tampabay.com

Local race likes odds if series merge

By BRANT JAMES
Published February 28, 2006


Promoters and organizers of the April 2 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg remain confident the second-year Indy Racing League event will have its place even if open-wheel racing looks radically different as soon as next season.

According to a report in last week's Auto Week magazine, IRL CEO Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven , co-owner of the rival Champ Car series, have discussed informally the possibility of reunification. The sport was split into two series when George created the IRL, with the Indianapolis 500 as its centerpiece, 11 years ago.

A new mega series, according to the story, would likely have a 15-race schedule. The two series will run a combined 30 events this year. Kevin Savoree , vice president for the Andretti Green group that promotes the Grand Prix and races in the IRL, feels comfortable St. Petersburg could make that tough cut given its location and opportunity for early spring racing in good weather.

"You're going to have to have good weather inventory at that time of the year, whether it's Homestead-Miami or St. Petersburg or it's Phoenix, Ariz., or somewhere in California," Savoree said. "You have to have that kind of inventory going into the Indy 500. I think from that standpoint - and that's why we have such a high confidence in St. Petersburg - I don't think you can beat the time of year that we race in St. Petersburg. It's just beautiful.

"Hopefully, the date equity we have will continue and people will remember, "Hey, it's April: time to come out to a race."'

Grand Prix vice president Tim Ramsberger said the best way to keep St. Petersburg viable is to put on a good event. In his opinion, that is why the IRL came to town when Champ Car and former promoter Dover Motorsports eventually left after the 2003 race here.

"If we keep this a successful race, we think we would be strongly considered for any potential reunification," Ramsberger said. "Everything is so speculative, it's not even in our control.

"Even back when we were with Dover, I said let's be the best venue we can and sure enough we were viewed that way with the IRL and Andretti Green enough for them to come down here and convert over to a new series. And I think it's the same strategy with regard to reunification."

It may not be an issue, ultimately, however. Both George and Kalkhoven have downplayed their discussions, but their request to not be bothered about the matter implies there is something afoot.

George told the Indianapolis Star : "I don't expect anything extraordinary to come (discussions)," but the incredible details in the Auto Week article read like a leaked document. According to the story, George and Kalkhoven would co-chair a new league with Honda (currently the IRL supplier) and Cosworth (Champ Car) building engines. Panoz would provide chassis.

Reunification also would be opportune for both series. The IRL has just 18 solid driver/team/sponsor entries two days from the beginning of "spring training" and less than a month from the March 26 season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and faces the embarrassing possibility of falling well short of the normal 33 entrants for the Indy 500. Champ Car is expected to field 25 cars, but could benefit from more American exposure than the prestigious Grand Prix of Long Beach provides. Champ Car's developmental circuit could bolster its flagging IRL counterpart.

Open wheel's most dominating drivers - series champions and St. Petersburg residents Dan Wheldon (IRL) and Sebastien Bourdais (Champ Car) - would have 15 head-to-head meetings. The buzz of a weekly battle between the world's top female drivers, Danica Patrick (IRL) and Katherine Legge , could help reinvigorate open-wheel racing in North America.

RE-UP: Savoree said Andretti Green needs a duplicate of last year's success in St. Petersburg before it seeks an extension with the city or the IRL. Though Andretti Green does not release attendance figures, he said both he and the IRL were pleased and expect a repeat of 2005.

Andretti Green is in the second year of a three-year promotional deal with renewal options.

SPARK PLUG: Gary Nelson left his position as NASCAR's vice president of research and development to start a consulting firm. NASCAR has contracted him to continue implementing the so-called "car of tomorrow" beginning next season.