Allegro Con Rio

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The days of parochialism appear truly to be over for the Indy Car World Series. David Phillips reports on the expansionist mood

In the years ahead, March 1996 may well be regarded as the month which truly put the ‘world in the PPG Indy Car World Series. The past five seasons, of course, have featured a stop on Australia’s Gold Coast. And prior to the Gold Coast GP the series appeared at Sanair, Toronto and Vancouver, not to mention Mexico City during its formative years.

But the United States, Canada and Mexico have so many cultural and business ties not to mention being neighbours that the trips to Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and Mexico City hardly qualify as exotic. And despite the fact that Australia is half way around the world, once you’re there it only seems vaguely foreign. The language is the same, accent and colloquialisms apart: so’s the money. And you drive on the left. Big deal. Apart from that, Surfers Paradise could be Southern California in the 1950s before it all got out of control . . .

But the journey to Brazil was a big step for CART. Flying into Sao Paulo in the wee hours of the morning, one of the team mechanics on the ‘plane was heard to mumble, “I still don’t understand why we have to come all this way for a race.”

As dawn broke over Sao Paulo the reason why CART was racing in Brazil became crystal clear: people. By the million. Brazil boasts the world’s third and ninth largest cities in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. And just in case Sao Paulo’s sea of high rises wasn’t answer enough to why CART was in Brazil, perhaps the names Hollywood, Brahma, Marlboro Latin America, Kibon and Banco Bandeirantes ring some bells.

No doubt about it, though, the Rio 400 was an eye-opener. Many of the same folks who have been chortling about the provincial thinking generally associated with the Indy Racing League found their own personal horizons expanded by the stark contrasts between Rio’s awesome natural beauty and its terrible poverty. Then too, the celebrated night life on Copacabana and lpanema proved a tad too exciting for some; indeed, hardly a day went by at the Circuito Emerson Fittipaldi without stories filtering through about someone having been robbed or beaten or both the previous night.

This is not to suggest that the poverty was less than appalling, or that the atmosphere of crime wasn’t unsettling, but one is tempted to ask on which planet the people who were so taken aback by the living conditions in parts of Rio have been living these past 20 years? And it’s worth noting that, once outside Rio’s urban core, the ride to Jacarepagua passed through distinctly middleclass areas with scores of high rises, shopping malls and the other trappings of 20th century progress.

Was I alone in being reminded of the Formula One circus’s reaction to urban America when they raced around Detroit’s Renaissance Center (sic) ? And just as Americans got their collective hackles up over the likes of Keke Rosberg and Niki Lauda looking down their noses at Motown’s shortcomings, so the Cariocas are justified in taking offence at those among the lndycar set who came to Rio and saw only poverty and crime.

From Rio it was on to Australia, to be greeted with the annual stories that the Queensland government would cut off its financial support of the race if it didn’t turn a profit.

“I’ve written that story each of the past three years,” said a local journalist. “I’m not writing anything more about it until the government actually does something.” Well, he may not get the chance. Reports in the local papers after the race suggested race promoter International Management Group would be sharing close to $1 million profit with the Queensland government. And if IMG’s costs can be further trimmed by sharing the expense of shipping Indycars half way around the world with a race in Japan, then the financial picture looks better yet.

Speaking of which, on the way to Australia CART president Andrew Craig visited the vast new Motegi motor sports complex being built by Honda about an hour north of Tokyo. As Craig has repeatedly noted, an lndycar race in Japan is essential, because for all the business that country does in North America, Japanese sponsors are woefully under-represented in the PPG Indy Car World Series. Apart from Panasonic courtesy of Hiro Matsushita where are the rest?

A Japanese race is all but inevitable because Japan is represented in lndycar racing by Honda, Toyota and Bridgestone and it is in their interests to see lndycars on home turf. That’s one reason Honda is cutting the tops off mountains to build the 1.5-mile Motegi oval.

Still, there are some important lessons to be learned from the trips to Rio and Australia if CART’s international ambitions are to be realised.

The Achilles Heel to CART’s international expansion is the threat of bad weather on ovals. CART dodged a bullet in Rio, where it rained regularly in the week leading up to the race. What would they have done had the race been rained out less than a week before the cars had to be shipped to Australia?

Future schedules must provide a rain date, either via Saturday races or by having enough leeway in the calendar to race Monday. Happily, the fact that Surfers is a street circuit means future Australia/Japan swings can feature Australia as the lead-off event (come rain or shine) followed the next weekend by a race preferably on Saturday in Japan. Anything else is asking for trouble…

Then, too, CART must schedule its international swings in a more efficient fashion than the Rio/Australia junket, CART faced a number of hurdles scheduling this year’s Rio/Australia trips, not the least of which was the rescheduling of the Australian Grand Prix to early March with the Easter weekend mixed-in for good measure. But there must be a more efficient use of time, equipment and personnel than coming back to the United States between successive overseas weekends.

CART must also get its house in order in terms of international medical care and administration. After suffering a fractured vertebrae during practice at Rio, Scott Goodyear went through various trials and tribulations that were more bureaucratic than medical ranging from waiting for a back brace to clear customs to nearly getting “offloaded” from a Federal Express plane in Caracas. By all accounts, procedures were in place to deal with life-threatening injuries; it was the details surrounding a relatively minor injury that needed to be sweated a bit more.

Can IndyCar do better? Of course. But one needed only to watch, listen and feel the Rio grandstands swaying to the samba as Andre Ribeiro and Gil de Ferran took turns leading the Rio 400 to understand IndyCar’s vast international potential.

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