Merger Quotes: Kalkhoven, George, Andretti and Villeneuve

UPDATE columnist Robin Miller co-hosted Sunday’s Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain as the duo welcomed several key players from the open-wheel racing world after owners of the Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series agreed to unify in 2008. Miller and Despain hosted racing legend Mario Andretti, an Indy 500 and CART Series champion who has been a proponent of open wheel unification; Tony George, the founder and CEO of the IRL; Kevin Kalkhoven, co-owner of the Champ Car World Series; and Jacques Villeneuve, the last champion of a unified American open-wheel series (CART Series 1995).

Following are excerpts from the show:

Despain: Kevin, there has been an annual rumor this would happen. What was key to it happening now?

Kevin Kalkhoven: The press stayed out of it for a long time. We’ve been talking for many years and this was the time. I’m glad to see we’ve extended an olive branch. It was unanimous. Gerry (Forsythe, co-owner of Champ Car World Series), the partners and I decided it was the right thing to do.

Miller: Tony, the olive branch you guys offered was free engines, free cars, $1.2 million per car and some races. Have we determined if it will be just Long Beach and Edmonton this year?

Tony George: Well, what we’ve been working on the past couple of weeks just gets us to the starting line, I think. The real work starts here and now. There are a host of questions that need to be answered. There is a lot of information that needs to be disseminated from the league and the league management to the teams. We need to start having some conversations with the promoters … all the things that have been talked about in the press. All due credit goes to Kevin and Gerry. It’s well-known how passionate they are about open-wheel racing and how committed they are to Champ Car but I think their decision over the last few weeks and months is a reflection of their commitment to the fans. Rumors of unification talks have come up every few months every year but this time I think they were genuinely thinking about what the long-term benefit to open wheel racing would be by trying to get this together. They’ve been great to work with. This is tough but good things come about when people take the time to think about the big picture. We’re excited to be able to work with them and bring about this unification.

Despain: Kevin, do you have any handle on how many Champ Car teams will take advantage of that deal we discussed and actually be ready to go IRL racing at Homestead in five weeks?

Kalkhoven: I really don’t know. This is all still fairly new to all of them. I know of a few teams who have committed to doing it. I know some others who are seriously considering it. They have some issues with their drivers, of course, that they’ve contracted that are going to run road courses. There are still some things to go through but overall, I’d say the mood is positive and I believe there is goodwill to try to get this done.

Despain: Kevin, how big can it get? What’s a realistic assessment of the future growth potential here?

Kalkhoven: The first thing is that anyone expecting unification to be some kind of magic bullet has probably got it wrong. There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us. One of the big things that will happen is the advent of the new car in 2010, which will put a lot of the teams on a level playing field. I think it will increase the level of competition and I think that together with a new schedule will go a long way toward developing the series both nationally and internationally.

Miller: Tony, have you guys worked out a plan for 2010? Could there be a chance for turbo-charged engines? Would you like two engine manufacturers?

George: Obviously, we’re going to be using our equipment. We have a schedule set for 2008. We’re going to try to bring aboard some really good events and hopefully we’re going to be able to work them out and add them to the 2008 schedule. I think 2009 becomes a cleaner sheet of paper and we really have the opportunity to bring the best of both series together with an eye toward 2010 and 2011, which will be the centennial of the Indianapolis 500. We’ve got a lot of good things going on. I think all the teams employ talented people and a lot of them have worked in IRL and Champ Car. I think the teams will get up to speed quickly. They’ll get a lot of help and I can guarantee all the teams in our paddock are excited about this and we’ll get them up to speed as quickly as we can. The real opportunity comes in the next couple of years. We’re going to be looking at new technologies. Turbo-chargers may or may not be a part of it but very well could. We’ll look at alternative fuels and really have an opportunity to start shaping what we want Indy Car racing to be for the future.

Despain: What is Indy Car racing? What do you think it should be? What’s the right mix of ovals, road courses, street courses and so forth?

Kalkhoven: It’s going to be largely dependant on Tony but we’ve got some strong opinions we will be voicing. I think an equal balance of superspeedways and road courses is the right way to go. I think street courses have proved to be attractive with local audiences. I think we need to regain that balance we had in the ‘90s.

George: I agree. I think it’s going to look a lot like the 20-race schedule is going to be split between the three different disciplines.

Despain: How important, Tony, is it to have American drivers who appeal to American fans?

George: It’s important. We hope there will be some more interest. It will be an international series. The Indianapolis 500 has always been an international event and this is going to have it as its cornerstone. Certainly, international drivers and manufacturer participation is a good thing. I’m sure you’ll see a nice balance.

Despain: The upcoming Long Beach Grand Prix … we hear about the conflict with the IRL race in Japan … is there any possibility it can be worked out where all the drivers can come to Long Beach?

George: The whole thing with this coming together now is it is very late and it’s not going to be utopia. I think we are definitely looking at splitting the weekend between Japan and Long Beach and we’re going to do our best to put on a world-class event in both locations. But it’s going to be tough and those are things we are going to have start working on Monday.

Despain: You’ve spent a lot of time in different capacities trying to make this happen. Now that it has happened, do you take any credit and what is your reaction?

Mario Andretti: I am just happy it finally happened because I was so tired of having to explain or talk about the negatives of open wheel racing in any interview I was doing, no matter what the subject. Now finally we can talk about the positives, the future and so many things. Look at what the drivers have to look forward to. The young drivers that are looking at their careers and finally there is a new dimension before them. So many good things are going to come from this. Yes, I was listening to speculation about how quickly we will reach the level open wheel needs to be. Well, obviously, that’s an open question but the one thing we can do now is work toward achieving that tirelessly and it will be fun doing so.

Despain: As you listen to Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven and through your discussions with them leading up to this, what jumps out at you as particularly positive or negative?

Andretti: The particularly positive thing is each was complimenting the other and that was music to my ears. They both seem comfortable with the agreement they reached. The one thing I’ve always remained optimistic about was at least when I had dialogue with each one of them separately, they each agreed that it (unification) needed to be done but didn’t know how. Tony used to say, ‘yes, we need to do it but I just don’t know how yet.’ They finally found the ‘how’ and that’s what we’ve been waiting for. I think anyone who cares about open wheel racing should feel very good about this.

Miller: What do these guys need to do first? What do they need to prioritize?

Andretti: They need to realize it will be tough for all of them in some different ways. I heard a fan talk about how it’s all one way – that Champ Car was giving. I don’t think so. I think both sides are going to have to give somewhat and it will be a while before you sort out all the things. How many ovals do we run? How many road courses? There are many good assets out there to take advantage of and that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to pick from the best of both sides and make the series the way it should be. To be honest with you, I think it’s going to get closer to the way CART used to be because when it was in its heyday, the product was selling itself. That’s what it needs to be. That’s what the open wheel formula should be. You don’t follow NASCAR. You don’t try to emulate them. This is a different product and you go to different venues because of that.

Despain: Will we see you back in NASCAR soon?

Jacques Villeneuve: We’re trying to raise the cash to get racing. I got on my own about a month ago and figured out everything wasn’t as advanced as I had been told. I picked up the pieces and tried to get going again. The plan was to have been Daytona. That’s why I was racing at the end of last year. In my mind, there was no reason I shouldn’t have been at Daytona so I just went along without really being ready. Now I just have to take a step back and start from zero and build the whole program. Hopefully, it will happen soon.

Despain: Part of the rumor mill was that Kevin Pollack was going to buy a team and you would be part of that. What happened with that whole situation?

Villeneuve: I’m not sure because I wasn’t actually involved and had no idea what was going on. I was just told that I would be racing and everything would be organized. Then I guess it wasn’t. Once I found out and got on my own, there were a lot of things to do and I had to get going. There was a good year lost with all that but at least I got some experience in a few races last year and learning about NASCAR … learning about the other drivers and making friends. That was also very important.

Despain: Is the stuff I’m reading about the possibility of a return to NASCAR when they come to Canada real?

Villeneuve: That’s what we’re working on. We need to have a date where you have to get going. That’s the approach mostly with Canadian sponsors. With it being a Canadian race, that seems like the logical spot to get seriously going and finish the season but we’re hoping we can get going before that. It just depends on how long it takes to educate the sponsors up here.

Miller: Where do you think Indy Car racing fits into the big spectrum of racing right now? Where should it be and where should it go?

Villeneuve: I was very sad when there was a split years ago. That was very damaging for open wheel racing in North America because at that point, Champ Car was very popular. The damage has been done but now with the two series coming together, hopefully that’s the first step in the right direction and all the sickness will be healed very quickly and we can get back to the good racing it used to be.

Despain: Have you entertained the idea of doing any more open wheel racing?

Villeneuve: I’ve done enough in open wheel racing with winning in Champ Car, the Indy 500, F1, so it feels right to move to something new and challenging like NASCAR is. Right now, the split is over but there is still a lot of mending to be done before it becomes what it used to be.

02/25/08 Tony George, Mario Andretti, Kevin Kalkhoven and Jacques Villeneuve were on Wind Tunnel Sunday night to talk about the merger of Champ Car and the IRL. Here are some key highlights and it was pretty much unanimous – look for the IRL to morph into what CART was in its heyday of the early to mid-90's:

  • Tony George stated that he expected the new IRL to have about 20 races and an even mix of oval, road and street races.
  • 2008 will see a limited number of Champ Car races added to the schedule but 2009 will be a clean sheet of paper and the best races from both series will be on the schedule. Tony George dodged the question about exactly which Champ Car races will be added to the 2008 schedule and said that is still being worked out.
  • Look for a good mix of American and foreign drivers.
  • Tony George said that turbos may be part of the equation when the new IRL car comes out in 2010.
  • Kevin Kalkhoven stated that the Atlantic Series will continue
  • Mario Andretti said open wheel racing should not try to mimic NASCAR like the original IRL did. Open Wheel Racing is a "different product" as Andretti said. It will take a while to right the ship but in the meantime let's take the best of both series.
  • Tony George mentioned that new technologies will be explored for the new car as well as alternative fuels
  • Tony George stated that the Indy 500 will be the cornerstone of the new series and it has always been international so having a mix of domestic and international manufacturers and drivers for the series as a whole is always a good thing.
  • Kevin Kalkhoven and Tony George both alluded to the possibility of international races and it was inferred by their comments that new international venues would be explored.
  • Robin Miller suggested the IRL adopt Champ Car's push-to-pass and red option tires. He forgot to mention standing starts.
  • Asked if he would step down as team owner now and concentrate on running the series, Tony George said he saw no reason to do that, and that he was building the team for his stepson, Ed Carpenter, to someday manage.
  • Kevin Kalkhoven closed by thanking Mario Andretti for the large part he played in bringing the two sides together. Mario proved once again why he is the greatest American driver and ambassador for the sport. While he may not be burning up the tracks like he did in his prime, in his retirement he is doing as much or more for the sport than he ever did. And that is why he is a legend. And not once did he take credit for what he did.

Additional Quotes

"Having one series where you can see the same drivers and teams will boost them forward, but all that went wrong over the last 12 years is going to take time to fix. It's not going to happen in a year or two. For how long it's been apart, it could take at least that long to get back to where it was." Sam Hornish, Indianapolis Star.

"That was 12 years we lost, and we lost big time, I hope the fans that were split up will now come back together, but PR spin is not going to do it, the product has to speak the loudest. This is huge for our sport. I've always wanted a unified sport. That has been my only goal throughout this entire process and I applaud everyone who played a role in making this happen. Everyone can now focus on taking Indy-car to new heights for the good of our sport and everyone involved in it." Mario Andretti.

"Getting back together is something everybody has wanted since the end of the first year of the split. Are we ever going to be able to overtake NASCAR? It will take a long time." Paul Tracy

"Everything may not come together until the Indy 500. We'll be able to answer some questions once the season starts but things might not start to feel right until May." Tony George, USA Today.

"Neither side was succeeding on its own and nobody was winning. It was a tough, emotional, gut-wrenching decision, but somebody had to put their ego aside and do it. As for Long Beach, I've talked to most of the owners about it, and everyone is kind of excited about it, so car count won't be an issue." Kevin Kalkhoven

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