March chair



Three hours into the job it’s a trifle premature to pass judgment on Andrew Craig, CART’s next president and chief operating officer. Still, you only get one chance to make a first impression. And by all accounts Craig, who is leaving his post as executive vice president and deputy chief executive officer with International Sports and Leisure (ISL), made some good ones with the motor sports press on the day he was formally named CART’s new titular head. He also must have scored some points with the IndyCar team owners who, in December, elected him to head Championship Auto Racing Teams by a sizeable majority.

Whether he makes a similar impression on IndyCar racing’s other constituents, including the race promoters, sponsors (current and prospective), drivers and fans remains to be seen and will, of course, be critical to his success or failure in his new job.

I don’t envy Craig.

For all that is good about IndyCar racing at the moment – typically fierce cornpetition on the race track and predictions of oversubscribed fields in 1994 coupled with the impending entry of Reynard, Honda, Mercedes and Firestone into the fray – many potential pitfalls await the new president. The flipside to the surge in manufacturer involvement, of course, is that CART will continually have to juggle the conflicting interests of the newcomers with those of the long-time supporters like Goodyear, Lola, Ilmor and Ford/Cosworth. And while the season may open with as many as 40 entries for Long Beach and Phoenix, how many teams can long survive repeated failure to qualify?

Then there are the race promoters themselves, from Roger Penske and Carl Haas to Buddy Jobe, Bob and Gary Bahre, Barbara Trueman and, of course, Tony George. It’s as diverse a group of entrepreneurs as you’ll find and each has his (or her) own agenda, be it a more advantageous slot of the schedule, a more commercially attractive position in the television package, more control of the total event sponsorship or, in some cases, a say (even a controlling one) in the overall direction of the sport. And for all that’s good about IndyCar racing competition, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that Craig’s predecessors have managed to turn-off a sizeable portion of American racing fans from IndyCar racing. Get out in the crowd at any dirt track in the land, the same places that were once the stepping stones to Indianapolis, and you’ll hear disenchantment and outright contempt for the sport that once produced America’s unassailed national driving champion. And the fact that the general population increasingly equates American automobile racing with the Winston Cup Series for 11 months of the year is not lost on IndyCar racing’s sponsors.

Not that all of these challenges will become Craig’s exclusive responsibility when he takes the reigns at CART on March 31. It’s clear from their decision to return to the 16 person/24 vote Board of Directors that the team owners intend to exercise more control over policy-making than in the past couple of seasons. Surely Craig will be charged with implementing rather than creating policies such as last year’s controversial rule requiring engine manufacturers new to the series to offer power plants to three cars on two franchise teams in their first year of competition?

Just as surely, the Board hired Craig for his management and marketing skills. He will be responsible for the business end of CART. To be effective he’ll have to overcome two misconceptions. The first is that he is mainly a marketing man, understandable given the fact that the information that initially dribbled out about him focused on his experience in marketing sponsorship programmes for the International Olympic Committee.

“I’ve been perceived by some as a marketing man,” he says, “but I see myself as a manager, one who’s experienced in the business of marketing sports. But my underlying skill is that of a manager.”

The other, more insidious misconception, is that he is no more (or less) than someone with a European business background who knows little about racing and, specifically, American racing. In other words, Bill Stokkan with a British accent.

Spend a few minutes with Craig, however, and you don’t sense any of Stokkan’s condescending manner. To the contrary, he comes off as a good humoured fellow who isn’t above making an occasional joke at his own expense. The fact is that Craig also has a pretty fair knowledge of America, if not American racing, through his dealings with companies like Visa, Coca-Cola and Kodak during his tenure heading up the worldwide sponsorship programmes for the Olympic Games and other international sports properties.

“It’s perfectly natural and legitimate to say ‘Who is this guy who’s lived in Europe and is now in Detroit running IndyCar?” Craig observes. “But I have managed American businesses, through our (ISL’s) offices in New York and Atlanta and the fact is that 70 per cent of ISL’s clients are United States companies. In recent years I’ve typically spent one day in 10 in the United States. So 10 years ago if you’d asked me what do I know about the American market, I’d have said nothing. Now I’ve been working in the United States non-stop for the past 10 years and I have a good understanding of American business, if I do say so myself.”

What’s more, unlike his predecessors, the 44 year-old Craig is a bona fide motor sports enthusiast; and wonder of wonders, he’s actually raced internal combustion-powered machinery off and on for the past 20 years with what he calls “modest” success. Apart from one time sprint car racer John Capels, who served for a brief spell as CART’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, Craig is unique in the annals of CART in that his interest in racing predates the offer of a six-figure salary to manage one of its leading organisations.

“It’s an opportunity l relish,” he says. “I’ve looked at the position for a number of years and thought to myself ‘I wouldn’t mind doing that.’ Naturally l tended to emphasise my business skills during the selection process, but the truth is I have a real passion for motor sports.”

One would have to think that he at least will be a refreshing change to the likes of Tony George and Bill France on a personal level, a refreshing change that is from the legal-speak of Messrs Frasco and Caponigro or the market-speak of Stokkan. Only time will tell if his actions back up his words, but at this early, early stage of the game, Craig is saying the right things about both his and CART’s relationships with the promoters and sponsors.

“It’s true that I don’t know American racing,” he admits. “My experience with IndyCar racing consists of attending two Indianapolis 500s and watching races on television. On the other hand, I don’t think it will be too difficult to settle in to the American racing scene. I don’t necessarily think you have to have been here man and boy to get into American racing. For example, I already know (IMSA president) John Greenwood through his involvement with the Los Angeles Olympic Games. I got to know (SCCA president) Nick Craw during the interviewing process for the CART job, and I intend to meet with the other sanctioning bodies, the promoters and the sponsors, with Tony George number one on the list.

“My mission will be to listen. I’m not interested in today’s problems. I want to know why they’re involved in racing, what they expect to get out of it, make an audit of the situation and see where we are and what we can do better. Obviously I can’t do that in a week, and I’m not just going to walk away from ISL, but it will be a priority.”

Three hours down and a lifetime to go, but there is reason for optimism. Could it be that the IndyCar team owners have made a sound decision after all? D P