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If no merger, Champ Car might clear month of May UPDATE #2 A reader asks, Dear AutoRacing1.com, From the way it sounds there are too many issues that are going to prevent a merger. Why not just let the split continue until one side folds? Right now that looks to be Champ Car because most teams do not have sponsorship, they don't have a big race like the Indy 500 to prop them up, and the IRL has Danicamania and now Marcomania. Jeff Peterson, Oakland, CA

Dear Jeff, Letting one side die will only be, as the IRL's Fred Nation put it to us, "Another nail in open wheel's coffin." It is imperative that a merger deal get done now, and it be a positive story rather than a story of open wheel's impending death were either side close up shop. The teams from both sides want a merger now. Sponsors and manufacturers want a merger now. Most fans want a merger now. And the sport's image needs a merger now, not later. Once the Champ Car teams buy the new Panoz, they will not be able to afford buy another new car in 2008. Every new race deal that gets signed, every new car or engine rule that gets cast in stone, will be another impediment to a merger.

While we can appreciate what both Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven say - "We cannot afford to merge and then have it fall apart," these two need to lock themselves in a room and hammer out an agreement in the next two months because they need to merge in 2007, not 2008 or later. There is going to be some pain on both sides no matter what is agreed to, but in the end it will be better for everyone. Coming out of an exciting Indy 500 and the Marcomania/Danicamania wave, the IRL is currently negotiating from a position of strength, a position we doubt Kalkhoven is completely comfortable with. However, the IRL teams are far better off financially than the Champ Car teams, so their side can afford to compromise more than the Champ Car side when it comes to decisions that create cost for the teams.

What we suspect/hear is going to be agreed to is a deal by which for 2007 Champ Car clears out the month of May and their teams are given IRL cars and engines to use for the month of May at Indy, maybe not for free, but almost. Yes, the Champ Car teams will be at a disadvantage car setup wise, but there are ways to take away the IRL team advantage by outlawing any custom pieces they have developed and make it so that the cars are 100% stock.

Operationally and administratively the two sides will come together under one roof and begin to work together over this coming winter. 2007 will see two divisions (which we proposed a long time ago) that race different venues with different equipment, but coming together with common equipment for the Indy 500 and perhaps another race or two where both divisions will award points for the joint races.

It, therefore, may make sense for the Champ Car teams to run the Lola one more year. Unless the new Champ Car Panoz is deemed safe for the Superspeedways, that would mean putting Panoz on hold immediately and paying them for the costs they will have incurred because of the delay from 2007 to 2008. Then in 2008 all the teams from both divisions will buy new cars and a new engine formula will be agreed to. The two divisions would then morph into one schedule for 2008. We would be surprised to see it hammered out any other way and we believe that as long as contracts are put in place that would prevent either side from pulling the rug out from the other side in the 11th hour, that this is a fair and equitable way of making the merger happen for 2007. Although the Champ Car teams would be hampered somewhat at Indy due to inexperience with the IRL equipment, it would be for just one year and they would then be able to pitch the Indy 500 to potential sponsors for 2007, which would help them immensely in that regard. Mark C reporting from Indianapolis.

05/29/06 While this concept was discussed, the reality of the matter is that Champ Car and its teams cannot afford to buy new Champ Cars in 2007 (new Panoz) as well as lease IRL cars for just one race, the Indy 500. Most Champ Car teams do not have enough sponsorship to run the existing old Champ Car let alone buying two new different cars in the same year. And, because the Champ Car teams have no experience with the IRL chassis (except for Newman/Haas) they would get eaten alive. Hence the proposal simply is not going to fly.

The only real solution is for all the teams from both sides to start on equal grounds - a new chassis for everyone. It would not be difficult to put some sort of financing plan in place so that teams from both leagues can afford the new car in 2007. The issue with the new Panoz is whether it is safe enough for the high-banked ovals. As we saw with the IRL when they first introduced their new car, a lot of drivers were injured because the car was not as safe as it could be. It has been developed and now it is much better. Could the sport risk putting the new Panoz on the high banks without proper testing? We understand the cockpit opening is smaller on the new Panoz than the IRL wants (this helps in extracting their injured drivers). However, one would think Panoz, who have experience with the existing IRL chassis, would know what it takes to make the car safe on the ovals.

Which engines to use is also an issue we hear. The IRL side wants to use the existing normally aspirated Honda and the Champ Car side wants to keep the turbo. We know Honda has a lot invested in the existing normally aspirated engine and has geared up their new facility to do rebuilds for the entire IRL field. One cannot expect them to just throw all that away. Likewise, Cosworth does not own the rights to the Chevworth IRL engine and all of the engines have been turned over to GM.

The engine dilemma is a difficult one to overcome. Ford could badge the Honda engine for a year (with Cosworth doing the rebuilds) or Honda could badge the turbo Cosworth for a year (and do the rebuilds for their teams) but there is some reluctance there. However, Honda has badged an Ilmor in the IRL before, so it is not unprecedented. This could be done for 2007 as an interim solution, before everyone switches to a new engine for 2008.

Another engine option is some sort of equivalency formula between the two existing engines, but history has shown equivalency formulas seldom work. It would have to take continual tweaking to get it right. Impossible? No. Would both sides agree? Probably not, but it is an option that could be looked at for just 2007. At this point both sides need to be willing to compromise a little to make a merger work for 2007.

2008 is too late in our opinion. As great as Sunday's Indy 500 was, there were more empty seats than we ever saw and NASCAR continues to erode the sport of Open Wheel Racing. In another year it may be too late to save the old lady. Some say it already is, however, we don't agree. Danica Patrick (an American) was a great story at last year's Indy 500 and this year Marco Andretti and Sam Hornish (both Americans) were the big story. In fact Americans finished 1-2-3 in this year's Indy 500 and it has been a long time since that has happened. These sort of stories will again begin to capture the imagination of American race fans so now is the time to capitalize on that opportunity and ride that wave. If the Indy 500 stories are immediately backed up with a merger announcement and a well thought out marketing plan, the sport of Indy Car Racing might just have the boost it needs out of the starting gate to begin its way back up. It won't happen overnight and it will take years of hard work, but timing is everything and now is the time. Mark C.

05/23/06 If Kevin Kalkhoven and George can't agree to unify for 2007, there's an outside chance Champ Car could put Indy on its schedule, clear the deck in May and lease cars/engines for Bourdais, Tracy, Wilson, Allmendinger, Junqueira, Tagliani, Servia, da Matta, Dominguez, Ranger, Legge. That would be good for everybody. Champ Car might be able to find some sponsors with Indy on its plate and Tony George would greatly improve quality and quantity. And the fans win. Robin Miller, SPEEDTV.com
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