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CART's New CEO: Mr. Consensus

You've got to figure Joseph Heitzler, who was named as CART's new President and CEO back in December, is either a little crazy or he's one of those guys who really loves a challenge. Or both. When I saw him in the Media Center at the Sneak Preview several weeks ago, Joe explained his approach to the new job, and oh, what a job awaits the man I now refer to as Mr. Consensus!

Mr. Consensus, because that is the only way he is going to be able to achieve everything he wants to achieve. Let's take a look at what Mr. Consensus is going up against.

Like nearly everyone who follows CART, Joe seems to have quickly grasped the central dilemma for the series -- how does the most exciting racing on four wheels manage to under perform series like NASCAR and F1? In other words, the show is not CART's problem, but nearly everything else is.

Formula One is basically a big snooze, but in many of the countries where its races are aired, it's packaged as a Bad Guy (Michael Schumacher) versus Good Guys (Mika Hakkinen/David Coulthard) serial epic. And the good ole' boys of NASCAR have turned their weekly "taxi cabs on Crystal Meth fests" into redneck High Holy Days with ultra slick marketing. Neither, in Deep Throttle's opinion, can hold a candle to CART's increasingly competitive contests.

So, what's the deal? For starters, other than its hardcore fans, the public doesn't know who CART's drivers are. Most know the names Andretti and Mears. Beyond that, these guys are no names. That doesn't mean no talent, just that for too long, the emphasis in CART has been on technical excellence at the expense, albeit not intentionally, of promoting its drivers. Turning this around and marketing the drivers -- as opposed to simply merchandising -- is absolutely part of the Heitzler agenda.

Hopefully, this will prove to be more effective than hiring a "marketing guru." I know Joe agrees with me on this one, because look who just walked out the door at CART -- the "guru" who was supposed to turn things around. I mean no disrespect to Pat Leahy; rather, the problems are more complex than just bringing in a marketing guru.

The headlines of late have been filled with problems with the Rio race. One day it's canceled, the next day it's back on. As of today, it's canceled. Roughly one third of CART's drivers are of the Brazilian persuasion. They rightly view the venue as their home race. The new Mayor of Rio seems hell bent on attracting negative publicity for himself and his city, especially the way Mr. Heitzler tells the story. The other side of the coin is that the fees due to CART as the sanctioning body seem to have risen over the past five years. Now, this isn't the first time that a race venue has had a dispute with CART, is it racing fans?

The problem facing Mr. Consensus is that CART has always represented the team owners. Never mind about the drivers, or even the race promoters, CART was always Patrick/Penske and what other team owners were in the mix, Inc. Now, in addition to those esteemed gentlemen, there are shareholders to consider.

The big one, the biggest challenge for Mr. Consensus, is the Indy 500. In the words of my friend and editor, Russell Jaslow, "We want our race back." Do we ever! CART has gone public, but CART has still not solved its most enduring problem. If you try to explain to a non-motorhead what CART is, one inevitably utters those words, "Like they race at Indy?" Then if you have a conscience (or if you will be seeing the friend again in six months), you have to follow it up with, "But, they actually don't race at Indy anymore." Right, that makes so much sense, doesn't it?

CART's power imbalance in the team owners' favor was undoubtedly a major reason for IMS owner Tony George's decision to take "his" race and go play with some other team owners. The problem is, the IRL has not lived up to its expectations and CART still needs Indy, pure and simple.

So somehow, our hero must promote the drivers, who have never had a major say-so in anything, as stars. Hopefully, that will not result in our boys in flame retardant suits starting to act like real stars, or he will have a whole new set of problems, but then, that might be a problem he wouldn't mind having right now. He has to fix nearly everything in the organization -- except the outcome of the races. And he has to do that without alienating the "stars", the stockholders, or the promoters.

Heitzler must overcome CART's organizational arrogance in dealing with venues and promoters, especially the one they can't get -- Tony George. Oh, and he also has to worry about turning a profit.

Like I said, maybe this Heitzler guy is a little bit crazy, or maybe he really loves a challenge.

Copyright © 2001 by Lisa Davidson and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

 
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