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Friday
Apr082016

Never Eat Hamburgers in Manhattan

By William G. Sawyer

I stopped at a Manhattan bar for a burger and came out as Championship Auto Racing Team’s new Director of Marketing.

This isn't a joke. It was January, 1983. I was at a crucial point both personally and professionally; the start of an eighteen month period in which demons from my childhood threatened to destroy me-- and almost did. An inopportune time to stumble upon a job for which I still believe I was ideally suited. The personal part will remain just that. Suffice it to say I wrestled the demons to the ground, but not until after the CART job became history.

In many ways, Open Wheel racing was experiencing a similar struggle, although all appeared well. Five years earlier a team owner’s revolt brought the sport to its knees, a position it’s returned to several times since. By 1983 CART was relatively healthy in comparison to the current state of Open Wheel racing. Indy Cars, as they’re commonly known, were attracting reasonable crowds, television ratings were acceptable, and newspaper ink wasn’t the rarity it is today. Yet I soon realized CART was a house of cards waiting to fall.

I was the third Director of Marketing and the first to last longer than two weeks. My tenure lasted nine months. The second person to hold the job--and the guy I ran into in that Manhattan bar-- was a former neighbor with whom I had worked at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency.  Mark told me the CART job was open. He’d been at CART only a few days when JWT offered him a pay raise he couldn’t turn down to return to his old job. The first holder of the position was a well-known name in motorsport marketing circles. CART’s Chairman claimed he had personal issues that forced him to leave after a fortnight. A subsequent discussion with the man confirmed what I feared—he’d seen the series from the inside and wanted nothing to do with it.

Being young, naïve, and eager for success I rushed to my hotel room and slapped together a resume. An interview followed, but I believe what cinched the deal was a thank you letter I wrote laying out my philosophy. Racing, I said, was the only 20th Century sport, combining physical prowess, mechanical skill, and engineering excellence. It was the perfect analogy for modern business in which high-powered teams of motivated individuals compete to create and market high-tech products in a quest to win the publics hard earned cash. It’s the perfect marketing partner for a business hungry to promote its business prowess, competitive spirit, and technical chops.

My first surprise when I arrived in Bloomfield Hills, MI was my office, or lack thereof. For the entire nine months I worked out of a conference room in the Chairman’s law office. The company car I was promised didn’t show up until I raised a stink, and it was about three months before they managed to figure out how to pay my salary. Still, I remained committed. Work hard and all will come right.

Some of you may remember 1984 as the year Peter Ueberroth turned the Summer Olympics into a marketing juggernaut. My job, the Chairman explained, was to sign up as many ‘Official Product’ sponsors as possible. All I had to offer in return for their sponsorship fee, he told me, was a black and white ad in the CART yearbook and use of the CART logo in their advertising. When we discussed what this plethora of marketing possibilities would cost a sponsor, he said they needed to come to Bloomfield Hills and negotiate directly with him. The people selling Summer Olympics sponsorships — my supposed competitors — must have been shaking in their boots.

Al Unser Jr. in the "Silver Bullet" Eagle sponsored by Coors and run for Galles Racing. Despite CART team owners changing the rules to blunt Dan Gurney's Boundary Layer Adhesion Technology (BLAT, also used on the DeltaWing), he and his team at AAR found a way to persevere. Here Unser Jr. finishes fifth at Laguna Seca. (AAR Archives)The first race of the season was in Atlanta, an unlikely place for a primarily Midwestern series in the Eighties. Promoted by the Chairman himself, his plan was to teach the old line promoters how to do it right. Attendance figures are closely held secrets that rarely correlate with published estimates. Suffice it to say that some of the fastest race cars on earth combined with a concert presented by a music impresario with the unlikely name of Chip Monk attracted only about six thousand paying customers.

A few things stand out from that event. During practice I stood at the wall between turns 1 and 2 (this was before Atlanta Motor Speedway moved the start finish line to the opposite side of the track) and watched mesmerized as Mario Andretti flashed by at improbable speed less than two feet away. Stupid? Yes, but a thrill I will never forget.

Prior to the race I happened upon correspondence from an Indy Car club—fans that were rabid about the sport and desperate for it to succeed. I learned they were a joke around the office, a pain in the butt my colleagues were eager to ignore. I did the unthinkable. I called and arranged to meet the club members at the track.

What I found in the infield of the Atlanta Motor Speedway was a collection of tents inhabited by scruffy fans in need of showers after days at the track. Exactly the kind of people my colleagues – the suits -- wanted to pretend didn’t exist. I learned many were young professionals early into careers that couldn’t yet fund a five bedroom home in the suburbs or a Porsche in the garage, but would before long. Exactly the kind of people we needed to reach out to and foster.

Meanwhile, rather than have me work for the betterment of the sport the Chairman ordered me to keep watch over a vendor selling event t-shirts. Promoters commanded about 60% of the price of memorabilia in those days, and he was afraid of being ripped off.

I hope the guy took him to the cleaners. I had better things to do than protect his personal interest while on company time, including working with former Trans Am driver Tony De Lorenzo on a promotional deal for GMC. The Chairman arranged for the drivers to get identical GMC Jimmys to drive during the weekend. De Lorenzo represented GMC, and I represented CART. On the Saturday before the race, I made arrangements to meet Al Unser Jr. for breakfast at the Hilton, CARTs official hotel. I asked the freckle-faced kid sitting across from me to treat the trucks with care since we were trying to convince GMC to provide vehicles for the entire series. He assured me he’d respect my wishes.

Al Jr., a.k.a. "Little Al" with his son, Al Unser III, a.k.a. "Mini Al". Respect must mean something different in New Mexico where the Unsers are from. A few hours later I heard Al Jr. was stopped for speeding. In those days Little Al didn’t look a day over fourteen and, this being NASCAR country, the cop didn’t recognize the name of the newest member of the storied racing clan. After checking his license the policeman asked Little Al what his dad would think if he knew he’d been pulled over. “Well officer,” he said with all seriousness, “he’d be pissed, cuz you caught me!”

Later that day, when practice let out, Tony and I were astounded by the site of a couple dozen identical GMC Jimmys racing out of the paddock inches from each other, drifting around corners, jockeying for positon as the racers fought to prove who could get to the hotel fastest while keeping their mount on at least two wheels.

To add insult to injury I enlisted the help of an IMSA racer friend to assist in driving a few Jimmys around the track prior to the race. At the end of the three demo laps my ‘friend’ refused to pull in, intent on acting the petulant child for as long as was possible.

Needless to say, the GMC promotion was history.

The remainder of the season was a relentless struggle competing with the marketing might of the Olympics with a little-known racing series with no promotional budget and an intransigent Chairman baffled because marketing VPs weren’t knocking down his door for the chance to negotiate for unknown marketing benefits I wasn’t authorized to offer. 

There were, however, a few bright spots along the way. I organized what may have been one of the first displays of historic cars at an Indy Car race. It included a well-known roadster, as well as a couple of other less famous cars from that era before the so-called “English Invasion” of the early 1960s. And I went behind the Chairman’s back to create a sponsorship video with the help of Paul Page, then with NBC Sports. The idea was that healthy teams made for a healthy race series. We produced a video promoting CART that teams and drivers could customize with their own message, creating a slick promotional piece that wouldn’t break the team’s piggy bank. Existing sponsors could also use it to promote their involvement to customers, civic groups, and employees. More sponsors in the sport would make the teams stronger and create additional opportunities for those ‘Official Sponsor’ deals the Chairman desired. It made perfect sense to me and the sponsors and teams who funded it without a cent of CART funds. Unfortunately, the Chairman showed me the door before I could see the finished result. I hear the project was completed, but went nowhere without me there to care for it.

Before I left I also started the first CART Merchandising program, mainly t-shirts and related paraphernalia. However, my idea to create jackets replicating the upper half of racing suits and driving shoes for street use fell on deaf ears. And, yes, I do kick myself for not exploring the race shoe for the street idea on my own every time I lace up my Piloti Prototipos.

GM in its most abusive testing of the GMC Jimmy probably didn't extend the car as much as CART's race drivers did in Atlanta in 1983.Formula One raced in Downtown Detroit in those days. While discussing the need for races to be blockbuster events easily accessible for fans, the Chairman brought up the subject of logistical problems associated with street racing. Chrysler had just sold their Lynch Road Assembly Plant for some incredibly small sum like five dollars. I laid out a plan that would utilize a similar abandoned factory to create an in-town permanent circuit with spacious indoor garages and facilities in a portion of the re-configured manufacturing plant. The complex could be used to stage concerts when racing wasn’t a priority, and act as a magnet for automakers and suppliers who would situate nearby and use it as a test track, pre-dating by decades the M1 Concourse project chronicled in this publication a few months ago.

So what’s the point other than patting myself on the back and saying I Told You So? The Good Old Days weren’t as good as we remember, and many of the same issues linger today. There’s an impenetrable wall between the paddock and infield fed by greed, hubris and self-interest. If you were to venture into the infield and talk to today’s version of the Indy Car club you’d learn they want to ditch spec racers, reduce downforce, and increase variety. Trying to differentiate the teams with aero kits that turn identical cars into the motoring equivalent of Mr. Potato Head doesn’t fool anyone.

The bottom line is that professional sports of all types aren’t sports any longer. They’re money machines calculated to extract every nickel out of their fan base for as long as they can. My friend who stole a few extra laps in the GMC Jimmy at Atlanta feels that Indy Car exists today solely to feed Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti. There may be some truth in that.

Do I miss it? The answer came years later when I recognized a familiar face in the Paddock at the Indy Car race on Belle Isle. It was the motorsports marketing guy I worked with on the merchandising program. Last I heard he’d walked away from the sport. If only he had. The man I met that day was a shadow of his former self. Stooped over, eyes sunken and disheveled he worked a low-level job several rungs below what he’d been capable of. When I asked why he said, “Bill I just can’t stay away from the action.” Like a drug, it reeled him in and consumed his being.

I may have been the lucky one.

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