Establishing a firm foundation for Champ Car
by Mark Cipolloni

 March 4, 2007

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Kevin Kalkhoven

On a number of occasions I had written that Champ Car was setting up a firm foundation in its first two or three years out of bankruptcy and that 2007 would be its breakout year.  However, instead of a breakout year, in recent days much doubt had been cast in the media about Champ Car's future.  Because of the lack of off-season sponsor and driver announcements, and reports that team owners like Gerald Forsythe saying he was cutting back to one car, at least on the surface, it looked very much like a series in serious trouble.

To make matters worse, Kevin Kalkhoven disappeared for two months over the winter in Antarctica on a science and research project and his lack of visibility made many think he had lost interest in Champ Car.

In reality, what was really going on was that Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi were still laying blocks in the foundation. 

"You will see a good number of announcements in Laguna Seca at Spring Training this coming week that the plan is working," Kalkhoven told AutoRacing1.com.

"We will have 17 or 18 cars on the grid in Las Vegas. We have six new events, another strong Atlantic grid, drivers moving up from Atlantics to Champ Car, a better TV deal, new teams, and all the teams have bought the new car [Panoz DP01].  Despite the negative press we received recently, the facts will be the proof of the pudding," said Kalkhoven. 

"Our team [PKV Racing] for example will have 3 or 4 new sponsors this year.  Whereas last year one of the Newman/Haas cars had no sponsorship, this year they will both be fully sponsored.  As it stands right now, all the teams except one will have sponsorship for 2007, and that one is still hopeful a sponsor will be in place by the time Las Vegas rolls around.  We decided to deliberately hold back announcements until Spring Training.

"In addition I expect we will have a couple of more races added to the schedule in 2008.  By '08 we hope to have even more teams and better TV will improve when we move over to ABC/ESPN for all the races.  It all just takes time"

Sebastien Bourdais aboard the new Panoz DP01 at MSR Houston

"I want to recognize Paul Gentilozzi for the significant contribution he made in the new Panoz Champ Car as well as the great event he helped orchestrate in Mont-Tremblant to replace Montreal. He did a lot of behind the scenes work for us."

Regarding the rumors that the China race would be moved to October from its May date, "yes that's true," said Kalkhoven.  "It makes sense to pair it up with the Australia race and a potential major race sponsor for China needs more time to get their plans in place. It in no way indicates that the China race is in trouble.  We have some big plans for China.

"That of course creates a gap in May for us, but nothing should be read into that about our teams running at Indy.  I have not even spoken to Tony [George] in a long time.  There are no plans for a merger.  It's not ideal [the gap in May], so this year we will probably run some official test sessions in May. 

"I'm not sure yet what we will do to plug the September-October gap in the schedule, but we are working on it.

"When we do the schedule for 2008 our goal will be to avoid those long gaps.  When you add as many new races this year (6) and possibly two more in 2008, it takes time to juggle contracts and the like.

"We recognize that we must work toward a stable race schedule and driver lineup, we just need a bit more time."

For years many of the teams were receiving financial support from engine manufacturers (in the CART days), by CART itself in the Chris Pook era, and later by Champ Car when it was first formed after CART's bankruptcy.

So last August in Montreal Kalkhoven, Forsythe and Gentilozzi put the teams on notice - it was time to stop being complacent, and for them to get out there and find their own sponsorship and become self-sustaining.  The days of the welfare check were over.  And that included Forsythe's team as well.  He told his management team that they had to find sponsorship for the second car or there would not be one.  The pressure was on so-to-speak.

Unfortunately, because of years of welfare checks, some of the teams did not have the marketing and sales staff in place to enable them to make a compelling sales pitch to potential sponsors that would enable them to close the deal.

"We decided it was time to force the teams to make it on their own," Kalkhoven told AutoRacing1.com. 

Part of it was Champ Car's fault.  They did not have a very good TV package in place in previous years, and with low ratings it makes it harder to pitch sponsors.  So in the off-season Champ Car shocked NASCAR and the IRL by announcing a deal with ABC and ESPN.  It caught everyone off-guard.

"We made an agreement with our teams late last year that we would spend more money to improve our TV, but that they had to go out and find sponsorship and become self-sustaining, and although it has taken a bit longer than we would have liked, and it was painful, generally the results have been good.

"Sure we could have continued supporting the teams and have had 20 or more cars on the grid, but it was time to bite the bullet, stop the welfare, and run the series with a model that would ensure its long-term health.  And this notion that teams survive on the money drivers bring to the teams simply isn't true," Kalkhoven added.

"In reality they bring a very small percentage to the overall cost it takes for a team to compete.  In fact, most of the drivers are paid to drive, contrary to what has been reported."

The sky isn't falling for Champ Car and we expect things will be a lot clearer later this week when Spring Training begins at Laguna Seca.

As they say, patience is a virtue.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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