Champ Car-IRL unification may be at hand

February 19, 2008
Champ Car teams this week began hustling to prepare for Indy Racing League's first open test in Homestead, Fla., on Feb 27 and 28, three sources close to both series told IBJ.

That can only mean one thing, they said: Unification of the two open-wheel series is at hand.

Champ Car and IRL lawyers are hammering out final details following intense weekend meetings, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. IRL boss Tony George and Champ Car principals Gerry Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven remained tight lipped, but motorsports sources said a press conference likely will be called later this week to make the unification announcement.

"Everything I hear about this is positive," said Just Marketing President Zak Brown, who was commissioned last year to help broker sponsorships for the IRL. "It looks like at last they're headed in the direction of unification."

There is still no word on when the IRL race in Twin Ring Motegi, Japan, will be held, and what will become of Champ Car's biggest races, most notably Long Beach, which was set to run the same weekend as Motegi. The IRL also hopes to integrate at least two other Champ Car races into its schedule: Mexico City and Surfers Paradise, Australia.

George's offer of free cars and engines, plus $1.2 million for any team able to compete the entire season, is expected to add six to 10 cars from Champ Car to the IRL field this year. With 16 cars expected to return from last year's IRL stable, the series should have its largest full-season field in a decade.

George started the IRL in 1996 after clashing with the leaders of CART, which was Champ Car's forerunner. The IRL started with the premise of containing costs for teams and giving American drivers more open-wheel opportunities.

The series has had a number of ups and downs, and has at times struggled to field enough cars to satisfy sponsors. But the fabled Indianapolis 500, the only IRL race that has approached the attendance and television ratings that NASCAR races regularly earn, has bolstered the series.

CART, meanwhile, went public in 1998, then amid years of fan fallout, burned through its cash reserves and went into bankruptcy. George tried to buy the rival series out of bankruptcy in 2004, but a judge awarded assets of the series to a group led by Forsythe and Kalkhoven instead.

For three seasons following, Champ Car ran with few fans and even fewer sponsors. Champ Car series owners, sources said, were financially propping up most of its teams.

Some speculated that IRL officials simply would let Champ Car go out of business, then swoop in - maybe as soon as next year - to pick up the assets, namely the hot open-wheel markets on which Champ Car still had a grip.

"Unification is better than letting a Champ Car bankruptcy cast a shadow over the entire sport," said Tim Frost, president of Frost Motorsports, a Chicago-based motorsports business consultancy. "No one in open-wheel racing wants anymore bad press. That's bad for fans, sponsors and anyone else involved in the sport."

For more, go to IBJ's sports business blog, The Score, at IBJ.com.

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