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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Ganassi & Rahal on IndyCar's future

by Gordon Kirby
In the wake of Randy Bernard's departure we patiently await news of who Jeff Belskus and the Hulman and Co board will select to replace him. Belskus says it will likely be some time before the selection is made but whoever it may be the task ahead is large, to say the least. Time is running out and this time around Belskus and the Hulman family must find a dynamic, engaged, powerful, multi-faceted individual. To discuss the challenges facing the candidate I talked last week with Chip Ganassi and Bobby Rahal.

"I think too many people are focusing on the negatives and not the positives," Ganassi said. "I think we have a lot of good things going on. We have good racing, we have good sponsorship, and we have good partners in the engine manufacturers and the tire company. We had great racing all year and all everyone wants to talk about is Randy Bernard. We had the best season for a long time and we needed it on the heels of what happened at the end of the previous season.

"It's the off-season and everyone wants to opine about the state of the sport. I've been in Indy car racing since 1982 and not a year has gone by without people opining about what's going on in the sport, where it's going and who's the leadership. We hear this every year and I get so tired of it. Everybody needs to get a life and get on with their business."

Ganassi emphasized the role the economy plays in the state of the sport.

"The fact of the matter is like most businesses it goes up and down with the economy," he remarked. "I've not known a year when it hasn't felt a gravitational pull or push of the economy. No question about that."

Ganassi believes it will take a strong team of motivated people rather than a single individual to make IndyCar successful.

"I think some of the problem is we're looking for--and this is an issue going back before Randy and Tony--I think the days are maybe gone where you have one guy who's the magic bullet. It takes a team of people these days. I don't know that it's the right question to ask what are the talents that one guy needs to have.

"I think it takes a team of people in a lot of different needs and there's no question that a lot of different areas could use help in Indy car racing. It's a team. It's not one person. It's not somebody that has to know racing. There are certain parts of it where you've got to know racing. I think Randy had some good qualities and I think he lacked some qualities."

Rahal expanded on Ganassi's observations.

"I was a fan of Randy's," Rahal said. "I think in my estimation it's a little premature to say whether he was doing a good job or a bad job because of all the negative baggage that he inherited on his arrival. There was a bad TV package. The ABC part is good but his hands were tied with what was Versus and is now NBC Sports because based on the agreement with ABC IndyCar can't go on network TV anywhere else. But NBC will now be covering Formula One, of all things, and that should be good for Indy car racing.

"There was a lot of stuff that Randy inherited that wasn't good. But having said that I think it would have been good for Randy to have had a guy like Derrick Walker or Steve Horne who understood the role of the owners and the technical issues. I think Will Phillips and his group have done a fabulous job but I think to have a little better understanding of the owner dynamics probably would have been a good thing."

Rahal emphasized his belief in IndyCar's current formula but he also believes the organization needs to make major improvements to its public relations, marketing, merchandising and promotional efforts.

"I'm still very positive about the series because I think when push comes to shove what makes anything popular and successful is the product and I think the product is pretty damn good. I think it's quite good this year compared to the last several years.

"I'm very positive about the product itself and the drivers and teams too. We've had a lot of entries the past several years. It's never been consistently that strong since I've been in Indy car racing. But the promotion of the drivers and the races, the TV, the merchandising and marketing of the series and the drivers is still badly underperforming.

"Obviously, these are the areas that still seem to be the Achilles Heel. The marketing, merchandising, advertising and promotion still seem to be not effective and that to me has been the Achilles Heel.

"Whatever the plan may be, that's going to be the key. How does the series, the 500 and the IMS really ramp up those areas to make it more successful than it's been? Depending on where you stand that's been okay and not so okay. But if the product was horrible or bad I think I would be concerned. I think maybe there's been a reliance just on the product itself.

"But you have to promote the product and the drivers and the series. I hope in this changeover that there's a commitment to do that above and beyond what has been the case in the past."

Rahal is deeply aware that in recent years IndyCar has seriously lacked any major mainstream media coverage. This is a prickly problem that will be very difficult to solve.

"We're off the radar screen," he noted. "We need a very aggressive, very proactive pr department for sure. And you don't have to make up or fabricate the stories. I think there are a lot of dynamic stories out there and you've got to get them written and get them out there and that just hasn't been happening.

"If the product wasn't good I'd be worried, but I think the product is damned good. There's a lot to work with. It's just a matter of the Speedway and IndyCar committing themselves to focusing in those areas at a level that's never been seen before."

Ganassi agrees that the Speedway must make some major improvements to its public relations, marketing and promotional efforts.

"I think there are a number of things going on at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," he commented. "It's a privately-owned company. It's not a public company like ISC. For years it's been quiet and insular. That's the way it's been run. I don't mean anything derogatory or misleading by that. I just think they don't know any better. Could they use some better pr? Certainly. The sport exists outside of I-465 and I think they have to understand and appreciate that.

"I think the first step is I'm pleased with what I hear coming out of IMS and the board of directors. That's the first step. It sounds like they have a proper board now with proper input."

Rahal emphasized the point that IndyCar's new boss must have the confidence of the Speedway, the Hulman & Co board of directors and the team owners. He also believes it's critical that the team owners don't intrude by constantly second-guessing the man in charge.

"I think the biggest thing is that whoever does succeed Randy has the confidence and the backing of the board, which Randy had for a certain period of time," Rahal observed. "They have to have the longterm confidence of the board and IndyCar has to be honest with the owners on all levels and the owners shouldn't involve themselves in areas that they shouldn't be involved with. That needs to be put under control in my mind. Maybe with somebody new coming in they'll all back-off."

Rahal reflected on the six months he spent in 2000 as CART's interim CEO.

"Having been in that situation before I know what it's like trying to direct something when you're looking over your shoulder all the time. It's pretty hard to do your job when you're in that position. I can commiserate with Randy on a number of fronts having been there before. Just putting a schedule together is a very painful, unappreciated act. It's difficult to do when you've got everybody giving you their ten cents worth. So whoever does come in has to be a very strong person and have the confidence and the support of the board and of the series itself."

Rahal pointed out that racing is unlike most other sports because there are a variety of different sanctioning bodies competing for the attention of fans and the media.

"I'm sure the NFL and Major League Baseball and the NHL and all these other sports fight the same battles," he observed. "But because they're monopolies they can get away with it. They can trip over themselves all they want and it doesn't really matter because they're the only game in town. You don't have two different, competing football or baseball leagues. It's not like racing where you have lots of competitive organizations.

"So the confidence and the wherewithal that a racing organization has to give the person in charge is a lot more critical because there are other people out there trying to beat you as a sanctioning body. Racing is a different world and hopefully with this change and hopefully a strong guy coming in the owners will worry about being owners instead of trying to be president of the sanctioning body."

Rahal also commented on a story published last week on the front page of USA Today's sports section suggesting that NASCAR should buy IndyCar.

"That will get a lot of comment going," he remarked. "Apart from the Indy 500, that's the first time IndyCar has been on the front page of USA Today in quite a while. I'm going to write Nate Ryan and say USA Today can help IndyCar by equitably reporting motorsports instead of covering one series (NASCAR) to the exclusion of everybody else. They could be pretty helpful by doing that.

"I remember going to USA Today over a decade ago when I was the interim CEO (of CART), and even as a driver, and asking, why aren't we being reported? USA Today is a newspaper and probably should report on things in an equitable manner.

"I thought it was an interesting article and it's sure to create a lot of comment and that's probably a good thing. It's going to create a lot of buzz and there's going to be a lot of people who think it's not a bad idea and there's going to be a lot of people who think it's the worst idea ever. But at least there's some discussion on the front page about IndyCar."

Rahal emphasized his commitment to the sport.

"I'm very committed to IndyCar," he declared. "That's why I got back in it, frankly. I think it's great racing. I love sports car racing, for sure, but I also love Indy car racing. Let's face it, Indy car racing made Bobby Rahal in many respects. My view is, what do we need do to help? What should the team owners do individually and collectively? How can I help? I want to see the series attain a level of stature that it deserves. We're here to help. We're not going anywhere and we're willing to work really hard."

Ganassi also underlined his deep commitment to IndyCar and motor racing in general.

"My commitment to the sport is unquestioned," Ganassi said. "I've been in racing as a team owner for twenty-five years plus. I'm not looking for anything else to do. My commitment and my investment is here. It's unwavering. I have a sizable investment and a sizable risk in the sport and that's why I feel strongly about certain things.

"I can tell you I'm as committed as anybody. I don't know who out there is more committed than me. If there is, I'd like someone to point him out. I'm committed to IndyCar, I'm committed to all racing. I'm committed to the sport."

Rahal underlined the point he made earlier that IndyCar must make a big effort to expand its flagging media coverage.

"Hopefully they will get a good leader and a guy that we can all get behind and make the series go forward," Rahal said. "There are a lot of good ideas out there. It's just a matter of how do we make the series more compelling for fans. We've got to build the fan base, we have to do better TV and we have to have a lot better promotion. What do we need to do to build the fan base? I think everybody is committed to doing what they can to do that. We need more print media coverage, more radio, the whole nine yards.

"Like I said, if you were struggling for stories, I'd get it. But there are so many good stories, whether it's Ryan attaining a championship after years of hard work, or whether it's a great driver like Franchitti or all the young American guys like Graham or Hildebrand or Newgarden or Marco. There are great names and great team owners who are interesting and successful guys that have a story to tell.

"You've got guys like Roger, obviously, who are successful in their own businesses. But there's also guys like Dennis Reinbold and Jimmy Vasser. Who's going to be the next generation of owners? There's an unlimited number of stories to tell. You've just got to tell them."

Rahal would like to see the new Indy Lights formula dovetailed with Europe's top ladder series categories.

"I think we're in a good position with Indy Lights," he commented. "There's a new car coming and hopefully we can make it a much better car than the one that exists. I'm all for that being an international formula like GP2 or World Series by Renault or whatever. Let's get in tune with the rest of the world with our junior categories so that our guys can go over there and their guys can come here and everything gets better."

Rahal confirmed that he hopes to run two cars next year for his son Graham and Takuma Sato plus a third car at Indianapolis. "I think in the right environment Graham will do great, " he said. "We're also working really hard to have a second program. Takuma would like to come back and I like Takuma a lot. We've got to get him to finish a little more, but he's an exciting guy to watch and when everything goes right he's right there. We want two drivers of winning capability on the team and I don't think there's any question that we'll have a third car at Indy. I don't think I'm interested in having three cars on a regular basis. That's a lot. It's hard enough to focus on two, let alone three on a full-time basis.

"But everybody has been working very hard to put ourselves in a position to once again battle for wins every race. We're here in IndyCar for the long run. I believe in it and I love it. It's great racing. Like I say, I love sports cars too and we've got two great programs. We don't need anything more."

Rahal concluded our discussion by emphasizing that he will provide unwavering support for the right CEO.

"Hopefully, after all this, there's a big opportunity there," he said. "I want to believe and I have to believe--and I've spoken to Jeff Belskus a little bit and I don't think there's any question that they recognize what the needs are. We're still having discussions, throwing ideas back and forth, but I don't think there's any question that they understand what the challenges are and what they need to do about it.

"So hopefully they will bring a strong guy in. I don't want to run the series. I want them to run the series. I want to run my race team. We will do whatever we can to support whoever comes in to lead the charge.

"Hopefully, this time around the organization is really going to give whoever comes in the chance to do his job. It's like Roger (Penske) said, no company can have a revolving door in the chief executive's office and expect to be successful. It takes a year or two just to get your own team in place, forget anything else.

"In some respects, from our standpoint as a team that relies on sponsorship this may be the last chance. This may be the put up or shut up time. If you've got a better idea, let's see it and let's make it good."

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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