Two weeks ago, when the Champ Car World Series stopped for a race in Cleveland, Norris McDonald, motorsport writer for Toronto Star Wheels and wheels.ca, sat down with Steve Johnson, president of Champ Car, and Kevin Kalkhoven, co-owner of the series (with Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi), for a couple of wide-ranging interviews.
Here are transcripts of their conversations.
Interview with Steve Johnson:
STAR: You opened the season with three quick races (Las Vegas, Long Beach, Houston), then there was a six-week gap. There are several of those "gaps" before you end the season in Phoenix in early December. What are you going to do to compress your schedule next year?
JOHNSON: Weâ€™re working on tightening things up right now. Itâ€™s unfortunate what happened this year but weâ€™re working now to avoid that in 2008. Right now, weâ€™re in talks with about 14 different cities in several countries. Our intention is to close some of these gaps because (when we stop) we lose momentum, continuity and consistency.
But the type of racing we do – grand prix racing through city streets – creates problems. Sometimes you canâ€™t race when you want to. For instance, this spring Las Vegas told us, "You either come race this weekend or you donâ€™t race." Phoenix said, "Hereâ€™s the weekend you can race or you donâ€™t race."
So youâ€™re kind of handcuffed a little bit when you do our kind of racing. If we raced on permanent road courses and ovals, we could do 14 races in 14 weeks. But we donâ€™t and we canâ€™t.
STAR: So how, exactly, will you solve some of these scheduling problems?
JOHNSON: For next year, we could have 18 races. That doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™re going to have 18 races, but we could accommodate 18 races based on the economics of the teams and the series. Eventually, as teams get healthier and we move forward, I could see a 20-race schedule.
I canâ€™t tell you the name, but I was in a city in recent days that I think would be ideal for our style of racing and itâ€™s about the same size as Edmonton. Everybody laughed when we said we were going to Edmonton and itâ€™s turned into one of our top five events. Itâ€™s a great city thatâ€™s supported us and the city I talked to this week would be the same kind of city.
STAR: Your TV ratings leave something to be desired. What are you going to do to boost those ratings?
JOHNSON: Weâ€™re never happy, but weâ€™re up significantly. Our TV viewership numbers are up over 100 per cent vis-Ã -vis last year. I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any sport in the world thatâ€™s showing an increase like that.
Now, weâ€™re coming off a small base. But that doesnâ€™t count international – weâ€™re on in China and thatâ€™s a potential 800 million viewers. Iâ€™m just counting North American viewers and weâ€™re up over 100 per cent.
Some of those races are compared network-to-network. Last weekendâ€™s race (Portland) was a network race and we were up 16 per cent. Thatâ€™s pretty good. Itâ€™s a good trend and trends are what I look at. Trends in NASCAR are down double digits. IRL is flat to down; NHRA is flat to down. Look whatâ€™s happened in others sports – the NBA is plummeting, the NHL is plummeting. Weâ€™re doing something right here.
Our TV numbers are up, our attendance is up 25 per cent over previous years. Our unique website visits are up over 100 per cent after the first four races. So thatâ€™s not by accident.
Our plan is working.
STAR: Okay, you have a dynamite support-race package that attracts fans to the events. But the main event on TV is Champ Car and thatâ€™s where you seem to be having trouble.
JOHNSON: We can always improve but weâ€™re saddled with some pretty tight budgets. We could throw a ton more money at television and maybe have some better graphics. But where we are now as compared to last year is like night and day.
Our production is exceeding peopleâ€™s expectations. The graphics are better – we look like an organization in 2000 rather than 1960. Our talent is doing a very good job. Am I happy? Yes – with production. Last year, I was probably getting 20 emails a day from people unhappy about the TV package. This year, Iâ€™m not getting them.
STAR: TV pays other series to broadcast their races. Champ Car has to buy air time. How much longer do you see this happening?
JOHNSON: I would say several more years. Look, itâ€™s not just about the numbers. We have to get a title sponsor for our series. We need much more commercial support. When that happens, these sponsors become supporters of your network.
I think we have a very good partner. After this race (Cleveland), we really kick off our start with ABC/ESPN for the next several years. So I think weâ€™re three to four years away (from getting away from time-buys) at this point – and all those other things have to happen.
When we get title sponsors and presenting sponsors and official sponsors that are now on the radar screen – many companies are starting to take a look at us – then theyâ€™ll start to make an investment in us.
STAR: How far away are you from landing a title sponsor?
JOHNSON: I expect to sign a title sponsor in the next year. Weâ€™re not just sitting by the phone waiting for a title sponsor to call us. We are in discussions right now with several Fortune 100 companies and that doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™ve sent them proposals; weâ€™re in discussions.
The catalyst is going to be when the ESPN deal officially kicks in. Where do decision-makers go to watch sports? ESPN. Weâ€™ll be on in every sports bar, weâ€™ll be on in every airport where executives are. Theyâ€™re going to see us on the ESPN ticker, theyâ€™re going to see us on ESPN 360. Theyâ€™re going to see us on ESPN News. ESPN Magazine just did a piece on Graham Rahal. Thatâ€™s all part of our package deal with ESPN. It puts us mainstream. Thatâ€™s why we donâ€™t have a title sponsor – itâ€™s because weâ€™re not viewed as mainstream. Weâ€™re not seen as a motorsports marketing platform. Now we are (with the ESPN deal).
STAR: How do you avoid being pushed aside by NASCAR, the IRL, etc.? After all, they have deals with ESPN too.
JOHNSON: Itâ€™s not by accident that our vice-president of television is located in New York City. Itâ€™s not by accident that our vice-president of television used to be an executive with ESPN. Weâ€™re in talks with them every day. I can tell you this: from the top down, theyâ€™re very excited to have Champ Car. Theyâ€™re not looking at us as filler.
I donâ€™t have a problem with NASCAR. I know some people do but the fact that NASCAR is on ESPN – great! That means more people will probably tune in. Say what you will, thatâ€™s (NASCAR) a mainstream sport, just like the NFL and Major League Baseball.
And ESPN is the key. It goes into 96 million households. SPEED (where Champ Car races were broadcast last year) only goes into 60 million. What I think is key is that we have a core group of fans. If we were on the Cooking Channel, they would watch us. What we donâ€™t have is people watching who donâ€™t know what Champ Car is all about and ESPN will give us that.
STAR: I know that unification (with the IRL) is a dead issue. However, talks started the last time as the result of a chance meeting. Is it not possible that something like that could happen again?
JOHNSON: Thereâ€™s always a possibility. I never say never. Will there be talks again? I donâ€™t know. Thereâ€™s always been talks. Whether theyâ€™ve been on purpose or by accident, who knows?
It makes it difficult for me to run a business when thereâ€™s talks about it because people then get into a wait-and-see mode and we, quite frankly, were taken out of business for about seven months last year when all this stuff was going on.
I donâ€™t talk about it. Iâ€™m focussed 100 per cent on the business of Champ Car. If the owners of the series want to talk about it, fine, but Iâ€™m going to focus on the Champ Car World Series and work to make this a better organization.
STAR: Unlike NASCAR and the IRL, there is always a big driver turnover in Champ Car. A lot of your guys are marking time till they get a shot at Formula One. Except for Tracy and Bourdais, thereâ€™s no continuity. What are you going to do about this?
JOHNSON: Itâ€™s a great challenge. But there are some things within my control and some things that arenâ€™t. Driver lineups arenâ€™t in my control. I donâ€™t fund the teams, so I donâ€™t have any say because Iâ€™m not putting the money in. What Iâ€™m focusing on is building a solid business, a solid platform to showcase their (driversâ€™) talent.
We have to get good television and good venues. These are critical for the commercial aspects to take off. When that happens, the sponsors will come in to the teams and the venues. There will be more money flowing in. Then there will be less reliance on drivers to bring sponsors. When we get to that point, you will see less of this driver turnover.
STAR: With respect, would you not agree that you need more North American drivers in order to attract more North American fans?
JOHNSON: We need drivers with charisma, that reach out to the fans and sponsors. We need marketable guys who can perform. You see that in all sports.
We have to do a better job of creating stars out of our performers. Drivers will come and go; we canâ€™t control that. Take A.J. Allmendinger. I know a lot of people are bitter about him leaving (for NASCAR) but Iâ€™m not. If thatâ€™s what he wants, fine. And if we helped in developing him to the point where he can do that, then good for us. There are going to be many more A.J. Allmendingers coming and going. Iâ€™m looking at the Atlantic field right now and I can count 10 kids who could step up to Champ Car. Itâ€™s a great series.
STAR: Okay, be specific. Where do you see the Champ Car World Series one year from today?
JOHNSON: Well, we donâ€™t have the world by the tail, but weâ€™ll have the tail in sight. Iâ€™m optimistic that our car count will increase. We wonâ€™t have 25 cars but we will have 19 or 20. Who knows?
There are teams looking to step up. You may see a couple of new venues. I can tell you weâ€™ll probably be crossing the Atlantic twice next year and run four races over there instead of the two weâ€™re doing this year. Youâ€™re going to see our TV numbers improve. Theyâ€™re not going to double but theyâ€™re going to be better. Youâ€™ll see some increase in the commercial side of the business – and I know that for a fact because of the number of potential sponsors that Iâ€™m in contact with right now.
This time next year, weâ€™ll still be a long way from where we can call ourselves healthy – and thatâ€™s going to be a process that we just have to keep going and stay focused on what weâ€™re doing and not react to every little thing that happens. When we start doing that, we lose focus and we take two steps backward.
STAR: Last question. I hear Marco Andretti might be coming to Champ Car – to drive for Newman-Haas-Lanigan when and if Sebastien Bourdais leaves for F1?
JOHNSON: Iâ€™ve heard that about Marco. I hope itâ€™s true. Iâ€™d welcome him with open arms. Iâ€™d welcome all the Andrettis, actually. Watching Marco compete with Graham (Rahal) would be a treat.
Interview with Kevin Kalkhoven
STAR: Over the winter, car count for 2007 didnâ€™t look good. Only at the last minute did it go up to 17. What are you going to do to stabilize things?
KALKHOVEN: Weâ€™ve got 17 and we will grow. Iâ€™ve pointed out for years that Formula One was stuck for a long time at 18 and now theyâ€™re up to 22 and will soon be to 24. Weâ€™ll get there. Weâ€™re well within the bounds of where we should be.
Do we want more? Of course. But what weâ€™ve seen with the new car this year is great racing. And whatâ€™s interesting is that although Sebastien (Bourdais) has won, there have been great battles. Itâ€™s all been very entertaining.
STAR: You mention Bourdais who, after Tracy, is your biggest star. Thereâ€™s talk heâ€™s champing at the bit to go off to F1 . . .
KALKHOVEN: You know, I donâ€™t know where all that talk comes from. Heâ€™s under a long-term contract to Carl Haas so I donâ€™t know how heâ€™s going to to racing in F1.
STAR: I asked Steve Johnson this question, and Iâ€™ll ask you: is unification talk as dead a subject as some people say it is?
KALKHOVEN: I really donâ€™t want to talk about it. I will say this, however: in our case, weâ€™re all in favour of doing it under the right circumstances. Our position hasnâ€™t changed. We would be happy to meet, to do whatever. . .
STAR: Every winter since you purchased the assets of the old CART, the question has always been, "Will Champ Car survive? Will there be a season?" What do you have to do to get away from this?
KALKHOVEN: You shouldnâ€™t focus just on Champ Car – and hereâ€™s why. When Gerry (Forsythe) and I looked at things, we thought we would take a long-term viewpoint and we would build the series from the ground up.
Maybe the question you should be asking is, why are Atlantics so successful? Because as Atlantics go, within a year or two thatâ€™s how Champ Car will go. We went from 12 cars two years ago to 30 cars. Weâ€™ve got some wonderful young drivers – Pagenaud won last year, Graham . . . Alex Figge . . . these are all young guys who came up through Atlantics.
Weâ€™ve got some great Canadians this year and a really great international field. That is the future of Champ Car. We could have spent this money on Champ Car and it might have benefited in the short term. But unless youâ€™ve got a solid foundation of young drivers, young teams, sponsors coming in at that level, youâ€™re never going to end up with a solid Champ Car.
When you look at Champ Car, donâ€™t just look at Champ Car but at Atlantics too. That is the strongest ladder series anywhere in the world. As Atlantic goes, so will Champ Car. That is the basis of everything weâ€™re doing. Iâ€™m less worried that we have 17, 18 or 19 cars this year in Champ Car than I would be if we had 12 cars like we had a few years ago in Atlantics. Weâ€™ve got 30 cars!
That was the strength of the original CART. Literally every great driver came through Atlantics and it fell into disrepair and when we were looking at it, we decided that unless we fix that, the issue is going to be much more problematic in future and weâ€™d just be papering over the cracks.
So weâ€™ve taken a long-term viewpoint and weâ€™re building it from the ground up.
STAR: Okay, but letâ€™s take Andrew Ranger as an example. He did exactly what you said the model is – he went from Atlantics to Champ Car and now heâ€™s out of Champ Car. How come?
KALKHOVEN: Unfortunately, thatâ€™s a reality of motorsport. Thereâ€™s nothing I know of, historically or in the future, thatâ€™s going to change that. Iâ€™m disappointed that people like him – A.J. Allmendinger, Ryan Hunter-Ray – donâ€™t stay. Youâ€™re always going to have a certain number of people who, for one reason or another, wonâ€™t stick in Champ Car. Thatâ€™s always been the case.
Whatâ€™s more interesting to me is what more we can do to build up the (Atlantic) teams – and I believe that we will see teams come up to Champ Car. Thatâ€™s the key of what weâ€™re trying to do. Itâ€™s not just the drivers, itâ€™s the teams, the sponsors – the whole structure.
STAR: I asked Steve Johnson this question and now Iâ€™ll ask you: where will Champ Car be a year from now?
KALKHOVEN: I think weâ€™ll see an extension of what weâ€™re doing. There is no magic bullet. When you build a business, you build it block by block, step by step. In Champ Car, weâ€™ve got the new car, weâ€™ve been able to introduce standing starts, weâ€™ve got a new TV package – all of these things are evolutions of everything that weâ€™re doing and weâ€™re going to carry on doing all of these things. If youâ€™re doing the right things, then keep doing them – and donâ€™t change.
STAR: Your president, Johnson, and you have both mentioned this great new TV deal you have with ESPN. Nobody in Canada can get ESPN and your races this year (except for the three Canadian races) are on a sports-headline channel and a lot of people donâ€™t know theyâ€™re there. What are you going to do about the Canadian TV situation?
KALKHOVEN: We have to fix it. And itâ€™s just not Canada. Frankly, our international television coverage is not what Iâ€™d like. We fixed the U.S., weâ€™ll fix the international.
STAR: Are you happy? Is this thing turning out the way you envisioned it when you jumped in? Is it maybe turning out to be a little harder than you thought?
KALKHOVEN: Any turnaround is a hard job. I went into this with my eyes wide open. Iâ€™m actually thrilled with the progress weâ€™ve made to date. If you think of where we were three years ago and where we are now : we have a solid Atlantic field, we have a solid Champ Car field. We have some great new venues – Phoenix, Las Vegas; weâ€™ve got some great old venues – Cleveland, Long Beach, Toronto. We have a great new TV package. Weâ€™ve come a long way to achieving the goals weâ€™ve set ourselves.
Is the journey complete? Absolutely not. Is the journey hard? Absolutely.
STAR: The series is called the Champ Car World Series (emphasis on "world"). You are going to Europe for two races and back to Australia. The race in China was cancelled. Your president says he thinks you will go to Europe twice next year for as many as four races. Are you becoming more of an international series or will you always think of yourself as a U.S. domestic series with "foreign" forays?
KALKHOVEN: Weâ€™ll always be a North American series. Half of our races will always be here. The interesting thing is that this style of racing has proved to be very popular outside the U.S. Weâ€™re bigger in Australia, for instance, than the Formula One race.
The reason is that itâ€™s much more of a driver-to-driver environment. In other words, the cars are similar, you can get more overtaking, the skills of the drivers and the engineers come through, rather than the skill of the software program.
So itâ€™s proven to be attractive outside the U.S. and we would be silly if we didnâ€™t recognize that.
However, weâ€™re not in competition with Formula One. F1 is basically a television sport and itâ€™s a technology-run sport. We are much more a fan-friendly, butts-in-seats series. Weâ€™re much closer racing and much harder racing than F1 and itâ€™s a much more exciting, wheel-banging kind of sport.
So weâ€™re not really in competition with F1; weâ€™re just different.