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Unified open wheel racing weathers economic storm
Unification of U.S. open-wheel racing occurred a year ago this week, and its timing could not have been better, the sport's leader said Monday.

If the owners of the two Indianapolis-based companies -- the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series -- had not come together on their own, IRL founder Tony George said he believes the current economic slide would have dictated a merger.

"No question, we would have absolutely, without question in anyone's mind, been forced together," he said.

George, whose family owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway, acknowledges unification has not cured all of the sport's ills, but he considers Indy-car racing to be in relatively good shape given the global financial struggles.

Aside from the cancellation of this year's Detroit race and the current lack of participation by Rahal Letterman Racing, a high-profile team co-owned by Bobby Rahal and David Letterman, the IndyCar Series remains mostly intact as the first test of the season is conducted today in Florida.

Twenty-two car-and-driver combinations are expected at Homestead-Miami Speedway, four less than last season's race average. League officials project at least 24 participants by the April 5 season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Terry Angstadt, the president of the league's commercial division, considers the car count as well as two new events on the '09 schedule to be signs of success, particularly compared to NASCAR, which has endured significant employee layoffs.

"Yeah, we've been tossed a couple of curve balls, (but) you have to know how to hit those on occasion," Angstadt said. "I'm not trying to sugarcoat anything (because) we've got some challenges out there. (But) we're going to be very proud of the guys that answer the bell" for the new season.

Rahal's team is the only one in the IndyCar Series currently on the sidelines, while the Luczo Dragon and Team 3G organizations have grown to full-time participants. The Rubicon Race Team, which has actor Jason Priestley as an owner, hopes to go full-time, too, after merging with Pacific Coast Motorsports.

The IRL's feeder system is moving in the right direction. A record number of entries is expected for the Firestone Indy Lights season, with new teams owned by former drivers Bryan Herta and Davey Hamilton.

The challenges facing the IRL include forming a strong working relationship with its new cable television partner, Versus, and finding rides for stars such as Paul Tracy, Buddy Rice and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Also to be resolved is Helio Castroneves' pending federal court case. One of the sport's most recognizable figures, he is due in U.S. District Court in Miami on March 2 to face a seven-count indictment related to tax evasion and fraud. More at Indy Star

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