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Uncensored CART Commentary
by Ed Donath

Diplomatic Immunity?

WESTMINSTER, VT—A couple of years ago when Patrick Leahy was appointed CART Marketing VP, he immediately announced a search for an Ambassador of the FedEx Championship Series—someone dedicated to and knowledgeable about CART and the folks who comprise our beloved speed sport—a representative that would travel to places in and near Champ Car event venues, preaching the exciting CART Fans’ Gospel on the Rubber Chicken Circuit.

The Ambassador was to have been a major component of Leahy’s grander scheme to finally put a needed human face on an ostensibly machine-oriented technosport by focusing on the interesting and often charismatic personalities that abound in CART paddocks. Leahy’s marketing model would not only have made the selling of the “Fastest Cars on Earth” brand more personal and multi-dimensional but would have also helped to differentiate CART from competing series.

This renegade scribe believed whole-heartedly in Leahy’s public relations vision for Champ Car racing. I was also impressed by the Marketing VP’s 20-year track record with the well-run Target Stores chain and by the successful inaugural Target Chicago Grand Prix promotion he created just prior to joining CART full-time, and was moved to eagerly throw my helmet into the ring and campaign vigorously for appointment to the ambassadorship.

For weeks, via e-mail, I bombarded Pat Leahy with original promotional ideas in an effort to demonstrate oneness with and support for his vision and—selfishly—to secure the inside track for the job. I wrote of my endorsement of Leahy’s plan in an Internet commentary and even convinced the editor of the now-defunct Champ Car to afford me with a 350-word mini platform from which to launch my own Ambassador Concept sales pitch. But in the end, understandably, I lost out to the icon of Champ Car racing, Mario Andretti.

Mario, however, was also never installed as CART’s official Ambassador. Pat Leahy’s giant marketing pumpkin died on the vine as a result of non-irrigation by the plagiaristic new CEO who had become enamored of the sports/entertainment marketing approach after watching a Larry King interview with Vince McMahon on CNN and hanging with Sly Stallone one afternoon on the Hollywood set of Driven.

Subsequently, Leahy grew disgusted with Uncle Joe and resigned from Championship Auto Racing Teams barely six months from the day that Bobby “Interim” Rahal had piped him on board.

Fast-forwarding to the present, Christopher R. Pook, who obviously prefers to micro-manage all marketing functions—perhaps to avoid confrontation with temperamental creative Pat Leahy types—recently made the following official statement about Mario Andretti’s latest CART appointment:

"Mario Andretti is a true believer in the CART product, and has long been a great ambassador of our sport," said Pook. "Mario has a wealth of experience in racing that will benefit our Board of Directors and management as we continue to refine and implement our business model and marketing platform. We believe that Mario's experience in various forms of motor racing, as well as his business and marketing acumen, will complement the strengths of the other members of the Board of Directors."

Grandpa Chris’ announcement certainly sounds as if it were ghost written by Pat Leahy himself! While reading it provided impetus for the memory-jog portion of this column, it was something Mario Andretti said in his brief acceptance speech that was the greater inspiration for this morning’s literary exercise.

"I am proud and honored to join CART's Board of Directors and hope to assist the current Board in helping CART attain the status that it deserves in motor racing," Andretti said. "While this is a business decision for me and my family, it has always been clear that my heart is in CART, and it will be my pleasure to help the series to grow."

That little un-emphasized part about Mario’s family being involved with his business decision-making process hit a raw nerve.

Please understand that I am quite pro-family and know full well that blood is thicker than liquid assets. For example, despite writing today from deep in the sticks of my least favorite under-speeding, tree-hugging state, I am genuinely enjoying every minute of a Labor Day weekend visit with my first-born daughter. Later today her youngest sister will join us, and I’ll be even more ecstatic.

And that is precisely why I must assume that if push ever came to shove it would be extremely difficult for Mario Andretti—or anyone else, for that matter—to put the welfare of the stockholders ahead of the welfare of his family (read: son).

It was especially ironic that my reading of Mario’s statement this morning—while the rest of my family remains deep in beauty sleep—came right after a review of the transcript of Grandpa Chris’ Denver press conference. In case you missed it, that was the one in which the current CEO and several stalwart CART team owners did a commendable job of counter-spinning the latest round of “CART is dead” rumors that were spawned by Andretti the Younger’s plan to forsake CART’s “green” pastures for what he and his sponsor perceive to be even Vermont-ier fields.

Where will Mario be when sonny-boy Micheal runs the Indy 500? Will they set up a special director’s chair in the Speedway’s VIP section for him with the words Mario Andretti – CART Board Member lettered on it? Or will plain old Dad choose to stand in Mikey’s pit booth with team headphones on, as usual?

Mario Andretti’s inevitable presence at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a high-ranking CART employee may prove to be annoying to its inheritor. Then again, it may annoy die-hard FedEx Championship Series fans and steadfast team owners even more.

Copyright © 2002 by Ed Donath and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

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