Champ Car appears poised for major comeback

 by Mark Cipolloni
October 24, 2004

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Kevin Kalkhoven and his partners are working hard behind the scenes to make things happen in Champ Car
Champ Car

After going bankrupt under the former CART name the Champ Car World Series is poised to make some major announcements in the coming weeks that may set the stage for one of the biggest comebacks in auto racing history.

While it's far too early to say mission accomplished, Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS - Messrs. Kalkhoven, Forsythe and Gentilozzi), owners of the Champ Car series, are hard at work behind the scenes reshaping and remolding Champ Car from a domestic series that occasionally races abroad, to a true international series that occasionally races at home.

Why the move internationally to a true World Series?

As the name implies, the Bridgestone Champ Car World Series powered by Ford, is about to become a true World Series......finally.

Only a blind person can't see the fact that the future of all other forms of racing in the USA that is not NASCAR is bleak. Perhaps a better characterization is hopeless. I've said it a number of times, NASCAR rules America. Indy Car racing once ruled America. There is a far greater history of open wheel racing in America than NASCAR's stock car racing. The first Indy 500 was in 1911. The first Daytona 500, NASCAR's premier event, was in 1959, some 48 years later.

Indy Car racing may have twice the history, and it was the leading form of motorsports in America until 1995. But when Tony George created the IRL in 1996 he destroyed the sport by dividing it and allowing NASCAR to rule the roost. While some refuse to believe it, one has to look no further than the dismal TV ratings, weak attendance and huge ticket giveaways at the Indy 500 just to make the grandstands look reasonably full to realize just how bad things really are.

But it's not just the sport of Indy Car racing that is bordering on extinction in the USA. Trans-Am is a shadow of its former self, ALMS has fields 1/2 the size they used to be and Grand-Am, although flush with a full field of cars thanks to the France family's big infusion of cash, plays before empty grandstands and blank TV screens. NHRA's drag racing series is the only other form of racing enjoying a bit of popularity in America, although that has softened a bit in recent years.

In essence, with all the stick and ball sports in the USA, there are only a finite number of auto racing fans and NASCAR has managed to capture the hearts and minds of 90% of them. The other 10% are divided up among Champ Car, IRL, and NHRA, and to a lesser extent ALMS, Grand-Am, dirt track racing, and rally.

Much to NASCAR's credit, just about everything they touch turns golden. Even in its darkest hour, the death of its biggest superstar, Dale Earnhardt Sr., NASCAR managed to garner so much publicity it shot the sport up to an even higher plateau, out of reach of the others. We can argue numbers, but the USA is now a NASCAR-only country, and all other forms of motorsports are sucking wind, or shall I say exhaust fumes and slowly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Clearly then, Champ Car's future lies elsewhere.

Is Champ Car positioning itself as an alternate to Formula One?

When Champ Car announces its 2005 schedule there are apparently going to be wholesale changes. The series will be distinctively international, far more than any time in its 25 year history. Possible additions for 2005 include a 4th race in Canada, plus races in Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, China and the Middle East. If they don't all materialize in 2005, then by 2006 they will and hence the schedule will have a very international flair.

Added to the international push from 2005 will probably be two additional races in Europe in 2006. If we do our math right that's about 14 races outside the USA. With a maximum of 18 or 20 races promised by OWRS, that leaves just 4 to 6 races in the USA, the smallest number in its history. Those 4 to 6 races will be in the best markets possible, but clearly the emphasis on the USA will be reduced.  If Champ Car adds 5 or 6 new races in 2005 that's a full 1/3 of the schedule being overhauled from one year to the next.

One can argue that Champ Car will then be more international than Formula One given F1 has a higher percentage of races on their home turf (Europe) than Champ Car does (USA).

Champ Car is also about to announce a major upgrade to its TV package. CBS will be onboard to bolster the domestic TV numbers, but more importantly, the international TV will be much better. Deals are being struck in many countries that will see Champ Car races carried live in their entirety, many on network TV. Still others will be same-day taped delayed. The end result will be an international TV package to complement its international race schedule.

Another aspect of being a global sports property is having sponsors that understand the strength of the global market. McDonald's is onboard and there are strong rumors of a deal with another major company that sells its product worldwide. That company will supposedly become the title sponsor.

Other rumors suggest Kevin Kalkhoven is poised to buy Cosworth. Should this happen, he will have full control over the engines in the series and the ability to design and build state-of-the-art F1 and Champ Car engines (if he buys the UK operation too).

Where are we heading with all this? Formula One is where we are heading. With Champ Car, OWRS is out to incorporate all the best things about F1, without all of its ills. Yes, it will be international, and yes it will be exciting, and yes, it will begin to be followed worldwide, but it won't inherit all of F1's faults - insane costs, computer driven cars, runaway speeds, team owners that think they have more control than they really have and manufacturers who do have more control than they ever should.

What's still left to do?

Unfortunately there are areas that still require attention before Champ Car can be called an alternative to F1 and a major comeback declared. The series needs new cars, new engines, more sponsors, more manufacturers and a name change.

Will Champ Car move to a derivation of this Superfund car, complete with V10 engine and as fast as a F1 car, but low in cost?

The cars  - The existing product leaves a lot to be desired. It no longer gets the juices flowing like it once did. 2005 must be the last year for the existing car. It's outlived its useful life, is too heavy and certainly not fast enough to rattle F1's cage. On our Hot News and Rumors pages we have highlighted one such car that can help turn Champ Car around and position its product properly in the "world" marketplace - that being some derivation of the new Superfund Euro 3000 car that has a screaming V10 (like a F1 car) and will blow the current Champ Car into the weeds performance-wise (i.e. much faster) and cost-wise (i.e. much cheaper).

Too few big-name drivers, too many ride-buyers - Champ Car needs more stars, and less ride-buyers. The ultimate success of the series is going to depend largely on whether or not Champ Car can make heroes out of some of its drivers. Every successful sport has them. There are big name drivers out there that can be hired and that's where either OWRS must get involved, or Ford must get involved. As we have seen with Honda and Toyota in the IRL, someone with deep pockets must see the value that big-name drivers bring to the series and step up to make it happen.

The lack of engine manufacturers - Manufacturers are good and bad, a double-edged sword. They are good because they bring a lot of money into a race series. They are bad because their need to beat their competitors drives up the cost for everyone. Champ Car must find a way to bring in more engine manufacturers besides just Ford, but control the cost, not an easy task. One option is our engine badging concept, but Champ Car needs someone who can sell the idea to a few manufacturers.

Yet another, possibly more feasible option, is for Champ Car to adopt the new 2006 2.4 L V8 F1 engine rules lock, stock, and barrel. That would require Champ Car to switch from methanol to petrol, something they prefer not to do, especially if ovals are still on the schedule. The new rules are very restrictive and will significantly reduce costs for the manufacturers such that they can supply engines to both F1 and Champ Car teams for far less money than they are spending today just on Formula One. By adopting the F1 rules Champ Car gives manufacturers the option. Whether they play or not will be up to Bernie Ecclestone as ultimately he would need to bless such a plan.

The lack of enough fully funded teams - Theoretically this problem should take care of itself once the new TV package is unveiled and the series starts to garner some decent TV ratings. This will help teams sell sponsorship to companies globally. Equally important is the need to measure worldwide TV ratings, not just USA ratings. With NASCAR's domination, USA TV ratings will never be huge for Champ Car. Champ Car must measure total eyeballs on a global basis and provide that data to the teams marketing personnel, valuable ammunition needed to sell sponsorship.

The lack of standing starts - Hopefully with the new 2006 car we will see the move to a normally aspirated engine. Gone will be any turbo lag and stalling issues, thereby making standing starts doable. Standing starts are exciting and Champ Car fans are ready for them (at select races throughout the year where tracks widths are adequate).

Not enough cars, drivers - Part of NASCAR's popularity is its 43-car fields. Every driver on the starting grid has fans. Therefore, the more drivers the more fans who will attend the races and watch on TV, which increases TV ratings. OWRS talks about 20-car starting grids. I say that's not enough and the goal should be 26 to 28.

Miniscule purses - To their credit, the IRL pays decent race purses and this helps the teams offset their losses every time one of their cars is pulverized against a SAFER Barrier or concrete wall. Champ Car must pay decent purse money, just like NASCAR and just like the IRL. In every successful sport the teams are paid money, be it a share of TV revenue, a purse, or other financial incentives.

A name change - While OWRS appears committed to the Champ Car name, clearly it has a lot to be desired. There is almost zero name recognition of the Champ Car brand because the words "Champ Car" do not instantly bring visions to one's head of an open wheel race car. Sure, the hard core race fan might know what it means, but to 99.99999% of the world population it is meaningless. The longer OWRS hangs onto this name the longer it will remain obscure and confusing.

New venues, new TV, new cars - as they go through this complete transformation, the next 12 to 24 months will be perhaps Champ Car's most intriguing, and certainly its most important, year in their 25-year history. The motorsports world is watching!

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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