Crash.Net IndyCar News
Q&A: Steve Johnson (CCWS CEO) - EXCLUSIVE
18 May 2007
Spearheading Champ Car's decision to take its brand of competition world-wide, Steve Johnson was behind the move to add races at Assen and Zolder to the 2007 schedule.Crash.net
caught up with the series' president and CEO to discover a little more about the expansion plans and find out what European fans can expect from Champ Car this time around...Q:
What was the thinking about bringing the Champ Car World Series back to Europe?Steve Johnson:
We are the Champ Car World
Series. At one time, we really were but, recently, the only world activities we had were Australia, Mexico, Canada and the United States. So, for this year, we added Europe - which makes all the sense in the world - and China. Now we really are truly a global platform for our partners, as well as for our race teams.Q:
What would you say to those who feel that the series shouldn't be looking to expand overseas when it is struggling to consolidate a decent field in the US?SJ:
Again, we are an international series. If you look at our drivers, the majority are European, and open-wheel racing isn't something you have to educate the Europeans about. They are the most knowledgeable fans in the world. We've got roots here and we're going to take advantage of that, and, by doing so, we continuing to build our brand in the US. There is so much going on in the US racing-wise, my view is that our biggest growth opportunities right now are outside the US and, really, in Europe.Q:
What is the situation between Champ Car and the Indy Car series - are talks dead, ongoing, in hibernation...?SJ:
I get asked this question several times a day, and all I can tell you is that I am focused on the business of the Champ Car World Series. It's a completely different business model to the Indy Racing League - they're racing predominantly ovals in sub-tier markets, while we're taking the racing, the festivals, right to the people in major markets. As far as the talks, I don't know. [Those decisions] are going to be made by guys like Gerry Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Tony George - those are the three guys who have to do it, not me. Meanwhile, I'm tasked with driving the television viewership, bringing in more fans, putting butts in seats, increasing the web traffic, bringing new teams in, adding sponsors, that sort of thing - and that's what I'm focused on 100 per cent.Q:
Surely it would benefit the business of Champ Car to have one unified open-wheel series in the US?SJ:
There is no doubt. Right now, NASCAR is king in the US and, although they're struggling this year by their standards - TV numbers are down 16 per cent over last year, and attendances are down - we would still love to be in the position that they are in. So we're all fighting the NASCAR marketing machine and having one open-wheel series would definitely make it easier than having two, but I'm playing with the cards I'm dealt.Q:
Getting back to the European Tour, why pick Zolder and Assen?SJ:
We have tried to be self-promoters in the past and were horrible at it, so it didn't take a long time to figure not to do that again! This time, the promoters came to us. Bart [Rietbergen] came to us and said that he had two races he wanted to put on, at Zolder and Assen, and that he had the sponsorship base. We know the fans are there - they are some of the nuttiest fans in the world - and we are looking forward to coming over because they understand our sport. That's why we're coming over. It makes good sense for us. Will we expand in Europe? I think we will in the future, but it will come down to the right promoters coming forward with the right business model that works for us. At the end of the day, this is a business and, if they can present that to us, we will be here.Q:
Obviously, Champ Car has been to the UK before, having raced at Rockingham and Brands Hatch in recent years. Were there any thoughts about bringing the series back to the UK this year?SJ:
We're always open, but we didn't have a promoter step up this year. It's open for future expansion, for sure, and, if the right promoter steps forward with the right partners, sponsorship, that sort of thing, we'd love to come back. It would make perfect sense for the series.Q:
What can the European fans expect from the Champ Car World Series when it comes over to Holland and Belgium this summer?SJ:
I think they can expect great side-by-side racing and a lot of overtaking. We're a drivers' series and it's about the drivers, not the technology or who spends the most wins. So you're going to see a lot of overtaking, a lot of close racing, a lot of excitement - things that have already been proven in the first three races this year.Q:
Can we expect the whole festival atmosphere that you promote in the US?SJ:
You can, but maybe not to the extent that we get in the US because a lot of what we do is take the event to the downtown area. In Las Vegas, Long Beach, Houston, we put these festivals on with the promoters and, really, that is more of a North American model. But the promoters over here have been to those first three races and have seen it, and understand it, so I think you'll see different pieces of that filtering in to our European races. It's no longer about coming here, putting a race on and going home. We've got to connect to all
the fans - we've got to connect to the avid race fan by providing great racing, and we've got to connect to those kids who might not understand what is going on on the track, but see BMX bikes on display, go-karts on display, a concert going on, interactive things that they can do... We need to connect with everybody when we come here.
You pride yourself on Champ Car being a drivers' series rather than a technology series, but what impact has the new Panoz chassis had on Champ Car?
I think we're only now being able to see the impact. It's a very cost-controlled model that we've put together. [The car] is built to our spec, we didn't just buy a chassis that was delivered to us. We designed the specs for the chassis; we own Cosworth, we own PI Research, so we control the electronics and the engine as well, and we can have a controlled model out there. Nobody gets 'better' engines, it's controlled, we're in charge of that, so we can guarantee a really competitive series.
There were some teething troubles in pre-season testing and, to some extent, in the first three races - can we expect to see those eradicated in Portland?
Yes. I don't like having a gap in my schedule [like the six weeks between Houston and Portland] but, in this case, it may have been a blessing for us. They've identified all the niggling issues with the car, and they've got fixes that will be done by Portland, so I don't see any problems. We've had very few problems - and none that have kept the cars from racing - but we've had some annoying things that have gone on. But that's to be expected with a new car.
You talk about going to Europe and China as part of making Champ Car more international, but are you disappointed that there are not more American drivers in the series?
You know what, I'm not disappointed. There's obviously room for growth in that area, but it's the nature of how it is. A lot of American guys want to go race ovals and stock cars now. If you look at our Atlantic series, however, there are a lot of Americans in that, we've got 30 cars on the grid, and, if you look at karting in the US, it's probably at an all-time high right now, so I think the pieces are in place to get those great American drivers coming up again. But I don't buy [the belief] that you can't take a European driver and make him a hero in the US. I know a lot of Americans where, no matter what you do, you can't make them a hero - they have about as much personality as a piece of cardboard - but, if you can take a guy whose got personality, charisma, is a little bit controversial, you can make a hero out of anybody. The goal was to build our stars into heroes.
What has been the impact of having someone like Katherine Legge in the series, bringing a little diversity?
It's been good having Katherine. We need more Katherines, there's no doubt. I think Katherine has opened people's eyes. It's a lot harder to come out here and race one of these cars that it is to go flat-out around an oval - anybody can do that, but our car takes great physical strain to move around. These guys can lose anything from 8-15 pounds every race, they're pretty much worn out by the end, so they've got to be in top shape, and Katherine has shown that a woman can compete in Champ Car.
Finally, how satisfied have you been with the resurgence of the Atlantic series, which is also attracting a very international field?
The Atlantic series is awesome. That's how I judge how things are going because that's our future, not only for drivers, but also for teams, sponsors, crew chiefs, other crew members. It really is the feeder system for Champ Car. The field is larger now than it's ever been and that's a great sign of things to come for Champ Car World Series.
Steve, we wish you every success promoting Champ Car both in the US and Europe, and look forward to you coming over to Zolder and Assen in the summer....
As I said earlier, we get to come home. It's going to be very exciting for all our fans, and our teams. Late August and September can't get here fast enough!