No IRL/Champ Car merger in the works

UPDATE #6 After talking to an improving Kevin Kalkhoven today in Toronto it is clear to us that there will never be a merger between Champ Car and the IRL. Without getting into specifics it's the end of this story. "This subject comes up every year, and frankly, both series should be concentrating on what they need to do to be able to continue to go," Kevin Kalkhoven said. "It doesn't really matter what the terms of reunification are. It's really not something that is wanted, let's just put it that way." 07/08/05 We are downgrading this rumor to 'strong' from 'fact' based on new information received that things are not definitely dead. The Globe and Mail reports, According to people close to the negotiations, George has previously refused to entertain a 50-50 ownership proposition put on the table by the Champ Car World Series ownership simply because he feels that he has invested too much in the IRL, Indy 500, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway to allow another body to control its destiny.

While George agrees it is in everyone's best interest to have one series, the image of thousands of irate F1 fans throwing debris on the track and streaming out of the Brickyard convinced him that a tight grip on the reins remained the best course of action, according to a source close to the Brickyard owner.

"Control has to rest in one place and with one body and that is the IRL," said the source.

"He is willing to make significant concessions on the business model to accommodate Champ Car, but they want 50-per-cent ownership of the Hulman family business and that is the major stumbling block."

So, with Champ Car arriving in Toronto for the 20th Molson Indy and the Indy Racing League on their way to Nashville for next week's Indy 200, the two series aren't just far apart when it comes to racing locations.

Champ Car's plan allows no real role for George in the new series apart from running the Indy 500 and giving up 50-per-cent control of the family business. With that idea unacceptable, George and his negotiators put a counterproposal on the table about three weeks ago but have not had any response.

The main points of the IRL offer are a 50-50 split of oval and road/street course events, more international events, provisions for the IRL to help out a number of Champ Car teams financially, and the creation of an advisory committee made up of stakeholders and headed by Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven. Sharing ownership of the new series was not included.

On the other side of the equation, Kalkhoven and Champ Car continue to execute on their plan to expand in the Pacific Rim in order to drum up sponsorship business in the burgeoning Asian marketplace.

This is somewhere the IRL does not want to go and any merger plan would probably have to scrap Kalkhoven's vision for open-wheeled racing. That's unlikely especially since Kalkhoven has made is clear that Champ Car will pursue its current strategy independently of other developments.

07/06/05 This rumor is now upgraded to 'fact.' Each year they are asked the same question and each year both sides give the same three-word answer: Maybe next year. This time the heads of Champ Car and its open-wheel rival, the Indy Racing League, broke from tradition and made any future questions about a possible reunification moot.

"I don't think [reconciliation] is possible for 2006," IRL boss Tony George told the Indianapolis Star this weekend. "I don't think it's possible ever."

His sentiments were echoed by Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven yesterday. "There is little possibility of bringing the two series together," he said. "Our philosophies are so completely different."

Kalkhoven said he lost faith in merging the two leagues when he and George were invited for dinner and drinks at Mario Andretti's home in May. Afterwards, Kalkhoven received a letter from George stating that he would consider bringing the competing leagues together as long as he could have sole control.

"I would say, by and large, it's a situation where we would have to agree to a 50-50 sharing of responsibilities and leave the Indy 500 out of anything we do — let Tony control that," Kalkhoven said. "But he believes he ought to control all open-wheel motorsport in the U.S. And we don't quite agree with that."

During the Indianapolis 500, the two sides were rumored to be working on a deal that would have seen the two sides jointly race six events, including the Toronto and Montreal Indys. "I think with each day that passes, it becomes more and more obvious [unification] would be the right thing to do," George said then.

But Kalkhoven said the hurdles in dealing with George remain too great. "There are certainly significant advantages in doing it. It's obvious that Tony doesn't want to do it," he said. "It's not a question of liking or disliking. There are obvious benefits to being able to bring the two together, but equally there is such a divergence of opinion as to how it should be, that it would be very difficult to do."

Champ Car and the IRL have operated independently for the past 10 years with limited success. In 2003, Champ Car claimed it had lost US$78-million and filed for bankruptcy. The IRL placed a bid for Champ Car's assets but it was denied by an Indianapolis court.

In February, 2004, Kalkhoven and fellow Champ Car owners Gerry Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi purchased the series, which they see as an alternative to IRL-style events.

"Tony wants to do ovals with young American drivers; that was his original concept," said Kalkhoven. "We believe in being more NAFTA-based, with some international [races]. And we do more street courses. We believe very much in these three-day festivals of speed that we do so successfully in Toronto."

Champ Car continues to struggle, however, both in attendance and television ratings. In Portland a few weeks ago, the three-day attendance was rumored to be around 30,000, while 3,000 local viewers tuned in to the CBS-televised race.

The IRL, meanwhile, has seen a 40% leap in overnight Nielsen ratings thanks, in part, to media-friendly Danica Patrick. The Texas race last month was the highest-watched ESPN telecast of an IRL event, attracting 880,000 households.

Still, the IRL is not without its own set of obstacles. Engine manufacturer Toyota is leaving the series after next season and it is rumored Honda could follow because of a lack of competition. Which means there would be no manufacturers remaining in the series unless Honda renews.

Kalkhoven has insisted that his relationship with Cosworth — the exclusive supplier to Champ Cars — would not affect his desire to end the feud between the warring series. Still, it opens the possibility that Kalkhoven could be hearing the same questions again next year. "I've learned that 'never' is a word that you should never use lightly," he said, "because sometimes factors come into play that would make you look silly."

07/04/05 Indy Racing League officials believe there is a window of opportunity to reconcile open-wheel racing with the owners of the Champ Car World Series. IRL founder Tony George expects that window to close without a deal. "I don't think (reconciliation) is possible for 2006; I don't think it's possible ever," he said at Kansas Speedway.

George confirmed that the stumbling block is Champ Car's desire to share ownership of the IRL, a business his family has owned and operated since 1994. Besides financial considerations, George is reluctant to yield control of Indy-car racing, particularly in lieu of last month's Formula One race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Members of George's staff have said the grand prix fiasco is an example of why he created the IRL in the first place. "Sobering, isn't it?" George said of not having control of an event at his track.

George offered Champ Car a set of compromise points in a letter sent just prior to the U.S. Grand Prix, and he said he has heard back "indirectly." He would not explain. The window IRL officials refer to is the time in which it takes to solidify plans for next season. The 2006 schedule is expected to be in place within a month. Indy Star

06/30/05 AutoWeek reports that Tony George made an offer to Kevin Kalkhoven, and Kalkhoven apparently is still considering it. Champ Car sources say series owners met with IRL president Tony George at Mario Andretti's home in Pennsylvania in early May. George initially agreed to common equipment, but the IMS board rejected the idea shortly thereafter, according to the same sources says AutoWeek. We suspect the people surrounding George are worried more about job security and protecting their little fiefdom than doing what is best for the sport. Since the beginning when he started the IRL, Tony George has gotten bad advice from those around him, and it appears to continue to this day. Meanwhile the manufacturers are leaving the sport and the business will soon start a steeper downward spiral. 06/30/05 A reader asks, Dear, Regarding your item mentioned below about the fact that it seems more and more unlikely that there will not be a CCWS/IRL merger: Is there any reason that the Indy 500, as we know it now, can't be a standalone event, similar to what the 24 hours of Le Mans is? Granted, there is the ALMS series here in the USA, but there is no similar series in Europe that runs the Le Mans cars. In the past, all the CART teams had to construct a special Indy 500 car, or in most cases, a road racing/short track chassis as well as a Super Speedway chassis. If the IRL were indeed disbanded and CCWS would continue to pursue their current road and street racing strategy, conceding the ovals to stock cars, I feel that by having the Indy 500 as a featured event you can return the focus and prominence to the Indy 500 race that has been eroding each and every year. Werner Fritz, Trevor, Wisconsin First, the LMES is Europe's version of the ALMS series, though it only holds a limited number of races each year. As for the Indy 500 being a standalone event, it was during the CART years, the 500's best years. CART raced there and independent teams also entered, but USAC sanctioned it. Champ Car can't afford to have it's premier event controlled by another organization, individual or family who could yank it out from under them (as happened in 1996) and seriously harm their series. It is important that Champ Car develop its own premier event and they control their own destiny. Sure it would be nice if Tony George got together with Champ Car and the Indy 500 was the crown event, but it appears that isn't going to happen. If there is to be NO unification of Champ Car and the IRL, it certainly seems quite "self-defeating" to continue to allow any Champ Car teams to field entries in the IRL's Indy 500! After all, WAR is WAR, and you simply don't "fraternize" with your enemy! Mark C. 06/29/05 With Brian Barnhart's announcement that the 2007 IRL engines will not differ much from the current normally aspirated formula, and with Champ Car's Dick Eidswick announcement that the Champ Cars will remain turbocharged in 2007, strong rumor has it that all hopes of a merger between the two series, or that they would agree to a common set of specifications, is indeed lost, perhaps forever. This of course makes our recommendation that Champ Car move forward with establishing its own 'Indy 500' marquee event all that more sensible. To have its teams race in the Indy 500 is only prolonging the need for Champ Car to establish its own future.

Leave a Reply