Canadian venues await outcome of merger

With the opening event of the 2008 Champ Car World Series now just two months away, rumours powered by the ongoing merger possibility and the annual bankruptcy stories continue to swirl around the stability of the series.

Champ Car and the Indy Racing League got within a step last week of completing the merger negotiations that have become almost an annual event. But IRL owner Tony George's inability to convince owners of the Motegi event in Japan to move its date to avoid conflict with Champ Car's season opener at Long Beach April 18-20 foiled attempts to get the two open-wheel racing series together for this year.

Only a few of the team owners are willing to discuss the situation and Champ Car is being tight-lipped with the media, saying only that it is business as usual in preparing for the season.

The one constant piece of good news is that drivers, team owners and officials on both series agree there has to be a merger of some kind to save open-wheel racing in North America.

"It's sad to see that the two series have killed each other," A.J. Allmendinger, who finished third in last year's Champ Car series before switching to NASCAR, told "It's hard to say if it can ever get back to what it used to be because NASCAR has gown so much and that's where the TV coverage is and where the sponsors are.

"But first things first – you've gotta have one series so you don't have to explain to the casual fan that, 'Hey, I race in this series, but it's not the same as the cars racing in the Indy 500.' That, to me, was always the most painful thing."

A report out of Toronto last week quoted an unnamed source as saying the Edmonton Grand Prix had lost $7-million its first two years and would remain a financial disaster without provincial government assistance.

Champ Car insiders say that's just sour grapes coming out of Toronto because their race was not included on any merger schedule. The Edmonton event would be the only one of three Canadian races to survive.

"I don't know who their source was but I would say it's questionable," said Edmonton Grand Prix president Jim Haskins. "Toronto was left off the speculative merger list so I'm not sure they're not a little uneasy.

"Every spring it seems someone floats the merger, the financial difficulty rumours out there and at the end of the day both series continue to do business. Our event is solid and we're very busy planning for '08."

It's no secret, however, that the Edmonton event has not turned a profit in three years despite big crowds – 200,000 in 2005, 171,391 in 2006 and 167,152 in 2007.

The proposed merger became almost a reality when George offered Champ teams free Dallara chassis and Honda engines that IRL runs, along with $1.2 million in incentives, to merge. That was vital because Champ Car owners had invested millions in the new Panoz DP-01 chassis with turbocharged Cosworth engines last year.

"Last year's investment was approximately $1 million per driver," Team Australia owner Derrick Walker, who was rumoured ready to take his team to IRL if the merger failed, said in an e-mail. "If there is a merger these cars are obsolete and are available to you to purchase at a very reasonable price."

Whatever is the best way forward, neither Champ Car nor IRL officials were talking merger late in the week, as their attention shifted to the early-season testing of teams getting ready for the season. Sources inside both series say it's probably too late for a merger to happen for 2008, but this spring's steps almost ensure there will be a merger for 2009.

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