After 12 years of losing fans, sponsors and credibility, open-wheel racing in America has finally regained some semblance of common sense. Along with solidarity.
There will be one series and one champion in 2008 after the Indy Racing League and Champ Car decided to bury the hatchet instead of each other.
Tony George, who started this costly war when he launched the Indy Racing League in 1996, turned out to be the peacemaker as his offer to supply any and all Champ Car teams with free cars, engines and money was accepted by Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe, the co-owners of the series that began as CART in 1979.
“Looking back I think it was a good try on the part of both sides but, thankfully, they finally came to their senses,” said Derrick Walker, a CART regular since 1991 who has fielded cars in both series this decade.
“It’s going to be tough for the Champ Car boys because we don’t know the IRL cars but this was a must. It had to be done for open-wheel racing to survive.”
Final details weren’t available as Motor Sport went to press but it is believed Long Beach, Edmonton and Surfers Paradise are to be added to the combined schedule, which would then total 19 races.
Both series struggled to field 17-18 cars in 2007 but with Newman/Haas/Lanigan, PKV, Forsythe, Conquest and Walker definitely joining the new-look IRL, at least 24 cars should contest the season opener at Homestead, Florida this month.
More importantly, some much-needed depth will be restored to the competition as Justin Wilson, Will Power, Oriol Servia, Graham Rahal, Bruno Junqueira and Paul Tracy go at it with Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Hélio Castroneves and Danica Patrick.
“That’s what the fans want, that’s what they deserve – all the good drivers in one series,” said Tracy, the oldest, boldest and most successful active driver in Champ Car.
“We might get our butt kicked for a while on the ovals with these new cars but it’s definitely the best thing for everyone.”
It’s also the best thing for the Indianapolis 500, which has suffered a steady decline in attendance and participation. Making the race, once a badge of courage and honour, has been reduced to merely coming up with a car and four qualifying laps.
But now there’s a chance to have 40-45 cars going for those 33 slots and Bump Day could again mean something. As well as the national championship.
“Give me Rahal versus Andretti, Tracy, Hélio and Danica Patrick, and we’ll sell some tickets,” said long-standing Long Beach Grand Prix president Jim Michaelian, whose race being included on its usual April date was pivotal in the agreement.
“This will be a big shot in the arm. Not just for us, but for open-wheel racing in general.”
Since 1998, there have been several attempts to unite the two sides but egos, agendas, cold feet and downright stubbornness derailed those efforts.
Just getting together won’t begin to close the gap NASCAR has opened up in the USA. But it’s a start instead of a finish. Robin Miller