When word leaked out a couple of weeks ago that a deal was in the works, it was met with loud applause and a sigh of relief from open-wheel race fans. Could it be that the 12-year nightmare that has haunted open-wheel racing – and allowed NASCAR to become the giant it has become and define racing in America – would finally be over?
Not so fast, my friends.
First of all, open-wheel racing has long suffered from the “wishing it would happen will make it happen” syndrome. Having relied on that flawed logic on far too many occasions in the past has turned the once great and revered sport of open-wheel racing in the United States into something of an afterthought – forcing it to depend on the popularity of a female driver and one race a year to keep it afloat.
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Still, which one is it? Are the talks ongoing or are they a done deal?
It depends upon whom you talk to.
The deal currently on the table for the teams in the Champ Car series – free Dallara race cars and Honda engines and $1.2 million in incentive money – is essentially the same offer that has been out there for the past three years.
Why is there interest now?
Apparently, Champ Car's co-owners, uber-wealthy Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe may have taken a serious look at themselves.
And they've checked their bank accounts.
Champ Car has become a questionably viable racing series that essentially no one in North America cares about. It features a field of drivers that may be quite talented in their own right, but no one in North America cares about them, either.
The IRL's Indy Car Series, which has been in existence since 1996 and has yet to capture the hearts and minds of auto racing fans in the United States beyond the Indianapolis 500, isn't doing much better.
It has a marquee event in the Indy 500 and it does have a driver that also moonlights as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, but the rest of the field is sadly just as faceless as the starting line-up of a Major League Soccer club – and that might be an insult to a soccer club.
When open-wheel racing in America went through its painful divorce at the end of the 1995 season, it was at its zenith, with millions of fans watching on television and in person. Since then, those numbers have dropped dramatically to a fraction of what they were while in the same time frame, and NASCAR's popularity in America has skyrocketed.
So now, after years of mutual acrimony, the two sides of this once great marriage of speed and exceptional world-class driving talent are once more looking at each other face-to-face, lines of age and years of tough times showing on both of their faces, and both have come to a stark realization that it is now or never for open-wheel racing.
IRL president Tony George, who at one time may have been even more hated than Yoko Ono for causing the dissolution of an iconic part of so many people's lives, obviously sees a golden opportunity to change his legacy in auto racing. He is willing to, as one source close to the top at the IRL has characterized it, “do whatever it takes” to complete a deal that would put open-wheel racing under one leadership – his.
Success requires strong leadership.
Champ Car's failure to regain its former luster has been blamed on just that – a lack of strong leadership at the top. That failure of over the past half-decade has left the series saddled with the results of poor decisions, shortsighted thinking and a series of failed business plans.
The majority of Champ Car's teams have minimal sponsorship support and many have turned to financial help outside of the United States in the form of sponsorship and drivers bringing cash for a seat.
Under George's leadership and with a good deal of his family's cash poured into it, the IRL has survived more than a dozen years. But the majority of its teams also face a constant struggle to attract the kind of quality sponsorship that is necessary to support themselves and grow the series.
Will a consolidated series help this situation?
Not immediately, but Champ Car's teams with domestic sponsorship can at least go to their sponsors and ask for more money now that they will represent them in the biggest race of the year and in the world – the Indy 500.
In recent years, Champ Car's schedule often saw races being cut during the season and this year was likely to follow that pattern, leaving a schedule of 10 races more than likely.
Champ Car's team owners also have another issue to deal with. They had been looking at a 14-race series in 2008, a good deal of them overseas. With a loss of those overseas races, any foreign sponsorship deals will disappear along with the races.
The IRL's Indy Car series has 16 confirmed races on its 2008 slate and should the consolidation of the two series be completed, speculation has the IRL gaining three of Champ Car's street races in Long Beach, Calif., Edmonton, Alberta, and Surfer's Paradise, Australia.
That makes a potential 19-race schedule this year possible, adding stress to an already stressed-out Champ Car team owner, many of whom spent a good deal of their money to buy new cars and equipment for the 2008 season.
The talk coming out of Indianapolis, home to both Champ Car and the IRL, has George being forced to dig deeper into his pockets to complete the deal with the Champ Car teams that do migrate into the IRL. However, that talk may be coming out of the mouths of current IRL owners, some of whom are apparently not pleased with the way Champ Car has balked at the repeated overtures to consolidation and don't see a great need or reason for having their handful of teams join them.
Nevertheless, according to highly placed sources in the IRL, any deal that might be announced won't be unveiled before this weekend, when the majority of America's racing media will be on the West Coast covering Round 2 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.
When and if there is an announcement, will anyone care?
Or will American race fans be more interested in how Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart rebound from their disappointments in Sunday's Daytona 500?
I'm betting that it'll be the latter.
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