After rough first year, CART boss sets new agenda


November 18, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Joe Heitzler has just finished his first season as CART president and chief executive. As he sat in his California home, recovering from a cold, he admitted the year was much more challenging than he could have expected or ever wanted to imagine.

Looking back during a phone interview, he lamented having to play catch-up, because he started last December "and had so many issues to deal with from previous administrations."

"Had I been brought in in August or September, some of those things could have been handled better and resolved before they became a problem," he said. "My job is to turn this aircraft carrier around."

There is no way around it. Heitzler and CART had major headaches that worked to undermine their credibility this season.

Cancellation of the race in Rio de Janiero. A leaking track in England. A flooded turn at Elkhart Lake, Wis.

All caused delays and embarrassment, and there was more.

Cancellation of a race in Texas shortly before it was to take the green flag, because drivers complained of dizziness on the high-banked oval. The accident in Germany in which Alex Zanardi lost both legs. And major protests from engine manufacturers when CART voted to go to a normally aspirated engine in 2003.

"It's probably why I'm home not feeling so well," Heitzler said with a rueful laugh. "But I'm looking forward to entering 2002. It will be my year with my agenda. In 2001, I was managing other people's agendas."

He has a list of priorities:

Sort out what is going to be the most popular and economic engine formula for 2003. Though it has been announced that CART will go to a normally aspirated engine that season, the decision is being reviewed.

He wants to provide CART investors with opportunities for value, in terms of co-promotions and owning and promoting its own events.

And, he said, CART is going to be "more judicious and exacting when we hand our baby over to promoters."

Policies and procedures will be in place that are driven by the sanctioning organization and have exactness to them so situations like those in Rio, England, Elkhart Lake and Texas don't happen again.

"There is no question, I inherited a number of things that had to be fixed," he said. "There was a lack of infrastructure, a lack of the right personnel. We've resolved those issues and, not withstanding what any business goes through, these are tough times for decision on sponsorships and the economics.

"But some good things came about, too. Our fans have proved to be the most loyal in the business. They've let us know how closely they follow our sport, and I'm grateful for that. The only issue that still needs to be resolved is whether we carry the best value as a publicly traded company or as a privately traded company."

He points to CART being a leader in setting safety standards.

Also, he notes that CART's operational procedure of consensus building has been noticed by no less than NASCAR, which called its first consensus-building meeting two weeks ago to come to an agreement on rules governing cars at Daytona and Talladega.

He also points to the fact that CART will have its own television package next season for the first time since 1994.

Its weekly broadcast time will increase by 61 percent to 11.5 hours a week on Fox and CBS. It will no longer have its races cut short for the evening news, college football, or women's basketball.

And, during the past week, FedEx, the series sponsor, signed a long-term contract extension.

All those things give Heitzler hope that CART, his "aircraft carrier," is turning toward the wind. So there was no hesitancy when he was asked if he'd take this CEO job again.

"I've been blessed with some prior success in life, and I have a passion for business challenges," said Heitzler, 56, who has previously worked as an executive for National Mobile Television Productions, CBS Sports, Forum Sports Entertainment and Six Flags Inc. "It's the main reason I took the job.

"And I have as large a passion for auto racing as some of our fans. So I hurt, too, when things don't go the right way."

Entering the Hall

The great road racer Jacky Ickx will lead a field of six new inductees into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame next April.

Joining Ickx will be NASCAR driver/owners Glen Wood and Alan Kulwicki.

Wood is half of the original Wood Brothers team that listed many of the sports great drivers as their own, and Kulwicki was the last driver/owner to win a Winston Cup Championship.

Italian car builder and engine designer Ettore Bugatti, whose cars dominated European racing from 1911 until 1947, winning some 4,000 races, and New Zealander Denis Hulme, who won the 1967 Formula One championship, two Can-Am titles, and was Rookie of the Year at the 1967 Indianapolis 500, are going in, too.

So is the late Tim Richmond, who came and went from the Winston Cup scene like a comet.

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