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The Way It Is/ A beautiful day masked a stark reality

by Gordon Kirby
Long Beach promoter Jim Michaelian appears to have inherited Chris Pook's pact with the weather gods. Despite forecasts for Sunday rain, perfect weather prevailed through the entire weekend in Long Beach and big crowds rolled through the gates, more than 200,000 for the three days. It was Long Beach at its best with plenty of people and racing and big fields for both the Atlantic and Grand-Am races in particular. The atmosphere was as festive as ever, graphic proof that the urban festival concept, pioneered by Pook and Michaelian at Long Beach more than thirty years ago, is American open-wheel racing's greatest strength.

To the casual observer therefore, Champ Car's phoenix-like rejuvenation was underway in Long Beach last weekend. But to everyone in and around the garage area there were plenty of questions and doubts about the future. Everyone asks whether reunification or merging with the IRL will happen and most people believe that if it doesn't happen this time around, the results will be dire. Television ratings, national media interest and sponsorship have vanished from both Champ Car and IRL and without a concerted team effort from everyone involved in American open-wheel racing the sport is doomed to mediocrity and marginalization.

Throughout the weekend as I wandered the paddock, pitlane and garage I was reminded of Patrick Head's comment to me while I was in England a few months ago. "What's going on in America, Gordon?" Head asked. "I'm sorry," he added. "I don't watch anymore. We all used to love it, but nobody seems to care anymore."

The Champ Car race in Long Beach revealed the fragility of having a field of just eighteen cars. A multi-car crash at the first turn eliminated Paul Tracy, Oriol Servia, Bruno Junqueira and A.J. Allmendinger, all of them potential race winners and championship contenders. The accident removed any drama from the race as Justin Wilson was the only remaining driver capable of keeping Sebastien Bourdais in sight. Kudos to Bourdais and Newman/Haas on a brilliantly-won, second successive victory, but it was one of the most boring Long Beach Grands Prix anyone could remember.

Without doubt the highlight of the weekend was the Atlantic race. With a field full of talented, ambitious young drivers there weren't many quiet moments as Andreas Wirth scored an excellent win from pole. The 21-year old German led all the way but was always under pressure with Raphael Matos filling his mirrors in the closing laps. The new Swifts looked good, the Mazda/Cosworth engines sounded great, and both chassis and engine proved to be thoroughly effective and reliable, a great achievement for all concerned.

The deeply competitive field produced a fierce race and some crashes from which drivers and cars emerged largely unscathed, also impressive for a brand new racing category. So it was an impressive debut all-round for the new Mazda/Cosworth Atlantic formula. Given the depth of the field this year's championship will be very difficult to win. Wirth and Matos will be hard to beat but there plenty of other contenders. Top Americans in Long Beach were Jonathan Bomarito and Graham Rahal with Bomarito dropping out of third place when he inexplicably ran out of fuel and young Rahal driving a solid race to finish fifth.

Meanwhile everyone continued to ruminate about reunification especially after Michael Andretti showed up on Saturday to join Bobby Rahal and Chip Ganassi in a briefing with Kevin Kalkhoven. Then on Sunday, Honda's Robert Clarke was on the grounds and made a public pitlane walkabout with Kalkhoven and Ford's Anne Stevens. On Saturday, Robin Miller and I talked to Kalkhoven about the burning question.

"My most important desire is to get it done right," Kalkhoven said about the possible Champ Car/IRL merger. "The history of mergers and acquisitions in general doesn't have a high success rate, and the worst thing that could happen is that we merge and it doesn't work. So both our intentions in discussing this is to make sure it's right. As a result, we haven't put a time limit on it. If it happens next year, that's great. If it takes longer to get it right, that's fine too.

"Doing it right is my number one goal," Kalkhoven added. "The worst thing that could happen to open-wheel racing is for us to do a deal that doesn't work. That would just be horrific for everybody. At the moment we've got two series that are doing okay. I'm proud of what we're doing here in Champ Car, but throwing that away in pursuit of something that would fail I think would be a huge mistake for American open-wheel racing. So doing it right is my primary objective."

We asked when an agreement would have to be in place for it to take effect for next season. "It could be done pretty much right through August," Kalkhoven advised. "Tony's got his schedules, we've got ours, and we pretty much know how it could fit together without any major problems. The real question is, the devil's in the details."

We also asked what stage the negotiations were at. "I would characterize it very simply as we're continuing to hold discussions with the best intent between us in trying to get it done in the best way possible," Kalkhoven responded.

Kalkhoven added that the vast majority of the talks would remain strictly between George and he. "I think clearly once an equitable decision gets made and all the details are worked out, then we'll propose it to people so that they know what the straw man is. To get together in a meeting without a defined agenda and a specific set of proposals I think would probably be counter-productive at this minute. So Tony and I continue to talk."

He also said that rejuvenating the Indy 500 was part of their discussions. "One of the things Tony and I have talked about is how important it is to continue to develop and revitalize the 500. The 500 is in every sense a cornerstone of United States racing. It's recognized around the world, like Long Beach is, and it's certainly something I believe is a primary objective of whatever it is we might do."

Even though Kalkhoven is doing his best to take the pressure off, there's no question that the clock is ticking rapidly. "We've got one year," commented Champ Car stalwart Paul Newman last weekend. Newman/Haas's sponsor salesman Ralph Hansen, universally recognized as the best in the game, is having an extremely tough time selling sponsorship for Bruno Junqueira's car, and Newman has come to believe that reunification is a necessity.

Chip Ganassi has made it very clear over the last few months that if reunification doesn't happen he will not be able to attract the sponsorship to continue in open-wheel racing and will pull-out to focus on NASCAR and Grand-Am. Ganassi was in Long Beach last weekend to watch Scott Pruett and Luis Diaz win the inaugural Long Beach Grand-Am race and Chip said he was very appreciative of Kalkhoven's efforts. Ganassi emphasized that he has no desire to be anything but a bystander to any talks or negotiations. "I don't want to be involved. I'm just one of the clowns in the circus, just a competitor," Ganassi remarked.

Bobby Rahal was also in Long Beach, keeping a close eye on 17-year old son Graham's budding racing career. Rahal will attend all this year's Atlantic races and says he plans to take Graham to Europe next for a year or two of seasoning in the tough school of European single-seater racing. Rahal is in Ganassi's camp in that he probably will pull his team out of open-wheel racing if the Champ Car/IRL merger doesn't happen. In Rahal's case he'll focus on the ALMS LMP2 series with Honda, and as it is for Ganassi it's all about the ability to put together the sponsorship to do the job or not. "I admire what Kevin is trying to do, but it's not about him," Rahal observed. "He's not the guy who's going to determine whether it's going to happen or not."

Indeed, it's all about Tony George, and too many people have heard him agree to something only to change his mind the next day. And of course, the other flies in the ointment are Bill France and Roger Penske, neither of whom have any interest in reunification between Champ Car and IRL. France, after all, wants to see NASCAR's domination of the sport become complete, and a merged open-wheel series might prevent that from happening. And Penske's future in racing is all about NASCAR, the Charlotte/NASCAR industrial complex, and Toyota. His loyalty is to that cabal, not open-wheel racing.

All this writing on the wall is having its effect in the garage area. Sad to report, plenty of people in the garage area who've spent their lives building and working on race cars are beginning to plan their exits. Some are going to night school or taking courses to expand their education and working skills outside of racing. Others are planning new businesses of their own, also outside the sport. Over many years their faith in the sport they love has been deeply shaken and they don't see much of a future.

For my part, my thirty-second spring weekend in Long Beach this year was a very sobering experience. I've been fervently hoping for the best for American open-wheel racing, but I'm afraid I fear the worst.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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