Previous Columns

The Way It Is/ Champ Car continues to rebuild despite Tony George's eternal intransigence

by Gordon Kirby
I hope, after last week's 2007 Champ Car schedule announcement and the IRL's confirmation that it will revive the former CART race on Detroit's Belle Isle next year, that everyone has disabused themselves of any notions about unification between the two groups. Sadly, as I've tiresomely insisted for many years, unification is a myth that will never happen.

Like everyone else--save one man--I know the best way forward for American open-wheel racing is with a single entity. But I'm also deeply aware that Tony George's goal in life since he was a youth was to be the unchallenged king of open-wheel racing in America and that he won't relinquish that dream until the day he dies.

To wit, sometime last year I was talking to my old friend Al Unser Jr and he made the point about George's self-image. "You've got to realize that Tony is the new young emperor of Indy car racing," Unser remarked. I told him I didn't recognize or accept that as fact and we politely agreed not to argue the point.

Then there's Mario Andretti who tried very hard last year to get George and Kevin Kalkhoven together. He succeeded in greasing the rails to conversation at least between George and Kalkhoven, but that was all, it turned out. I would never print many of Mario's keen observations about George but there's one particular mantra that Andretti has repeated to me many times that deserves publication. "We've got to save Tony from himself," Mario has reiterated. "We can't let the Indy 500 slide deeper into ruin. It's the defining race for open-wheel racing in this country and if it's broken, the sport's broken too."

With Andretti's help, Kalkhoven tried hard to develop a dialogue and working relationship with George. Frankly, I can't imagine any serious conversations between these two very different personalities and indeed, it appears that Kalkhoven's efforts have come to naught.

Eight or nine years ago, in the early days of the IRL, Jerry Forsythe quietly attempted an entreaty with Tony George through family connections. But Forsythe was rebuffed and has remained a firm George opponent, convinced that it's impossible to deal with the man from Terre Haute. While his former partners in CART sold-off their shares, Forsythe famously accumulated a great deal of CART stock and is the only former CART team owner not to enter the Indy 500 since 1995. His unwavering commitment to Champ Car has been a cornerstone of the organization's rebuilding and as we all know, without Kalkhoven and Forsythe, Champ Car would not exist today.

Kalkhoven and Forsythe represent a truly awesome combination of wealth and power as well as sharp-eyed business savvy. I realize that Tony George also enjoys great wealth and power, but I can't see him competing over the longterm with Kalkhoven and Forsythe.

Yet the fact remains that more than ten years after the IRL's founding, we continue amid a sorry state of lingering civil war. The IRL is desperately trying to bring sponsor value and media interest by adding street or road races, most of them retreads of failed CART races like Belle Isle and possibly Montreal and Mid-Ohio. Everybody in the IRL seems to want the series to be just like CART used to be--a mix of ovals, road and street circuits--as the IRL tries to morph into a further version of what many Speed Sport News readers call CART2.

Meanwhile, Champ Car is pushing on with new venues both domestic and worldwide, as well as an exciting new car, new teams and a proven new Atlantic series. Four new races are on Champ Car's incomplete, fifteen-race 2007 schedule, including the season-opener in Las Vegas and the closer in downtown Phoenix. The other new races are the long-pursued race on a permanent road course in Zuhai, China in May, and the refurbished and extremely challenging Mt Tremblant-St Jovite road course in the Laurentian mountains ninety minutes north of Montreal on July 1, which is Dominion Day, Canada's birthday.

Champ Car will become America's first major league sporting organization to hold a regular season event in mainland China. Zuhai is a short ferry ride from Hong Kong and equally close to Macau. "They've got a very secure and stable management team and it's a gorgeous track," said Champ Car's president Steve Johnson. "It's a beautiful facility surrounded by golf courses and hotels. They've put on many major events, anything from GT races to motorcycles and they're very excited to bring the Champ Car World Series to China. We've got the full support of the mayor and government of Zuhai. They are equally excited and we feel very confident that China will be a big success."

For my part, Mt Tremblant is the race that's caught my fancy. It's a tremendous racetrack, a mini-Nurburgring in fact. I had the pleasure to attend many races at Tremblant in the late sixties and early seventies, first as a fan, then as a reporter. The 1968 Canadian GP was the only race I've ever seen where the whole field was equipped with high wings, some of the cars with both front and rear wings on tall pedestals. The sight of all those high-winged F1 cars attacking Tremblant's fearsome first turn on the opening lap is something I'll never forget. Champ cars raced at the track in 1967 and '68 in the days when USAC sanctioned the races. Twin, hundred-mile races were run in August of both years with Mario Andretti winning all four races in one of Clint Brawner's Ford-powered Hawks.

Even in those days the track was considered only marginally safe. F1 never returned after its second visit to Mt Tremblant in 1970 and the last CanAm race was held at the track in 1971. Under new ownership in recent years the track was completely repaved five years ago and staged its first modern era professional event--a Grand-Am race--last year. Champ Car's operations boss Tony Cotman visited Mt Tremblant last week to determine what updating needs to be done for next year's race.

"There are some things they are going to have to do to race to our standards and they're very willing to do," reported Champ Car president Johnson. "Things like catch-fencing are missing right now. There are some modifications that they're going to have to make but Tony said it's going to be a great venue to hold a Champ Car event."

Two other new races on road circuits at Assen, Holland, and Oschersleben, Germany are expected to be added in the next few weeks, making for six new races and a seventeen-race schedule--Champ Car's healthiest by far since its rebirth three years ago from CART's ashes.

"We are in negotiations right now," Steve Johnson said last week. "We're not ready to announce anything but we're getting very close. I think the possibility is getting better by the day. We're encouraged, but until we have contracts signed and we've inspected the racetracks, we're not going to announce anything. In the past we've pulled races off the schedule and I don't want to do that. I want to be able to announce dates and keep them on our schedule.

"We would like to bring Champ Car back to Europe and September would be a good month to do that since it's open for us and we've got a couple of dates highlighted there. Stay tuned. I would expect closure on that as soon as a week to two weeks. I might be a little aggressive on that but that's our plan right now."

The expected addition of the European races means Champ Car will race in 2007 at ten temporary tracks (eight street circuits, plus two airports) and six road courses in seven different countries. The schedule includes nine American races, three in Canada, and one each in Australia, Mexico, China, Germany and Holland so that Champ Car is on the right course to re-establishing CART's international footprint.

If all the new races can be properly established for the longrun rather than being historical one-offs like in the recent past under CART, the basis is there to rejuvenate both the series' fan base and its commercial value. The addition of Las Vegas and Phoenix means Champ Car will race in eight major American cities in 2007, including six west of the Mississippi, a larger footprint in the region than NASCAR! Another good thing is that Champ Car will race in company with the ALMS at Long Beach, Houston and Elkhart Lake. This too, should be a very effective occasional partnership.

The season-closing Phoenix street race will be moved into November, the week before Thanksgiving, for its second running in 2008. An agreement has been struck to keep a two-week separation between the Champ Car race and the traditional, late-season NASCAR race at nearby Phoenix Int'l Raceway.

As expected, there aren't any ovals on Champ Car's schedule. Everyone agrees it would be a great thing to run some oval races but Champ Car's inability to pull good crowds at any oval in recent years is all part of the overall decline of open-wheel oval racing in Tony George's dystopian age.

"We don't have any ovals on the schedule because they didn't make good business sense for us," Steve Johnson said. "We didn't have enough fans show up at Milwaukee to make it a good business case to be there. We encountered the same thing when we raced in Las Vegas on the oval last year. It's not that we're anti-ovals and won't run on an oval. If an oval track promoter came to us and we could develop a business model that was successful for all parties we'd be happy to look at it. We're not against ovals. Currently at this time, it just does not make good business sense for us. We've proven recently that we're not successful on ovals."

Johnson added that there was never any chance of any twin-bills with the IRL taking place as rumored. "It has never been a directive to me to run a double-header with the IRL," he said. "I think it was a lot of wishful thinking on some people's parts, but was not part of our plan."

Meanwhile, a three-car Newman/Haas superteam is looking a distinct possibility with Graham Rahal graduating to Champ Car and strong sponsorship possible on all three cars. Messrs Newman, Haas, Rahal and Ralph Hansen are working hard on it and it will be interesting to see what the team's '07 line-up of drivers and sponsors will be. Kalkhoven says both of PKV Racing's cars will enjoy major sponsorship. He won't confirm Red Bull, but it's been strongly rumored on both sides of the Atlantic as the sponsor of one PKV car next year.

With some exciting new drivers, possible new sponsors, a healthy Atlantic series and some very good new events, Champ Car slowly but surely is beginning to regain its credibility. Another factor in Champ Car's rebuilding is Formula One's increasingly exclusionary nature which pushes so many drivers aside before they've been given a real chance. Sebastien Bourdais is the best current example of this and with a greater pool than ever of international racing talent trying to make it into F1, Champ Car remains the only realistic option. Ten and twenty years ago, CART benefitted greatly from F1's exclusionary mentality and I have no doubts that the same benefits in both new and proven talent will help Champ Car thrive in the coming years.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page