Pro Racing Takes It to the Streets

Champ Car World Series is looking for pole position as a racing circuit with a fresh approach to revving-up the fans

Gentlemen, start your engines. The Champ Car World Series begins its 2006 season on Apr. 7, with the Streets of Long Beach race in Long Beach, Calif.

The circuit, formerly known as Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), has been enjoying new life since Australian venture capitalist and former JDS Uniphase -- now called just JDSU -- (JDSU) Chief Executive Kevin Kalkhoven led an investor group that bought it out of bankruptcy in 2004.


  The league had famously split with auto racing's premier event, the Indianapolis 500, after Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George formed his own Indy Racing League in 1994. Kalkhoven has since renamed CART. the Champ Car World Series and installed new management.

Champ's strategy is to "bring the racing to the fans" by holding events on downtown streets, at airports, and in locations other than the traditional oval track. The circuit has learned the hard way that the easier races are to get to, the more fans show up.

Last year, for example, Champ eliminated its annual race at the storied Laguna Seca track, two hours south of San Francisco, and replaced it with a much closer street course in San José. The San José Grand Prix drew 150,000 people. Champ's 15-race season ends with a race in Mexico City on Nov. 12.


  Even though the new owners bought it at the fire sale price of $3.3 million in cash, plus the assumption of other debts and obligations, it will be tough to avoid another financial tailspin. In 2002, the last year before it declared bankruptcy, CART lost $14 million on $57 million in sales.

This time the timing couldn't be better. Motorsport is one of the fastest growing spectator draws in the U.S. According to Daytona Beach, Fla.-based International Speedway Corporation (ISCA), the largest race track operator in the U.S., the annual attendance at all U.S. motorsports events is estimated at more than 15 million. And more than 350 million viewers watched the NASCAR Nextel Cup and Nascar Busch series on TV in 2004, a 56% increase over 2003.

In 2004, more Americans watched NASCAR on television than regular season NBA and Major League Baseball games -- by 18% and 53%, respectively.

NASCAR is a privately-held entity and does not release its annual sales figures but the NASCAR Nextel and NASCAR Busch series gross domestic TV rights revenues grew from $127 million in 2000 to $497 million in 2005.


  Champ's new president and chief executive, Steve Johnson, wouldn't mind recreating that track record. A former manager at Allied Signal, now Honeywell, where he ran their Fram, Autolite, Bendix, and Prestone automotive brands, Johnson got his first exposure to auto racing as grand marshal at a National Hot Rod Assn. event in Atlanta. After nearly being blown off the track he ended up joining the NHRA and later the Sports Car Club of America, which has its own racing events.

Johnson's strategy is to add more activities to each event, delivering more entertainment value for fans. A typical three-day Champ event may include concerts, fashion shows, car shows, motocross events, even boxing matches. "Our idea of success is not having someone sit on a metal stand for four hours getting sunburned," Johnson says.

Champ also has a potential star this season in Katherine Legge. The 25-year-old Brit will make her Champ debut this season, the only female in the league. "All eyes are on her right now," Johnson says. The league also has new celebrity owner, comedian Cedric the Entertainer, who has invested in the CTE Racing-HVM team. He joins another long time teamowner and fan, actor Paul Newman.

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