The newly released 2007 schedule for the Champ Car World Series provides tangible evidence that hopes for a merger to reunite Champ Car with the nation’s other major open-wheel auto-racing series, the Indy Racing League, appear to be fading.
Both series’ leaders began merger talks early this year, exploring ways to end the decade-long civil war between Champ Car, whose races including the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, and the IRL, whose signature race is the Indianapolis 500.
But no agreement has been reached, and Champ Car’s schedule for next year -- with new races in Las Vegas; Phoenix; Zhuhai, China; and St. Jovite, Canada -- indicates that the series plans to stay independent.
Champ Car’s new schedule also focuses exclusively on street and road-course races, eliminating races on oval tracks -- the type the IRL prizes. Champ Car left its last remaining oval event, in Milwaukee, off the 2007 schedule after a poor turnout this year. Both series had run on the mile track at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in recent seasons and the IRL will continue racing there.
In addition, Champ Car is introducing a new chassis for next year, which would seem to add another obstacle to a union any time soon.
“I am not running the business of trying to put a merger together,” Champ Car President Steve Johnson told reporters last week after announcing the series’ 15-race schedule. “If anything were to happen with a merger, we’ll see how that fits in down the road.”
The merger negotiations between Kevin Kalkhoven, one of Champ Car’s principal owners, and IRL chief Tony George, whose family also owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, have been the most substantial since George started the IRL a decade ago and effectively split U.S. open-wheel racing.
George and Kalkhoven were both traveling abroad and unavailable for comment. But according to IRL spokesman Fred Nation, they “know that for 2007, since they haven’t reached any kind of workable agreement yet, both series have to go on.”
“For 2007, any idea of a merger, in reality, is a very, very, very long shot,” Nation said. “That doesn’t mean that tomorrow they couldn’t reach an agreement. But if they did, it would probably be for 2008.”
Champ Car spokesman Eric Mauk agreed, saying, “Yes, it’s still a possibility, but not for 2007,” adding that there were “definitely now brand-new conditions” with its 2007 schedule, new chassis and other changes that don’t portend a combined series.
“Our marching orders are to go position Champ Car for the future, not to position open-wheel racing for the future,” Mauk said.
George and Kalkhoven had cautioned when talks began that a merger might never develop and that each series was prepared to keep going its separate way.
But George also said in March that he was “one of many people who believe that open-wheel racing would be better served by a unified IRL and Champ Car.” Kalkhoven said then, “We all agree it would be better to have a unified series.”
George started the IRL because, among other things, he was alarmed that oval-track races such as the Indy 500 were losing their value within what was then a single open-wheel series, Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART.
Yet both factions have suffered since the split, in live attendance, television viewership and corporate sponsorship. American open-wheel racing, which once featured such legends as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and the Unser family, failed to keep its audience as the split divided loyalties and NASCAR stock car racing surged in popularity.
This year, George and Kalkhoven appeared to join many racing participants and analysts who believe a merger is the only way open-wheel racing can ensure its long-term future.
At the Indy 500 in May, for instance, team owner Chip Ganassi said both series were “on the gurney” in failing health and that “something has got to be done” to bring them back together.
Yet many have doubts whether George, Kalkhoven and both series’ leading team owners can set aside their egos and find a common financial arrangement that will let a merger proceed.
Champ Car’s decision to drop oval races and contract for races in new cities in 2007 also would seem to have complicated prospects for a merger, because both sides would have to reach agreement on which races to keep after reunification and which ones to drop.
Both series “have venues that are healthy, and venues that probably wouldn’t survive a cut,” Nation said, declining to identify either. But he asserted that Champ Car’s schedule would not by itself block a deal.
“There’s a realization that if and when a merger happens, there’s going to have to be a lot of schedule adjustments,” perhaps staged over a number of years, he said.
He also declined to say a merger is dead.
“Kevin Kalkhoven and Tony George have gotten to know each other very well,” he said. “The fact that they have not solved the problem this year isn’t to say that they haven’t tried, and that it can’t be done.”
New Champ Car races for next season are in bold:
April 8 Las Vegas
* April 15 Long Beach
* April 22 Houston
* May 20 Zhuhai, China
* June 10 Portland, Ore.
* June 24 Cleveland
* July 1 St. Jovite, Canada
* July 8 Toronto
* July 22 Edmonton, Canada
* July 29 San Jose
* Aug. 12 Elkhart Lake, Wis.
* Aug. 19 Denver
* Oct. 21 Surfers Paradise, Australia
* Nov. 11 Mexico City
* Dec. 2 Phoenix