The leaders of two factions that have split Indy-style auto racing for the last decade have told The Times in separate interviews that they are negotiating to merge their series.
Anton “Tony” George, who heads the Indy Racing League and whose family owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Kevin Kalkhoven, a principal with the rival Champ Car World Series, both said they hoped reunifying the two circuits would restore the glory of open-wheel motorsports in the United States.
The comments mark the most significant thawing yet of the series’ conflict, one that has contributed to open-wheel racing’s decline in this country at the same time the popularity of NASCAR has skyrocketed.
“It’s fair to say we would both like to see that,” George said of a merger. George’s track is the site of the Indianapolis 500, the most famous U.S. auto race and one of the world’s biggest single-day sporting events with up to 400,000 spectators, plus millions more on worldwide TV.
George, the man primarily responsible for splitting open-wheel racing into two groups when he formed the IRL in 1995, now says, “I’m one of many people who believe that open-wheel racing would be better served by a unified IRL and Champ Car.”
Kalkhoven, whose series opens its season April 9 with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, agreed that “we’re trying to develop a plan.”
The goal is not only to combine the two series, he said, but to make the sport a more potent alternative to NASCAR stock-car racing, whose growing popularity has helped marginalize the IRL and Champ Car.
That’s especially crucial if open-wheel, open-cockpit racing -- whose famous drivers include A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. -- hopes to gain more corporate sponsors. They would provide the financial muscle the sport needs to better promote itself and capture more fans, he said.
“We’ve had fruitful discussions,” Kalkhoven said. “We all agree it would be better to have a united series. We are both trying to find the right solution.”
The statements by George, 46, and Kalkhoven, 61, could set the stage for a dramatic shift in auto racing.
Both men emphasized that the talks were in their early stages, that a merger still might not happen and that they were prepared to keep going their separate ways.
“There is a lot of hair on this cat -- it’s not easy,” George said. “Nothing is imminent.”
But asked whether a merger could be done, he replied: “Absolutely. No question.”
There are huge logistical and contractual issues to be resolved -- such as television rights, deciding which rules would govern the reunified sport and choosing which speedways and road courses to keep on the schedule -- before a deal could be signed.
Kalkhoven also said “radical proposals” would be needed to make the reunified sport more entertaining to fans, namely by fostering the close competition that has helped make NASCAR so popular.
“It has to be a fresh start,” he said. “In other words, we can’t have one side using the other side’s equipment or anything like that, because it would give one side an advantage.”
That’s why a merger also would need the support of most racing teams and their owners, whose squabbles over the future of open-wheel racing contributed to the series’ split.
But when asked whether the teams and drivers also supported reunification, Kalkhoven replied, “I’m convinced about it. Everyone wants to race in Long Beach, everyone wants to race in the [Indy] 500, everyone wants to race on the best courses against the best drivers.”
Until the 1990s, so-called Indy car racing was the prevailing form of U.S. motorsports, and the Indy 500 -- first run in 1911 -- was Mecca for drivers from every form of racing. NASCAR was still primarily a regional sport tied to its Southern roots, though it held major races in California, New York and Pennsylvania.
The names of several Indy drivers were familiar even to TV viewers who tuned in to only one auto race a year, the Indy 500, which called itself “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
By the early 1990s, the cars running at the Indy 500 were supplied by a group of car owners who had broken from the United States Auto Club, the longtime sanctioning body, and re-formed as Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART, which was also expanding into curvy road courses and international venues.
George, alarmed that the 2.5-mile, oval-shaped Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its crown jewel race might fade in importance, left CART and founded the IRL to protect the interests of his track and to reinvigorate oval-track racing in the U.S.
“We were trying to make a statement that, ‘Hey, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway matters on the scene today, guys,’ ” George said. “There were more and more road and street races, which was great because it took it to a new audience, but it was at the expense of permanent oval facilities.”
The conflict began. Most of the big names stayed with CART, and when George changed the qualifying procedure for the 500, favoring IRL teams, CART teams chose to skip the race, leaving it without most of the most famous drivers. Fans and sponsors also were divided, and both series’ live attendance and TV viewership sagged. Many races at tracks such as California Speedway were held before thousands of empty seats.
CART initially held sway in the power struggle, but its grip weakened, thanks to internal squabbling, then collapsed after car owners Roger Penske, Bobby Rahal and Chip Ganassi moved to the IRL, bringing more of the sport’s top cars and drivers to George’s league.
In late 2003, CART filed for bankruptcy. Its assets were acquired by a group led by Kalkhoven -- a former chief executive of the Silicon Valley technology company JDS Uniphase Corp. -- and partners Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi, which renamed the series Champ Car. They outbid, among others, Tony George.
Champ Car has been rebounding since then, adding road races in San Jose and Canada and beefing up its Formula Atlantic minor league series. Champ Car also has continued pursuing non-oval track races, to the point that only one of the series’ 15 events this year is on an oval track, in Milwaukee.
George and the IRL, meanwhile, also have enjoyed a recent upswing, in part because Danica Patrick’s bid last year to become the first woman to win the Indy 500 boosted interest in the race and the series. The IRL’s 14-race schedule begins Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
During the split, NASCAR -- led by the France family, which founded the sanctioning body and also controls many of its tracks -- combined powerful marketing and self-promotion with stock-car racing’s door-to-door racing excitement to become one of the nation’s most watched sports.
In response, corporate sponsors have flocked to NASCAR to tap into its popularity, turning the sport into a multibillion-dollar juggernaut. Fans responded with devotion to their favorite drivers, making Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart as popular as Foyt, Andretti and Mears were in their era.
NASCAR has “done a good job, and their sponsors have done a good job, of working to make them more of a household name,” George said. That makes open-wheel racing’s struggle “even more challenging,” he said.
“The world has changed from the heydays of open-wheel racing back in the early ‘90s,” Kalkhoven agreed. “Today, motorsports is more about entertainment than technological achievement.
“If we were to come together, it would almost certainly involve radical proposals on how to achieve competition equality and thereby more entertainment” for the fans, he added.
More than one racing analyst also has suggested that the IRL and Champ Car remained divided because the egos of George, Kalkhoven and the sport’s other major players stand in the way of reuniting.
“Everybody’s got some ego,” George said. “But if this thing comes together, I can think of about five people, six people, seven people who will be part of making it happen that should get all the credit.
“I don’t care if I’m considered one of them or not. No matter what happens, I’m sure I’ll be vilified by some, and held up by others as being someone who helped make it happen.”
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The splitting of CART into two circuits before the 1996 race hurt ratings for the Indianapolis 500. Comparing the TV ratings for the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 since 1994:
*--* Year Indy Daytona 1994 8.3 7.9 1995 8.4 7.8 1996 6.6 9.2 1997 5.0-a 8.6 1998 5.5 7.7 1999 5.0 9.6 2000 4.4 8.4 2001 5.2 10.0 2002 3.1 10.9 2003 4.2 9.8-b 2004 4.1 10.6 2005 6.5-c 10.9 2006 11.6
a-race held on Tuesday because of rain; b-event slowed by two rain delays; c-ratings increase attributed to Danica Patrick.
Researched by Houston Mitchell