TV deal paving the way for 20-race sked and title sponsorship
What a difference a year makes.
Last July, on the eve of the Steelback Grand Prix of Toronto (nee Molson Indy), the chattering classes were going on and on about the possibility of Champ Car and the rival Indy Racing League reaching some sort of agreement on unification.
The IRL's Tony George and Champ Car's Kevin Kalkhoven had both talked optimistically about getting open-wheel racing back to where it once was: one series where "everybody" would race at the Indianapolis 500 and "everybody" would race at places like Toronto.
This would mean that Paul Tracy could take another crack at winning Indy and Toronto fans would get to watch famous American racers like Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti in combat over at the CNE.
And then it all just went away. Poof! Champ Car president Steve Johnson doesn't even want to hear about it these days.
"That (talk of unification) just about put us out of business for seven months," Johnson said flatly during a sit-down interview with the Star a few weeks ago in Cleveland. "It makes it difficult for me to run a business when there's talk about it because people – potential partners, whether they're team owners or sponsors – then get into a wait-and-see mode. They won't commit because they don't know which way the business might be going.
"The less said about that the better. I don't need distractions. I want to be focused 100 per cent on building Champ Car into the business I think it can be."
What has Johnson and Kalkhoven excited this year is a new multi-year TV agreement that will see all of Champ Car's races for the foreseeable future shown in the United States on ESPN/ABC. And they both wax eloquently and enthusiastically about the excellence of the Formula Atlantic series, which is the top race on the undercard at most Champ Car events such as the Toronto Grand Prix.
What they're not exactly jumping up and down about is the current state of the headline Champ Car series, which in the past year lost two up-and-coming North American open-wheel stars (Canadian Andrew Ranger and American A.J. Allmendinger, both to NASCAR), one team owner (Carl Russo of RSPORTS) and belt-tightening that saw two veteran teams merge and one team (owned by Tracy's employer and series co-owner Gerald Forsythe) only agree to enter two cars at the last minute – taking the car count up to a less-than-flattering 17.
Not to mention other ominous signs, such as two drivers being replaced after the season started (their sponsorship money apparently dried up), the cancellation of a race in China and Forsythe cutting way back on money for testing and hospitality, among other things.
Oh, there have been some positives. Graham Rahal, son of the legendary Bobby Rahal, is proving to be a chip off the old block and not backing off when racing wheel-to-wheel with series veterans such as three-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais, Justin Wilson and Tracy. Unfortunately, the negatives have been outweighing the positives. But don't tell that to Johnson and Kalkhoven. The president and the owner are nothing but bullish on Champ Car's future – in public, anyway
Said Johnson: "ESPN is going to be our catalyst for growth. It's going to put us mainstream. The reason we don't have a title sponsor, for instance, is because we're not viewed as mainstream; we're not seen as a motorsports marketing platform. With ESPN, we will be."
Does he not see a problem in that ESPN/ABC also has contracts with NASCAR and the IRL?
"It's not by accident that our vice-president of television used to be an executive with ESPN," Johnson quipped. Then he got serious: "We are in contact with ESPN every day. They are thrilled to have Champ Car. We are not seen as filler." More at Wheels.ca