

The IRL is working to tap into CART's strengths - its drivers and fans.

Long-time CART families such as the Andrettis and Unsers have members in the IRL. Eight of the top 10 drivers in the IRL standings are former CART competitors.

"I just tagged along," said Gil de Ferran, a two-time CART champion who is currently second in IRL standings. "My strongest allegiance was to Team Penske. If Roger (Penske) felt IRL was a better platform for his team, I wasn't about to second-guess him."

CART fans, who are known for their dedication, favor the variety of road courses over the IRL's strictly oval tracks. At Mid-Ohio last weekend, more than 2,700 fans signed petitions to keep the race on CART's schedule, the Associated Press reported.

The IRL has developed a three-part strategy this season to gain "greater fan acceptance," said Ken Ungar, IRL senior vice president for business affairs. The league has combined races with fan events, such as Thursday's Festival of Speed at Newport on the Levee. It also has tried to improve the brand image with products such as an IndyCar Series video game, and has increased promotion of its drivers.

In two seasons, two to four road courses might be added to an expanded schedule of 18-20 races to "add some diversity to the racing schedule and access key markets we're not currently a part of," Ungar said.

"The IRL has a great opportunity to pick some of those places up. You have a lot of great racing venues like Long Beach where it doesn't matter what you're racing, you're going to have over 100,000 people there," said Scott Dixon, a former CART driver now fourth in the IRL points race.

But the majority of the races would stay at ovals, like Kentucky's, which usually provide the closest races. Six IndyCar Series victories have been by less than one second this year.

When Kentucky Speedway was getting ready to open its doors in 2000, management talked briefly with CART but immediately was drawn to IRL president Tony George's mission.

"He wanted American oval tracks and American promoters, and that's what fits us to a tee," speedway general manager Mark Cassis said.

Cassis expects to see nearly 50,000 people "warm up" to the IRL this weekend in Sparta in the track's second-largest event of the year. CART has the weekend off before heading to Montreal Aug. 24.

Belterra Casino Indy 300

Today

Schedule: 10 a.m.-noon and 2-3:30 p.m., IRL practice; 12:45 p.m., IRL Infiniti Pro Series Kentucky 100; 4:30 p.m., Belterra Casino Indy 300 qualifying.

Tickets still available, $30.

Sunday

Schedule: 9:30 a.m., practice; 2 p.m., Belterra Casino Indy 300.

Tickets still available, from $35-$65.




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