Champ Car Rising?

INDIANAPOLIS, February 17, 2004 — The deal has been done, papers signed and checks endorsed. Now it is time for Open Wheel Racing Series to put its collective heads together and prepare to go racing.

One would hope they’ve already begun — no, started a long time ago — to get teams in place, television package settled, race dates aligned for the 2004 Champ Car World Series campaign. Yet what we’ve seen emanating from the company’s offices on the northwest side of Indianapolis is just a few blurbs about rules changes.

The signatures are all in place now and appropriate contracts have been transferred to OWRS. All that remains is sanction from the FIA’s American arm, ACCUS, to hold its races both in this country and elsewhere. That meeting is supposed to take place today in Daytona Beach.

“I have been through a number of business dealings in my time,” said Kevin Kalkhoven, one of three OWRS partners and the owner of PK Racing. “This has been one of the toughest. It took a great amount of work and commitment from a lot of people and we are very pleased with the result.”

In the days since OWRS unofficially closed on the purchase of CART Inc. assets, a few tidbits have emerged. Rather than conducting an on-circuit preview of the season, as it [mostly] has in the past, the first opportunity to see all the new Champ cars takes place in Long Beach on March 8-9, and will be a two-day series of press conferences.

OWRS had hoped to put on a rolling display of new cars and teams at Arizona Motorsports Park west of Phoenix but that plan was scotched by the usual reason: NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard). Locals just didn’t want the noise of all those 2.65-liter turbocharged Ford-Cosworth XFE engines in their back yards, whether they were home or not it appears.

So it was back to the drawing table on that one. I wonder how many media outside the greater Los Angeles area will show up for this: certainly, photographers can’t sell any images of static cars and drivers that may have a totally different look once sponsorship logos are in place.

Yesterday several rules revisions were announced that may or may not make competition brighter on the race track. The much-hated mandatory pit stop rule continues, but with green flag stops. This coming season, a second-placed car can’t pass the leader at the start (sorry Bruno), and there will now be real fines and penalties for blocking (yes!).

In the meantime, a quick ride around Indianapolis to different race shops has quite a few revealing facts. Patrick Racing, home to the longest-lived Champ Car team, is closed. Its cars, crew and hospitality unit have gone to OWRS owners Paul Gentilozzi and Kevin Kalkhoven.

At Kalkhoven’s PK Racing, there are now sufficient crew and Lola tubs on hand to service two entries in 2004, but at this time PK has no drivers under contract at this time.

Just down the road, Derrick Walker still has no irons in the fire — that he’s admitting to, anyway — and no idea of what series he’ll be running this year. The Scot has always been a wee bit close-mouthed, and he prefers not to talk until all his ducks are in a row.

Flying by Gerald Forsythe’s stable, which still has a blue Player’s Forsythe sign out front and trucks in the rear, we discovered that Michael Cannon, lead engineer for champion Paul Tracy last year has flown down the road to Herdez Competition, ostensibly to handle the [as yet unannounced] car for Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Inside Forsythe’s shop, mechanics are nutting and bolting their Lolas in preparation for the March PR flog. After that, they’ll conduct two test dates at Firebird Raceway west of Phoenix, moving along to Sebring after that to make a full circle. There isn’t a commercial partner in place at this time for Forsythe’s group, hence the lack of on-circuit preparation.

Conquest Racing, Eric Bachelart’s outfit has been testing Barber Dodge Pro Series standout Nelson Philippe as well as Mario Haberfeld, who drove for the Belgian last year. When we tried to speak with him, Bachelart was on the phone with “a potential sponsor.”

Paul Gentilozzi’s Rocketsports Racing in Lansing, MI now has sufficient vehicles to field two cars so a partner for French Canadian Alex Tagliani could soon be in the cards.

Gentilozzi stated, “We could never have done this deal and kept Champ Car alive without the dedication, cooperation and spirit of everyone involved with the series. We are at the threshold of taking the series to a whole new level and we look forward to many great years with the Champ cars.”

His enthusiasm has wafts over Champ Car headquarters, where there are many empty cubicles. A goodly number of extraneous employees have moved on and there are people waiting to garner positions yet to be filled. It may be quiet, but the environment is also looking a lot more positive and enthusiastic than during previous visits.

Forsythe has been the least talkative of the three OWRS principals, preferring to let Kalkhoven and Gentilozzi voice their views. He’s come out of the closet now that the work to keep Champ Car alive begins in earnest.

“We are pleased that the deal has finally been completed and we can shift our focus to the racing,” noted team owner Gerald Forsythe on the completion of the sale. “This process has given us a better appreciation of the passion within the Champ Car community and we intend to reward everyone by conducting the finest racing series possible.”

The options are many for Champ Car fans, but to see the group succeed, there’s only one choice: vote with your wallet.