To read recent posts on message boards regarding a possible unification of the IRL and Champ Car series, you would think either (a) they will announce a unification plan this week or (b) talks between series chiefs Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven have broken off entirely.
Answers: (a) no, (b) no
It turns out they are continuing to talk, even during the busy month of May. That Kalkhoven will be a guest of George at the Indy 500 is certainly an encouraging sign, but certainly not an indicator of an immediate or even impending merger. Unification is no lock for many reasons race fans care to ignore.
First, the IRL does not need Champ Car. It can be argued that Indy Racing is a financial bust everywhere except in Indianapolis, but therein lies the rub. The IRL has the crown jewel of open wheel racing, which gives it leverage into broadcast, advertising and marketing that do not exist for Champ Car.
Without Indy, the ABC/ESPN contract goes to Speed TV.
Without Indy, Spiderman is just Sebastian Bourdais.
Without Indy, Danica! is just Katherine Legge.
Without Indy, you have Champ Car’s current position.
Champ Car may make the claim of better cars, better drivers, better racing and owners with deeper pockets. All can be arguably defended, but while they may have sizable crowds in Long Beach or Toronto, there is nowhere near the interest on this continent for the product because they have no single race to drive public interest among passive race fans.
In understanding that Indy is the leverage the IRL has over Champ Car, it must also be understood why this is so. The answer actually lies in NASCAR. Auto racing – of any form – is traditionally most popular among American audiences when presented on an oval track. Why? Because Americans love to see fast speeds and lots of passing, neither of which occurs much on the grand prix style circuits of Champ Car.
I tried watching the first race of the Champ Car season in Long Beach, and half the contenders were taken out on the very first turn. It was dreadful trying to watch several cars make a play for the lead with no passing lane. In order to rectify this for the second race in Houston, the drivers started in single file. Folks, that’s not a race it’s a parade.
Much can come from unification. I want the pool of quality drivers. I want all of the popular tracks to be raced by the most popular drivers. I want manufacturers directed by the league, and not the other way around.
I hope George and Kalkhoven want the same things as well. If not, I don’t need a merger.