Editorial

There is an easy way for Champ Car and IRL to unite

 by Mark Cipolloni
July 15, 2004

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With all the recent talk about a possible Champ Car/IRL unification that started with Roger Penske's recent letter published by the NY Times, there have been varying opinions as to whether it's even possible to get these two sides together again. 

Quite frankly, despite all the talk about unification, in reality it will be nearly impossible to accomplish.  Both series are simply too far down the road and have different philosophies about what open wheel racing should be.  Hence, while my original intent of this article was to propose a possible unification structure for the two series to work under, when examining the issues I quickly realized it simply is not possible, but an alternative quickly emerged.

Let's examine the issues that would need to be overcome, and then I will propose what I believe the two series should do.

Issue 1: Tony George  Tony George has his plan of what Indy Car racing needs to be and I think he plans to see it through.  Emboldened by his success in luring Honda, Toyota, most teams, most sponsors and most drivers from CART to the IRL, I doubt he is ready to give up any control to a group of team owners, even if it was joint control.  We suspect Tony wants to be the Bill France of Indy Car Racing and I doubt he will agree to any unification plan. 

Issue 2: OWRS  A few short months ago OWRS went through a lot of trouble to acquire the Champ Car series.  We do not see them having an appetite to sell or merge with anyone. They have a 5-year plan and they claim they are going to stick to it.  "In 18 months we will have made so many significant improvements no one will be talking about a merger," said Kevin Kalkhoven.  "We are only in the first year of our 5-year plan and already we are well ahead of schedule."

Issue 3: The Cars  Both series have completely different cars and in a unified series, a common chassis would have to be agreed upon.   The IRL currently has two chassis suppliers who are getting rich like fat cats just from the parts business alone.  Champ Car effectively just has one - Lola. While the IRL car is optimized for ovals, the Champ Car must be optimized for road and street circuits.  The existing Champ Car works well on all types of circuits,  but it is getting old and outdated. Hence an all new car is probably needed starting in 2006. 2006 would have been the year for both sides to buy all new equipment and run under a common umbrella, were that even remotely possible.  It's not.

Issue 4: The Engines  The IRL has three engine suppliers, two (Honda and Toyota) committed through 2006, one (Chevy) through 2005 and probably through 2006, all of whom are committed to spend money to support the series.  Champ Car has no manufacturer support (we don't count Ford because their contribution is so miniscule it is meaningless.)  Champ Car teams pay to lease engines from Ford Cosworth at a reasonable price.  All Champ Cars use the same power plant, so everyone is equal.  This is a good thing.  The IRL engine makes about 625 HP and going any higher means speeds are too great and unsafe on the ovals.  Champ Car engines make 750 HP and going any lower would mean the cars would be too slow on road courses....unless the new car is much lighter. 

Issue 5: The Schedule  Combined the two series have a total of 30 to 32 races.  A combined series would be able to accommodate 20 maximum.  What 10 to 12 races would be dropped and what happens to existing contracts?  Yes there are some weak races, but dropping 10 to 12 might be difficult. 

Issue 6: Television The IRL has a contract with ABC through 2009 that sees the IRL get paid for their TV broadcasts.  Champ Car has a contract with Spike TV, but it is a time buy, hence that contract could easily be terminated for 2006 and Champ Car and the IRL can be united under ABC/ESPN.

Issue 7: The Egos  There are a lot of big egos on both sides of the fence.  They would have to be set aside if unification is going to work.

Issue 8: The number of cars on the grid  The IRL currently has 22 cars on the grid while Champ Car has 18, for a total of 40.  How many cars can you conceivably run in any given race?   Realistically, some teams will have to be told to go find another series to race in.

Issue 9: Philosophical Differences  Contrary to reports they are going road racing, in reality the IRL is still all about oval racing.  As part of the oval track cartel, Tony George is never going to take his focus off of oval track racing.  Champ Car is clearly focused on road racing, in particular, downtown urban street races.  Their view is that oval track racing is too risky and places a heavy toll on man and machine.  Clearly history has shown that many cars and human body parts have been broken when IRL cars hit the immovable walls, although the damage to the drivers has been reduced with the advent of the SAFER Barrier.

Issue 10: The Organizational Structure  The IRL has a management structure that has no conflicts of interest, unlike OWRS owners who are both series owners and team owners.  Tony George does not believe in team owners running a race series so clearly any unified series would need an independent management structure making the important calls.  We suspect Tony George sees himself as the overall NFL-style Commissioner in such a scenario, but we also suspect OWRS is not about to roll over and play dead under Tony George.  The Commissioner role would have to be carefully structured.

Issue 11: Overcoming NASCAR's monopoly  Helped by the open wheel split, NASCAR now has a huge market share in the USA.  So huge in fact that open wheel racing isn't on most American's minds at all.  To them, NASCAR is racing.  How would a unified series overcome NASCAR's near-monopoly?

Conclusion

There are simply too many key issues to overcome for the two series to unify.  The series should never have been split in the first place, but it's what Tony George wanted and the entire sport has paid dearly for it.  The only good that came out of it is 1) More people are employed because there are more overall teams, 2) More venues have races now than when the series was one.

Recommendation

If nothing else, for the foreseeable future, the two sides should agree to do business on separate turfs and stick to them. 

The IRL should remain an oval track series and focus on that form of racing and be the best it can be.  It would do well to feature mostly American drivers, perhaps 75%.  A big part of NASCAR's popularity is from the fact that Americans like oval track racing and they can relate to American drivers better.  If they move forward with road racing it's going to cost the teams extra money for the road racing conversions necessary for their cars, but for what?  The road races won't have higher TV ratings and the venues I hear them talk about going to will struggle to pull in a big gate.

Champ Car should agree to not race on ovals.  In North America, the IRL will be the premier oval track open wheel series and Champ Car the premier road racing series.  Champ Car should focus on perfecting a road racing package that looks and sounds a lot like F1, at a much more affordable price.  North America, as well as many countries around the world that want a F1 race but can't afford one, would jump at the chance for a F1 imitation. 

Being an F1 imitation should not be construed as a negative. F1 is wildly popular around the world, but it's pricing itself out of business.  By using spec cars and other parts (can you say badged engines too?) Champ Car can keep the costs down and speeds in check.  The cars should look fast (by being light and a bit smaller) and sound sexy  (screaming V10) but at a low cost.  If you look like F1 and sound like F1, eventually people worldwide will begin to take notice and Champ Car will erode F1's market share (sorry Bernie).  Champ Car needs to get the "wow" factor back, which they had when they were thought of as something very special.

Both series must focus on making the drivers household names and heroes.  You can't make a hero out of a wanker, so each series should focus on the best talent available.  When they invest in these individuals, and grow them into super heroes, they should not be throwing their money away on drivers who wouldn't know how to find victory circle if you led them there by their nose.

Stealing drivers, sponsors, manufacturers and teams should not be allowed without mutual consent from both sides.  Each side should agree to live in harmony and go about growing their respective business without fear of constantly looking over their shoulder.  The war of words must stop.  All the negative press and comparisons must stop.  Let the fans enjoy both series for what they are - one ovals, one road racing.  Each side should say kind things about the other side.  Let the fans know that you have each agreed to live in harmony and the fans will eventually lay down their weapons (harsh negative criticism) as well.

Last, the two sides should form a joint open wheel IROC series using open wheel cars.  I assume Champ Car will soon have all new cars.  May I suggest a fleet of 30 equally prepared existing Lola Cosworth Champ Cars be bought and maintained for four IROC-type races a year featuring the 10 best drivers from each series.  Let the fans vote for the 10 best, much like baseball chooses their all-star players each year.  The four races should be two on ovals and two on road courses, with an overall champion crowned.

The existing Champ Car is a versatile machine, able to race on both ovals and road courses, this is why I suggest they be bought and maintained as the IROC cars for open wheel.

Both sides should agree to the four venues, each in conjunction with an existing race.  I would pick Indy and Chicagoland as the two oval rounds, and Long Beach and Montreal as the two road racing rounds, each run on a Saturday of race weekend.  However, I would rotate two of the venues each year.  Indy and Long Beach should be fixtures, but I could see the other oval and other road course being different each year.  ABC or CBS should be contracted to televise the races live and they should be broadcast in all of North America.

This "open wheel IROC series" should be equally promoted by both sides as North America's version of their all-star series and use it as a vehicle for bragging rights as to who is best.  The open wheel fans will look forward to these four all-star races each year and view this coming together under one umbrella as a sign the cold war is over and the real battle is on the track between the drivers.

Is Sebastien Bourdais or Justin Wilson better than Sam Hornish or Buddy Rice?  Hopefully we can soon find out.  And who knows, perhaps one day this IROC series will lead to the merger of Champ Car and the IRL, much like the AFL merged with the NFL after playing against one another in a game called the Super Bowl.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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