The Short and Chaotic Reign of Joe Heitzler

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There was a loss in the IndyCar world late last week that probably went unnoticed by many. Some may have seen the name and it didn’t ring a bell. Others may have callously smirked and silently thought “Good riddance!” to themselves.

History will probably not be kind to Joe Heitzler. Some of that history was earned by Heitzler, while he carries some blame that could have been attributed to others.

Almost twenty years have passed since Joe Heitzler served as CART’s CEO. It was during a rocky era that almost guaranteed that whoever went into the position would be fired. It was a case of when, and not if. When The Split occurred in 1996, Andrew Craig was at the helm of CART. Personally, I thought Craig did an excellent job during these tough times.

But the owners didn’t care for Craig, nor did the stockholders after he spearheaded the questionable move to take the company public. Craig resigned in 2000 and was replaced on an interim basis by Team Owner Bobby Rahal.

Rahal took it to heart when he was named Interim CEO of CART. Six months after replacing Andrew Craig, Rahal vacated the position and took the difficult position of managing Jaguar’s team in Formula One.

Parnelli Jones championed Joe Heitzler, who was portrayed as a marketing genius. Heitzler was neighbors with Jones and had previously worked in television. One reason he was hired was to negotiate a new TV deal, because ESPN had announced it was ending its relationship with CART after the 2001 season. ESPN had decided before Heitzler came on board that they would prefer to side with the IRL in The Split, in order to retain the Indianapolis 500. Heitzler was charged with finding a new TV partner for the series that didn’t have the signature racing event.

Heitzler negotiated what was considered a very weak deal with CBS and SpeedVision. As weak as it was, it was about the only available choice with CART’s incredibly shrinking ratings. The perception was that Heitzler lost ESPN on his watch and got this shabby deal in its place. While Heitzler did negotiate the deal, ESPN was long gone before Heitzler got there.

An other CART misstep that was incorrectly attributed to Heitzler was a cancelled race in Brazil. Like ESPN, the Brazil race had already become a catastrophe before Joe Heitzler went on the payroll. Nonetheless, Heitzler got the blame.

Before anyone thinks that I have become a Joe Heitzler apologist, now that he has passed away, his critics have plenty of justifiable ammunition. Heitzler was on board when the infamous CART race at Texas was to have taken place.

Most of us remember the story of the much faster cars that ran in CART, attacking the same ovals that the IRL cars ran. The higher speeds made the high banking impossible for the drivers to handle. The high G-forces were causing the CART drivers to black out and crash for seemingly no reason. Mauricio Gugelmin was the first to crash mysteriously and he had no recollection of his crash when he came to. He first hit the wall exiting Turn Two and recorded over 66 Gs. His foot was lodged into the accelerator and the car actually picked up speed down the backstretch with the unconscious Gugelmin as an unwilling passenger. When his car hi the Turn Three wall, it recorded over 113 Gs. It was a scary situation.

CART Medical Director Dr. Steve Olvey reported several drivers complaining of dizziness after the Friday afternoon practice. On Saturday, Paul Tracy turned a lap of 236.678 mph and Christiano da Matta had a major crash in Turn Three. During the qualifying session, drivers were subjected to more than five lateral Gs for up to eighteen seconds of the normally twenty-three second lap. It was simply too much. During the post-qualifying drivers meeting, it was learned that twenty-one of the twenty-five drivers reported prolonged dizziness and vertigo after their qualifying session.

On Sunday morning, Heitzler and CART officials pulled the plug on the race in favor of driver’s safety. While CART was applauded for listening to their drivers, Heitzler was heavily criticized for his handling of the whole thing. It was another major black-eye for a series that could ill-afford any further embarrassment. Texas Motor Speedway sued CART and it was probably the beginning of the end of the series that held most of the cards in the open-wheel war – most of the cards except for the Indianapolis 500. Heitzler was held responsible in the court of public opinion for this debacle – and it was a debacle. Personally, I think Heitzler made the right decision but could have handled the aftermath far better than he did.

Joe Heitzler is also blamed for allowing two engine manufacturers – Honda and Toyota – announcing they would defect to the Indy Racing League after the 2002 season. I don’t recall the particulars, but I seem to recall that this action was pretty much on Heitzler. About three years ago, we sat at the bar in Dawson’s with someone involved with the series back then, who will remain nameless. He told me stories in great detail about how Heitzler single-handedly bungled the relationships with the engine manufacturers. Unfortunately this was after several adult beverages had been consumed and those details seem unusually fuzzy three years later. What I do remember is him saying that all the team owners were united in pointing the finger of blame at Heitzler.

The final blow to Joe Heitzler’s short career as CART CEO came over the weekend following September 11, 2001. The NFL, College Football, Major League Baseball and NASCAR had all postponed their events out of respect for all of the victims of 9/11, as our nation tried to come to grips with such a national tragedy. CART was already overseas for two races, one at the Lausitzring in Germany, the other in England. I don’t know if Heitzler didn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation, since they were already over there when the attacks took place, but Heitzler made the decision to go ahead and race that weekend. Series sponsors were infuriated and ESPN refused to televise the event. It was yet another black-eye for a series that suddenly seemed to not be able to get out of its own way.

Heitzler was fired in the subsequent offseason, less than a year into the job. He joined a long list of former CART CEOs that were either fired or resigned under pressure. Unlike others on that list, Heitzler was seen as the most inept of the bunch. He was vilified as the man who sealed CART’s fate in the years to come. Almost two decades later, the mere mention of his name will still bring shrieks from CART fans during that era.

Joe Heitzler passed away last week at the age of seventy-five. As I said earlier, history has not been kind to Heitzler and he has no one but himself to blame for much of that. But he inherited a lot of the problems that he is assigned blame for. My hope is that historians going forward might be a little more objective when analyzing his short career as CART CEO in 2001. Regardless of his many stumbles, Heitzler was an accomplished businessman before and after his time in CART. He didn’t suddenly become stupid in 2001. He was just ill-suited for the no-win position he held for less than a year. Please keep the Heitzler family in your thoughts as they deal with their time of loss.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “The Short and Chaotic Reign of Joe Heitzler”

  1. John Carr Says:

    I did not recall Joes name specifically but do remember the series continuously shooting themselves in the foot at almost every turn during those times. NASCAR seemed at their peak and CART could do very little correctly. I wish I could forget Tony George as well and that Roger would have taken over 26 years ago!

  2. I still believe we would have lost drivers or fans at that Texas race had it been run. CART was such a wreck at the time, much like someone taking over the Jets right now, it’s not going to be a long term deal that ends well.

  3. Tony Dinelli Says:

    I was at TMS that weekend and saw the looks on the drivers faces during the autograph session after their post qualifying meeting. None of them were pleased to be signing autographs.
    After the cancellation, a friend and I emailed Heitzler separately to complain about the weekend, but also understanding why they did what they did. We both received replies from him and also given paddock passes to the Houston GP. I thought that was pretty good customer service.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I was at TMS that weekend as well and recall the same thing, all the drivers at the autograph session looked like they felt sick to their stomachs. Well, everyone but Max Wilson, who was running way way off the pace running the “Phoenix”-badged 2000 Mercedes-Benz engine. I do recall that Alex Zanardi in particular put on a brave face and was quite personable with the fans.

      That’s very cool that Heitzler responded to you and your friend.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    It is worth mentioning that Formula 1 ran the Italian Grand Prix as scheduled (though with much less pomp than normal) the same weekend CART was in Germany in 2001. Heitzler may have simply been tone-def or may have viewed CART as an international series rather than an American one… or he and the series may have been pressured by a promoter that refused to reschedule because they saw other European sporting events going on as scheduled.

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