By Earl Ma
with photos by the author

  Skidding off the Runway
Analyzing how the Hawaiian Super Prix went awry

Part 3 of 6


There's a race in Hawaii?

CART itself made many glaring missteps. As an organization scorned by many fans for notoriously poor marketing decisions and terrible promotion of its regular season races, CART made very little attempt in promoting the Super Prix whatsoever, leaving HSP staffers - most of whom had never specifically promoted a race before - to fend for themselves.

For a race of its scope, the Super Prix barely registered at all with non-racing fans outside Hawaii, and even racing fans knew little about it. "It needed to have some fairly vigorous promotion in the contiguous states," Kirby says. "They guaranteed the race was not going to work (by not promoting it). It was a half-hearted effort on both sides."

Koenig contends CART has made improvements in this area, but not enough. "They have been doing more promotion in the last couple of years (with local radio and print ads). That has been changing. But I don't know what they were doing with the Super Prix. They are doing more marketing than in years before, but people still wonder about the effectiveness of it."

Kirby ranks among those who wonder. "They have a large, large group of marketing people. The result of their effort is minimal in terms of supporting the existing races; they're promoted almost entirely by the individual promoters. The same thing is true (regarding) their relationship with HSP."

ABC and ESPN exacerbated the situation by refusing to even acknowledge the Super Prix's existence during any of its CART qualifying, pre-race, or race telecasts, contrary to how it addresses NASCAR races aired by CBS, TNN, or TBS (i.e., during the Brickyard 400 or one of its other Winston Cup telecasts, it would note in passing that Jeff Gordon won the Daytona 500 this February, even though CBS has broadcast Daytona for the past two decades). Nor would they permit HSP usage of archival video footage from 1980's CART races requested for the Super Prix pre-race show, with CART indicating it could not intervene because of the ABC/ESPN TV contract.

The one area in which CART did insist on some significant area of control came in determining the four wild card participants who would race against the top twelve drivers in the points standings at year's end. Fans and journalists unanimously wanted big name drivers from outside CART invited as the promoters' options, such as Jacques Villeneuve and Alex Zanardi, winners of three of the last four CART championships and now competing in the separate Formula 1 series, and both drivers publicly expressed strong interest in running the Super Prix. Rutherford and Andretti both agreed with this general sentiment. But CART, interested in maintaining a monopoly (and thus not making their current drivers look bad should an outsider beat them in the race), steadfastly refused, thus driving away many potential viewers who otherwise would gladly have paid $19.95 for PPV or flown halfway around the world to attend in person. Many vocally lost interest in the race once that direction seemingly became finalized.

In the eyes of many, CART ran blindly after the carrot dangled by HSP - the huge purse and lots of free publicity if the race happened and a $5 million guaranteed payout from the performance bond if it did not. People feel CART should have questioned the financing behind the Super Prix more aggressively from the very beginning, and in retrospect, there is no real explanation why the questioning of something so presumably flimsy did not take place. When CART did privately ask questions about the wisdom behind certain decisions, Rutherford stood firm, while Heard could only apologize and say the decisions preceeded his arrival in February, and he could do nothing about changing them.

CART, which stumbled in its prior attempt at creating a new marquee race (the 1996 US 500 in Michigan, staged head-to-head against the Indy 500), had another PR nightmare on its hands. When asked about the Super Prix during the Australian race weekend, Craig stated, "it's a great concept, and done in the right way, it can be a really good thing for CART. But I have to say I'm not sure it's being done in the right way."

Another prominent figure who publicly changed his tune dramatically since February is Governor Cayetano. In a written statement, he concluded he was "disappointed but not surprised" by the race's demise. "A significant amount more planning would have been necessary to pull it off." Among those who helped with this planning was a group of 30 other civic and business leaders which voluntarily organized a "Super Prix Team" in March and made fact-finding trips to the Long Beach and Cleveland races. But could those in local government have done more than this in keeping the big race dominant in Hawaii's consciousness?

Ray Sweeney handles public relations for one of the companies involved with the Super Prix; he also has followed Indycar racing since age 7, and one of his father's cousins is legendary mechanic George Bignotti. "I never want to see the state (government) involved in something like that," he insists. "I don't like the state promoting anything - it makes me nervous! We don't look to government to trumpet things - the guys did what they were supposed to do; they're not supposed to be tubthumpers for something that's the promoters' business.

"Nobody was anything less than helpful with making use of available property, building permits, and such - I don't know what more they could have done or should have done. I feel our community stepped up and did what it could do on a private enterprise basis...and the City and County worked on the traffic plans with the neighborhood boards (and helped alleviate their earlier concerns)."

What about the Hawaii Tourism Authority - should they have had more of a role in promoting the race to those out-of-state? Sweeney disagrees. "I'm not sure if the Tourism Authority is responsible for promoting, either. Its job is to bring in people who have the sports enterprises - then it's their responsibility to take over. If they don't know what to do next, then we shouldn't let them off the plane!"

Former NFL star Russ Francis worked with Rutherford and others behind the scenes in the two years prior to the race announcement, securing the facilities and drumming up the initial community support. In February, as the sports coordinator for the Tourism Authority, he recounted his involvement in organizing the Pro Bowl and how it "came to Hawaii in less than healthy condition...it suffered from player defections, no-shows, declining attendance. Hawaii joined together, I'll remind you, to breathe life into that game and work side by side with the NFL going on 19-20 years now to sellout crowds each year...that took an effort on all sides and all parties from the community on up...we have to make this happen...this race, the Hawaiian Super Prix, is Hawaii's gift to the sporting world." But the effort from Hawaii residents as a whole never reached the all-encompassing frenzy seen in many metropolitan cities hosting CART races (such as the carnival atmosphere which permeates the entire city of Queensland during Surfer's Paradise weekend), and the gift sat unopened and gathering mildew.

One of the overall reasons state officials embraced the Super Prix idea so eagerly was that if it succeeded (and none of them publicly expressed any realistic doubt it would not), it would help wash away the stigma of Hawaii being a backwards, isolationist, business-hostile state where daring and innovation get overruled by conservatism and complacency. Apart from some small cost overruns due to the added cost of doing business in Hawaii, HSP had, until the well finally went dry, stayed quite close to its operational budget in terms of money already spent. But one seemingly unrelated event conspired in putting a stranglehold on the race from a practical standpoint, one which could have had a devastating effect if the Super Prix had not died a "natural" death.


Click here for Part 4 of 6: Lost at sea

©1999 Earl Ma and SpeedCenter



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