Unification Ahead?

LAGUNA BEACH, April 19, 2005 – Now that the Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series have finished, in respective weeks, their first successful street-course races of the 2005 season the tom-toms pounding for peace in the Great American Open Wheel Civil War have been louder than since last summer, when Roger Penske unsuccessfully tried to bridge the chasm.

Much of the bleating has a great deal to do with the 31st annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach held April 10th. This was, as everyone knows the final year of the contract between Champ Car and Dover Downs Entertainment, which bought out the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach a few years back.

2005 also marked the final year of Toyota’s contact with Dover Downs for naming rights to the Long Beach race.

Fans around the country and world are chiming in with an online petition to Jim Michaelian, CEO of the Long Beach group begging him to keep the beleaguered Champ Car World Series open wheel cars pounding round his 1.968-mile city circuit.

Many Champ Car team members have signed the petition, along with drivers and, as is customary for website entries of this type, a few pranksters have logged in as Tony George, Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe, just to shake things up a bit.

It’s obvious that some fans continue to be enthralled by Champ Car and its racing package of 2.65-liter turbo Cosworth engines and lithe Lola chassis, together with the interesting characters in this particular series, and they want to see the series return for a 23rd race on Long Beach city streets.

The signers blame George for the problems of open wheel racing, a distinction the man from Indianapolis may indeed merit. Signers to this petition don’t want the IndyCar Series anywhere near Long Beach, home to Champ Car since 1984.

Some of their complaints are valid while others certainly are not. Anyone who actually witnessed the St Petersburg race from anywhere but a box on a table realizes the tide turned a bit that day.

Champ Car allies claim all seats for that St Pete race were freebies but I can’t see that. Certainly corporate sponsors entertained clients during the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg but Champ Car’s corporate partners received similar benefit at Long Beach.

Barry Green isn’t the sort who’d be giving away the farm in St Pete. I was crushed by too many regular folks wandering around getting autographs from drivers, buying event merchandise who came out of the stands and from general admission areas. And yes, the place was packed.

There was a time when you couldn’t walk from the media center at Long Beach to the pits in any public area because foot traffic was too heavy; that was not the case this year and has not been the case for five years, at least.

After Long Beach, the Champ cars went to reconfigured Portland International Raceway to get a handle on the new-look Festival Curves. The Indy Racing League took its first open test at Infineon Raceway Sears Point around the same time.

The upshot was the usual cast of characters doing well in Portland and at Sears Point with minimal off-track excursions. The RuSPORT team is becoming a true threat to the established Champ Car crowd and Andretti Green Racing continues to steamroll.

But what happened in Ft Worth, TX on Friday night had to give open wheel racing fans an even better frame of mind, even with war going on in the background.

Yes, 2004 Champ Car titleholder Sebastien Bourdais went to Texas Motor Speedway, as inscrutable a 1.5-mile oval as there’s ever been and whipped the NASCAR boys, a couple of WOO experts and won the IROC race against most odds. He owned pole position since they invert the field from the prior finish.

Bourdais held off Mark Martin to win that race and Martin has more IROC victories than anyone else, alive or dead. Buddy Rice finished third in the race, the 2004 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race champion showing the goods that brought him to the dance.

Altogether it was a fine finish for the fenderless folks, even though Helio Castroneves languished in tenth place at the checkers.

While IROC did not bring about the latest round of unification broadcasts, it sure brought smiles to anyone who loves this type of racing.

Independent of on-track action, last Friday Champ Car’s CEO Dick Eidswick and Tony George sat down for a preliminary discussion about the future of their respective series. Not being a fly on the wall I can’t attest to what was said but apparently the war goes on.

The matter of changing engines and chassis – something both series must do in 2007 – could bring remedy but deep philosophical differences continue to abide on both sides of the fence.

Tony George essentially began the Indy Racing League over philosophical differences with the car and series owners in CART; nearly all of them are now within his own League and he’s still not happy.

George simply wants to purchase Champ Car, absorb their better races and move on with life. He doesn’t want to have added races outside North America as Champ Car does; he realizes the commercial partners he’s used to enrich his pot of gold don’t want offshore races.

Champ Car, lacking those commercial entities is holding half of its 14 races offshore and has a different set of parameters to meet than does the IRL. It’s concentrating on street circuits while the League predominately uses ovals in its 17-race 2005 campaign.

These are philosophical competition disparities that are oceans apart. While both series have to make some keen decisions about engine and chassis – and possibly even tire – packages beginning in 2007, they just aren’t thinking on the same plane.

So it looks like business as usual for the coming year or two. Sigh.

That’s a losing proposition. It keeps festering in American open wheel motorsports.

They might have lost on the track Friday night but the NASCAR Nation thrives at every other left – or right turn. Perhaps reconciliation is out of the question? It sure seems that way from the perspective of 16th & Georgetown Roads in Indianapolis and that’s a true shame.

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