Why an IRL/Champ Car merger will be a big boost for the sport
by Mark Cipolloni

 March 5, 2006

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Tony George

Kevin Kalkhoven

After spending ten years trying to run each other out of business, the chances of the Indy Racing League (IRL) and CART (Now Champ Car) getting back together again now seem better than ever thanks to ongoing talks between Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven.

Many people have written to ask why we need such a merger as many fans from both sides are fanatics and would like nothing better than for the other side to die.  In this article I lay out why a merger could lead the sport back to its popular past, pre-1996.

Hugs instead of daggers
In the last ten years a lot of resources, both financial and man-hours, have been spent trying to beat the other side, be it stealing races, sponsors, drivers, or teams.  Now all the effort can be focused growing the sport.

Concerted marketing effort
In a merger scenario marketing efforts can be pooled together and used to grow the sport.

No more confusion
Non-hardcore fans were confused by the two opposing series.  They just didn't understand it and many former fans were turned off by it and left.  In time some may come back.

Bigger fields
By combining the two leagues we will regularly see 28 to 30 cars on a starting grid and the Indy 500 will no longer be in danger of not having 33 cars start the race.

Bigger purses
By combining the leagues the race purses can be pooled and be larger.

Better attendance
While as many as 50% of open wheel racing fans would attend races from both leagues after the split, the other approximately 50% were so opposed to the 'other' side that they refused to spend even a single dollar on the opposing league.  With a merged series race attendance should rise 25% to 30%.

Better TV ratings
While a merged series won't see TV ratings shoot up to NASCAR territory, for the same reason race attendance will rise, so too will TV ratings.  Both will draw in new sponsors for the teams and the league.  Better TV ratings will also lead to higher TV ad revenue.

New Sponsors
With better race attendance and TV ratings selling the series or the teams to new sponsors will be both easier and it will bear more fruit.  In addition, instead of marketing folks from both leagues going after the same sponsors and telling them why their side was better, which led to sponsor confusion, now everyone will be rowing in the same direction.  Champ Car teams will benefit in their sponsor hunt with the Indy 500 in their portfolio and IRL teams will benefit from having Champ Car's big-city events in their portfolio.

Fan enthusiasm will replace fan apathy
With many open wheel fans taking sides in the battle between the IRL and Champ Car, in a merged league these same passionate fans will go to or watch races cheering for certain drivers or teams that came from their side of the split.  This sort of passion is necessary for any sport to thrive - the fans must engage in the friendly rivalry between teams.

A solid 20 race schedule
In a merger scenario, I could see the strongest venues from each side being brought together in the best schedule open wheel racing has ever had - largely North American based with a hint of international flare.  My version of the schedule would be as follows remembering that some venues have to lose their event - only the strong will survive:

  1. St. Petersburg, FL - warm weather and a nice venue for a mid-March season opener

  2. Houston, TX - warm weather makes this a nice late March venue

  3. Long Beach, CA - do we have to explain it to you?

  4. Motegi, Japan - we have to believe Honda will want this race to remain

  5. Beijing, China - Champ Car is close to making this race a reality, all sponsors will want a race there

  6. Indy 500 - no explanation necessary

  7. Milwaukee, WI - the traditional race-after-Indy.  Combined attendance will be better.

  8. Ft. Worth, TX - the IRL drew big crowds to this venue.  A merger will only help push it over 100K

  9. Cleveland, OH - A popular venue for all involved

  10. Kansas City, KS - the IRL drew big crowds to this venue.  A merger will only help push it higher

  11. Toronto, Canada - one of the strongest races on Champ Car's schedule will only get better

  12. Edmonton, Canada - another strong race on Champ Car's schedule will only get better

  13. San Jose, CA - right in the heart of Silicon Valley, a key market for sponsorship

  14. Denver, CO - another strong race on Champ Car's schedule will only get better

  15. Montreal, Canada - this race would make a strong comeback after a merger

  16. Joliet, IL -  the IRL drew big crowds to this venue.  A merger will only help push it higher

  17. Elkhart Lake, WI - How can America's Spa not be on the schedule?  A merger will boost attendance.

  18. Queensland, Australia - no explanation necessary

  19. Mexico City, Mexico - this is the stronger of the two Mexico races, and a key venue

  20. Las Vegas, NV - the sport must end its season in the USA and what better place than The Entertainment Capital of the World?

There were a good number of races I had to leave off the list that would make worthy additions, but I had to draw the line somewhere.  In a merger scenario cities that were thinking about having a Champ Car or IRL race will no longer be on the fence and will be fighting over who could be the 21st or 22nd event.

Danica Patrick

Katherine Legge

Danica vs. Katherine
What a great story it will be to follow the rivalry between the two best female drivers the sport has ever seen - Danica Patrick vs. Katherine Legge.

No more weak teams
Both Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven/Gerald Forsythe are currently writing checks to get their car count up to respectable levels.  In a merged series teams will have an easier time getting sponsorship.  And those that can't will simply disappear.

The Indy 500 will make a comeback
With ticket sales floundering since the split for the once greatest race in the world, the Indy 500 will again be sold out before the month of May even begins. The Indy 500 must thrive as it will be the centerpiece of the sport.

Young open wheel drivers will not go to NASCAR
Because of the split many young American open wheel drivers started to look at NASCAR as their ultimate dream.  In a merger scenario many will again consider Indy Car racing as their goal.

An even stronger Atlantic Series
The new Mazda powered Atlantic series will have super-competitive fields.  Imagine how much better it will be when the best IndyPro series teams are merged in.

Tony George will again become loved instead of hated
After the split many fans hated Tony George.  In fact he became one of the most hated men in auto racing because of the damage caused by the split - many blamed him for the demise of the sport. In a merger scenario Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven will come out looking like heroes to the millions of fans who so much want the sport back together again. 

Kalkhoven's business acumen combined with George's Indy assets
I think that Tony George was impressed by Kevin Kalkhoven's business acumen as Kalkhoven outmaneuvered him on several occasions - Long Beach, Cosworth buyout, bankruptcy court to name a few.  I'm sure Tony recognizes that having Kalkhoven working with him instead of against him will form a strong team together. Of course Tony George brings the Indy name and the Indy 500 to a merger, a name that is well branded and can be sold to fans worldwide.

Owning Cosworth means the league will always have an engine supply
Sure it would be great to have more manufacturer participation like Honda and Ford, but just in case there was none, the league would always be secure in knowing that Cosworth could supply engines to all competitors in a pinch.

Turbo 2.65L engine best platform
With turbochargers becoming so popular on passenger cars, and the fact that the turbo gives you much more flexibility as a race engine for various venues, Champ Car's turbo formula is the right platform for a combined series.  It's also quieter for the popular big-city street races and will run just fine on Ethanol with a few minor tweaks.  Honda has a 2.65 L CART turbo. In a merger scenario I can see the series doing what Grand-Am does, put both engines on a dyno, map their HP and torque curves.  Tweak the engines so they are nearly identical, blueprint the engines and make sure only those parts are used.  This will eliminate costly R&D for both sides and a common ECU will ensure no one cheats the no-traction control rules.  With no costly R&D war, that money can be plowed back into marketing.

There you have the primary reasons why a merger between Champ Car and the IRL will be a win-win for everyone involved.  Will they ever topple NASCAR?  Probably not, at least not for a very long time, but do they need to?

It's no longer whether this merger should happen, but that it must!  And it's time for the fans and the participants of both sides to welcome everyone back together again.  You can't change the past, but you certainly can make for a better future.  United we stand, divided we fall.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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