Unification brings challenges and changes

Unification brings challenges and changes

A slowing United States economy and threats from abroad may have played a significant part in the unification of the Indy Racing League and the former CART racing series, acquired out of bankruptcy in 2003 by entrepreneur Kevin Kalkhoven in ...

A slowing United States economy and threats from abroad may have played a significant part in the unification of the Indy Racing League and the former CART racing series, acquired out of bankruptcy in 2003 by entrepreneur Kevin Kalkhoven in partnership with Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentillozi under the banner Champ Car World Series.

Start: Oriol Servia and S?bastien Bourdais battle for the lead.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

The acquisition of critical sponsorship for the teams in open-wheel racing looked more difficult as slowing business conditions nationwide promised neither existing series to field more than twenty cars, if that many, for their race events.

Even though television revenue pays the bulk of the bills in this new age of media ubiquity, the Jimmys and Joes at the ticket windows, merchandise trailers, and hotdog stands figured to be hurt in no small degree by an economic downturn. The two stand alone open-wheel series were hurting with fans being split and many turning to NASCAR stock car racing.

Even traditionally well-funded teams like Andretti Green Racing found the going more difficult under the estranged open-wheel relationship, with Michael Andretti lamenting as early as 2006 the difficulty of explaining the split open-wheel structure to potential benefactors in relatively good economic times.

"This is a huge day for the IndyCar Series and for our sport as a whole, for sure," said Andretti, winner of the CART title in 1991 with Newman/Haas Racing. The name Andretti is one of the most recognized names in the history of open-wheel racing and in 2003, Michael joined forces with Kim Green. Andretti Green Racing has notched three IndyCar championships and two Indianapolis 500 wins.

"Over the years, whether I was in the role of driver, team owner or promoter, I have always wanted a unified sport. That has been my only goal throughout this entire process and I applaud everyone who played a role in making this happen," added Andretti. So many people have worked tirelessly, both publicly and behind the scenes, to get this done. Everyone can now focus on taking the IndyCar Series to new heights for the good of our sport and everyone involved in it."

Marco Andretti and Michael Andretti.
Photo by Dave Edelstein - IRL.

Compounding the concern felt around the League is that the A1GP World Cup of Motorsport may return to American soil and not just to add a USA race back on the Winter series' calendar. In January at the AARWBA banquet in Indianapolis, Emerson Fittipaldi and Scott Hollingsworth alluded to a possible new open-wheel series in America and Canada. The envisioned A2GP regional feeder series threatens to slice the racing pie even thinner.

Operating under a single banner, with as many of its heroes as it can muster on track together for the first time since 1996, in the face of these changing times might well prove the only way a United States-based major open-wheel entity can survive in any measure of importance.

Now the trick will be to execute going forward from this new, rolling start and put open-wheel back on equal footing with its stock-car counterparts; if not atop the racing heap where it once stood.

Here's where the reconciled racers are likely to find that marriage is better (and worse) than divorce:

The protracted nature of the talks to bring the two sides together created a racing-media frenzy greater than any amount of paid advertising might generate. With the Super Bowl done and the baseball season not yet underway, most sports pages found a way to cover the international intrigue that surrounded the on-again, off-again dance toward the alter of Kalkhoven and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner and IRL founder Tony George.

Curiosity brought some of the more-compulsive followers to seek out tail numbers on the private jets and scrutinize the movements to and fro of this pair of men on whose words internet-surfing fans obsessed. In other words, the process and the announcement of reunion could not have come at a better time, fostering a heady buzz ahead of publicly viewable testing and sparking a jump start to the season from all corners.

One should note that this dance was happening during NASCAR's Speedweeks and their first races of the new season; mainly the Daytona 500. IRL team owner, Indy 500 winner and a man who is never shy, A.J. Fort was one of the honorees at the 50th Anniversary celebration of the famous Daytona 500.

"I don't really know as you hear this today and that tomorrow," he said on Feb. 15th. "I do know it would be better to have one circuit than two; that would be a plus."

Yesterday, Foyt commented: "I'm glad that they were able to get it done. It'll eliminate the confusion for the race fans and the sponsors because there'll be just one type of car and one type of motor and everyone will be running together. May the best team win."

Start: Helio Castroneves leads.
Photo by Dan Helrigel - IRL.

The resultant Indy Racing League monopoly on American open-wheel racing could make it easier to acquire the title sponsor IndyCar has lacked since Northern Lights abandoned the series in 2001. Even though individual races have successfully marketed themselves to corporate sponsors from Meijer discount stores to Gainsco Insurance, the IRL has fallen short of finding a full-season sponsor to help it create brand identity.

The merger also creates an opportunity for viable CCWS teams to make the leap to an entirely different racing platform with substantial financial aid from the Indy Racing League, not only with chassis and engine deals, but with the newly-announced TEAM payout structure that puts over a million dollars into the bank for each full-season participant in the series.

The biggest winners of all may be younger drivers, particularly those with proven oval-racing skills. The Champ Car series prided itself on its street and road racing events all over the globe, shunning the traditional American oval circuit schedule. Faced with a 2008 IndyCar Series schedule made up of all three configurations will put a number of existing CCWS drivers on the steep end of the learning curve to turn only left.

There will also be a premium on crew members familiar with the Dallara chassis, the IndyCar Series' preferred supplier since 2005. The rival CCWS Panoz DP01, although a ravishingly beautiful automobile, joins the Eagle, the Coyote and Lola as purpose-built antiques.

Disadvantaged are the several newly-arriving teams who lack technical data on tracks, effective chassis and suspension setups, local information on the courses and must now navigate the quirks of relationships melded during their absence.

Consolidation will no doubt mean elimination of some redundant administrative functions across the two organizations as well, and a less-certain future for the current Elan chassis and Cosworth engine manufacturers of the Champ Car World Series.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Helio Castroneves , Michael Andretti , Oriol Servia , Emerson Fittipaldi , Marco Andretti , Kim Green , Gerald Forsythe , Tony George , Eric Gilbert , Kevin Kalkhoven