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Open-wheel series are close to a merger

Times Staff Writer

The nation’s two major open-wheel auto racing series are on the verge of ending a 12-year civil war that has left both far less popular than NASCAR.

Officials of the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series said Tuesday that merger negotiations were in their final stages after years of failed attempts to reunite.

An announcement could come by the end of the week, but the officials emphasized that no deal had yet been reached. “We’re close, it would be hard to see this not happening,” said IRL spokesman Fred Nation in Indianapolis. “But we’ve been down this road before.”

Champ Car spokesman David Higdon said, “As long as everyone is still talking, there’s hope.”

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Since their split in 1995, both factions have suffered in terms of live attendance, TV ratings and corporate sponsorship. The split also divided loyalties among fans of open-wheel racing and the decline of both series was exacerbated by the surging popularity of NASCAR stock-car racing.

American open-wheel racing, which once dominated the motor sports landscape with such legendary drivers as Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and the Unser family, struggled to stay relevant.

Each series still has a marquee event, however: the famed Indianapolis 500 in the IRL, and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in Champ Car.

Series officials declined to comment on terms of the potential merger. But other people familiar with the talks said Champ Car effectively would be absorbed into the IRL, bringing with it some of its teams and races, including the Long Beach event.

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The idea is to have the merger completed before the first IRL race March 29 at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway. The Long Beach race, Champ Car’s opening event, is scheduled for April 20.

“We’re still awaiting official announcement as to what the proposed new structure will be,” said Jim Michaelian, chief executive of the Grand Prix Assn. of Long Beach, which operates the race. “But if the proposed merger goes through, it would certainly bode well in terms of bringing clarity to the sport, as well as expanding its potential.”

IRL chief Tony George reportedly has offered to provide cars, engines and a minimum of $1.2 million to each Champ Car team able to compete for the entire season. The two series currently use different race cars.

The IRL’s top-tier series, the IndyCar Series, currently has a 16-race schedule for this season that focuses on oval tracks such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway owned by George’s family.

Champ Car has a 14-race schedule with an emphasis on twisty road courses, including temporary street layouts such as Long Beach.

Both series have lost some of their top drivers.

Sam Hornish Jr., who won three IndyCar titles and the Indy 500 in 2006, moved to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, as did Dario Franchitti, last year’s Indy 500 winner. Sebastien Bourdais, who won the Champ Car title for the last four years driving for a team co-owned by actor Paul Newman, left to join the Formula One series.

The series split occurred when George, unhappy with the direction of what was then a single series called Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART, formed the IRL. CART later went into bankruptcy and was bought by its current owners, Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi, who renamed it Champ Car.

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Times wire services contributed to this report.

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james.peltz@latimes.com


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