SPORTS: This is the time and place for an open-wheel marriage

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It’s May, so here’s something we should want to see even more than the field of (we hope) 33 taking the green flag on Race Day, something we should want to hear even more than Tom Carnegie’s baritone, something we should believe would have an even more positive long-term impact on open-wheel racing than a victory by Danica Patrick.

Indeed, the best news to come out of this May would be the great news for next May.

And that would be unification. One series. Peace at last.

Among the racing set, there have been rumors and reports that sometime before the Victory Banquet, the two open-wheel series will bury the hatchet and, this time, not in each other’s neck.

If so, hallelujah.

Even the ever-dwindling number (myself included) who thought Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George was on the right track (that would be the oval variety) when he told CART to stick it and formed the Indy Racing League a decade ago have to admit his vision-lower costs, American drivers-has not played out in the long term.

The IRL and Champ Car (previously CART) series are no longer part of the sports mainstream, but fighting to keep from being washed up on the riverbank.

I incorrectly believed that as long as George had the 800-pound gorilla known as the Indianapolis 500, everything would eventually shake itself out, that CART/Champ Car would wither on the vine and go away (indeed, it had to be rescued from bankruptcy), and that open-wheel racing then would begin the long road to recovery, even though it must concede NASCAR’s dominance of the genre.

Perhaps we’ll never see the day when open wheel comes close to matching NASCAR in popularity, even though the latter is much the inferior product.

Now, the point isn’t whether open wheel can compete against the taxicabs; it’s that open wheel no longer can compete against itself.

George and his Champ Car counterpart, a sharp and wealthy Aussie, Kevin Kalkhoven, admit they’ve been talking about unification. They say they are taking their time because if they’re going to do it, they want to make sure it’s done right.

Makes sense. Yet every day the two series spend apart is a day of opportunity and ground gaining lost.

Since I’m not a gear head but simply a fan of the sport, I can’t speak with knowledge about chassis and engine packages, and how to marry the two series into one along those lines. That is just one of the difficult issues George, Kalkhoven and their respective minions have to resolve, not the least of which is where to race. Champ Car has survived by carving out an impressive and crowd-pleasing array of street/road races: Long Beach, Calif.; Cleveland; Toronto; and Denver among them. The IRL has abandoned its all-oval strategy and produced a popular street race in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Certainly, a unified series will feature both styles, and everyone will be better for it. Maybe one day-especially if Formula One leaves Indy after this year-the Speedway might become home to both the 500 and a unified series race on the road circuit. Why let all that pavement go to waste? Nor do I believe that a road race would detract from the 500. In fact, it could enhance it.

The exciting thing is that George and Kalkhoven can paint on a blank canvas, and it seems they have been at the palette a number of months, reportedly since bumping into each other at a ski resort.

One supposes it’s been all downhill from there.

The good news is that a combined series appears to be a matter of when, not if. Asked before the IRL season-opener at Homestead, Fla., if 2007 was a possibility for unification, George responded cautiously.

“I suppose if all the stars, moons and planets aligned, it could be possible,” he said. “But what are the chances of that?”

Likewise, Kalkhoven was not ready to commit to a timetable.

“The issue is, everyone would agree, that it’s a very, very good thing to do,” Kalkhoven told the Associated Press. “It’s not about getting an agreement to merge. It’s about what we will have in year one, year two and year three.

“The worst thing that could happen would be to merge and then have another split.”

Agreed. But, then again, what better time and place than May in Indy to announce the new union?

Now wouldn’t that-and a Danica triumph-be something?

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column,go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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