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Answers elusive for open-wheel woes

As NASCAR zooms into the distance in popularity, a decade of divided loyalties plague open-wheel teams and fans.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 1, 2005


Roger Penske just doesn't understand. Mario Andretti is highly agitated. Tony George isn't sure he needs to worry about it anymore.

Nothing purses the lips in an Indy Racing League or Champ Car garage like the question that underpins both series' very existence:

How do you fix this open-wheel problem?

As the dilemma barely flickers on the periphery of racing fans' consciousness, NASCAR has roared into a dominant position, the Daytona 500 holding the place of prominence once reserved for the Indianapolis 500.

That's all part of the problem - or opportunity, depending on your point of view - created when George, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO and president, broke away from Championship Auto Racing Teams in 1996, creating a league that would control the cars in the race his family stewards. With CART reconstituted through bankruptcy in Decemeber 2003, as Champ Car, the IRL might be in its strongest position to advance its cause as it goes road and street racing for the first time.

But what is that worth? The IRL, too, has problems, with spotty attendance and dwindling car counts at the Indy 500.

Two series, many say, confuse fans and weaken everyone.

"It needs to filter down to one, I think," said 2003 IRL champion Scott Dixon. "Now, they're just shooting each other and no one is getting anywhere in terms of popularity. I'd like to see it be one and full budgets and good full fields, but who knows what will happen?"

So how do these very rich men with very fast cars and grandstands to fill fix this thing?

"First we've got to get everyone under one tent," said Chip Ganassi, who owns teams that have won four CART titles and one in the IRL with Scott Dixon in 2003. "Everybody has their idea of what racing should be. And at the end of the day the fans make the real vote what racing should be. The fans and the sponsors have the votes. It's a dangerous thing for someone to make racing what they think it ought to be."

It will not be as simple as 22 IndyCars and 16 Champ Cars showing up at the same place on the same weekend. The IRL's North American slate - excluding a race in Japan - and Champ Car's far-flung schedule with races in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Australia, gives each a unique niche and individual importance to sponsors. Mexican owner-driver Adrian Fernandez lost his Mexican sponsors and eventually his full-time ride after switching from Champ Car to the IRL for last season. The leagues share just one common venue - Milwaukee - in their combined 31 races.

Some markets with races - like St. Petersburg, which hosts its first IRL race Sunday - would be highly scrutinized unless the combined leagues doubled their schedules to NASCAR proportions, which would be highly unlikely.

"I don't necessarily believe that we'd have guaranteed success by having one open-wheel championship or not," George said. "It appears we're more focused on domestic venues and they're more focused more on international venues, so it may not really matter."

Then there is the matter of matching equipment. The IRL has Honda, Toyota and Chevrolet (until the end of this year) as engine manufacturers, while Champ Car uses league-owned Ford Cosworth power plants.

But the biggest impediment could be ego and power. George and Champ Car counterparts Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi - who purchased CART's assets in bankruptcy court and will launch a second season as Champ Car at Long Beach on April 10 - now enjoy autonomy.

So perhaps it's not fixable, especially considering that Penske tried and failed last year to bring the sides together. CART's first championship owner and an original board member, he has turned a penchant for resurrecting failing businesses into a $14-billion-per-year empire. His team has won a record 13 Indy 500s. He has friends and associates in both series. But he was soundly rebuffed when he made overtures toward heads of both series last year about reunification.

"I'm not sure there's anybody out there who has the power tie them together," Penske said. "I tried to talk with Gerry Forsythe and the people involved in (Champ Car) They have a vision, and they're willing to commit their own capital to go racing, and they've made it work."

In 1999, a group of then CART team owners including Barry Green - now head of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg promoter group - Derrick Walker and Bobby Rahal "got very, very close, but in the end there were issues on both sides and we couldn't get it done," Green said.

George isn't sure if he has the power, or if he'd be willing to wield it anyway.

"At different times over the last 10 years I think I've said both, that "yes' it needed to (be one series) and today I'd rather just not comment on it because everyone has an opinion, and I'm not sure mine matters any more than anyone else's," he said. "The reality is, they're in business, we're in business and we're competing not just against each other but against a lot of other sports-entertainment properties. It's tough out there whether there was one, two, or three."

By all appearances, however, he tried to put Champ Car out of business when he made a $13.5-million bid on all of CART's league-owned engines and the sanctioning rights to the Grand Prix of Long Beach - Champ Car's marquee event - in U.S. Bankruptcy court, citing in legal papers a desire to create a "unified, market-driven North American open-wheel series." Judge Frank Otte accepted a $3.2-million bid from Forsythe, Kalkhoven and Gentilozzi, saying the IRL bid could be devalued by litigation from cities whose races George intended to fold.

Penske said the dwindling number of engine manufacturers might eventually provide the impetus for reunion.

"To me, people are going to have to get together and maybe it'll be engines that ultimately drive them together," he said. "The cars are not that different. Cars are cheap, but they all have power plants. We all have trailers. We all have drivers. We all go stay in motels, so it's just a few things. But it's like trying to merge two companies and if the CEOs at the top are not interested in getting together, then it's pretty hard to merge them. That's where we are today, the top people see things with a different vision."

Racing legend Andretti, a former CART champion and board member, remains bitter about the split. Now, he said, could be the only opportunity to reunite before the equipment becomes too different between the leagues.

"The only answer right now for things to come around, for both sides to find an answer, is for both sides to maintain enough equity in themselves so they can maintain autonomy. Each side has something to offer," he said. "Each side separately does not have enough to be a force in this sport, to be anywhere where they used to be."

Andretti proposes treating the IRL (with its mostly ovals regimen) and Champ Car (mostly street and road courses) like conferences in the NFL. The series would have three to five common races - including Indianapolis - to determine a unified champion and still crown separate champions with points from their own events.

"If you combine the two series at Indianapolis you will have almost 40 bona fide cars competing for 33 places," he said. "Back to the glory days."