2007 Panoz DP01
Champ Car should be the future IndyCar as well
After being saved from bankruptcy by Kevin
Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi, this past weekend was
the second most important event in Champ Car's history. It
isn't just the launch of the new Champ Car that made this
weekend a watershed moment for Champ Car. It's much more
This past weekend Champ Car put a stake in the
ground, right in front of the line they drew in the sand.
With the launch comes orders for new cars from existing as well
as new team owners. Collectively they said that
this, the new Champ Car formula, is the future of open wheel
racing for them.
It's too late now for there to be a merger of
the IRL and Champ Car. The opportunity for the two sides
to agree on a common formula is now lost. Once the
substantial investments are made in the new Champ Car, there is
no turning back.
A merger would mean a compromise on the car, and
that would mean spending more money for another new car in a
sport where money is tight already. So unless the IRL side
is prepared to adopt the new Champ Car formula, and there has
been no indication they would be, a merger simply isn't going to
happen, no matter how hard Kevin Kalkhoven and Tony George try,
or say they are trying.
Champ Car is signing new contracts for races in
Las Vegas, China, Phoenix and other locations. Meanwhile the IRL
is moving forward with a race in Iowa and making noises in San
Antonio, Detroit and Montreal. In fact the IRL has had talks with
NASCAR about racing in Montreal, displacing Champ Car, and Champ
Car has swooped into San Antonio and tried to beat the IRL to
Does that sound like two businesses trying to
merge? To the contrary. With friends like that, who
For whatever reasons, and I am not privy to what
they were, Kevin and Tony simply were not able to come to a
meeting of the minds. Kalkhoven said a merger had to
happen by August if it were to happen, and August 1st is past. He knew the new Champ Car would be launched,
the last weekend in July, and with it there would be no turning
And to be honest with you, I think both Tony and
Kevin are okay with that. The IRL has Danica Patrick and
Marco Andretti, and they have the Indy 500. In Tony's mind
we doubt he sees enough benefit to the merger or it would have
happened by now.
Likewise, we sense that Kevin and Champ Car feel
they have turned the corner and the new Champ Car, along with
new team owners, venues and sponsors, will be the shot in the arm to
propel them to an exciting future.
Will a merger happen?
Although it is curious that Brian Barnhart would
go to the Panoz factory to see the new Champ Car, we think it
may have just been a curiosity thing more than a sign that a
merger is imminent. From what I have been told, the
chances of a merger have been way overblown by the media, and
although they are still talking, it's a very long way off.
If I were a betting man, I would say 2009 or 2010, and that's
assuming Honda exits the sport. If they continue to supply
engines to the IRL, the split might go on forever.
However, I do expect Honda to leave the IRL if there is no
merger. The real question is whether they will stay to the
end of their contract, or pay the IRL to break it early like
Toyota did. I do know that Honda is not happy that a
merger did not happen.
And then of course there is Roger Penske with
his sweetheart Ilmor deal whereby he rebuilds all the Hondas for
the IRL. If Honda were to bolt, I predict Roger will
propose that Ilmor supply the IRL engines. However,
without factory support Tony George might finally be compelled
to reach a merger deal.
As I wrote years ago, it will be too hard for
the two leagues to completely merge initially, and I proposed a
two league system with some joint races. This would
require common equipment. Although Tony George feels some
obligation to Dallara because they have done a good job in
building cars for the IRL, there is some speculation that
because the new Champ Car Panoz has ex-Lola personnel involved
on many levels, the quality issues that plagued the Panoz IRL
car will not be an issue with the new Champ Car and that might
be a common chassis platform for open wheel racing starting in
2008 or 2009.
My guess is that Champ Car is counting on racing
the DP01 for three years minimum - through the 2009 season.
Then if there is a merger with the IRL, say in 2010, a new
'common' car based on the DP01 or a modified version called the
DP02, could be agreed to by both parties.
If a common car can be agreed to, then comes the
issue of engines. Here there are two scenarios - 1) Honda
goes away and both leagues adopt the turbo Ford Cosworth with
Tony George given an equity position in Cosworth, 2) Honda
agrees to bring their CART turbo engine out of mothballs and it
becomes Honda vs. Ford with some restrictions in place to ensure
fair competition. There is no way the Champ Car side will
agree to standardize on the existing IRL engine as it is far too
loud for street races.
If a merger never happens
If a merger never happens, both the IRL and
Champ Car will struggle to gain significant market share, and if
each side can at least break even financially, I suspect we could
see the two leagues co-exist indefinitely. However, I
doubt that both can maintain a profitable business in the
current economic environment whereby NASCAR is sucking the
sponsorship well dry.
I do know that Champ Car is positioning itself
to be self-sustaining long-term. All the moves that they
are making are to ensure the business has a long and healthy
future. Is it all in place yet? No, remember
Kalkhoven said it would take 5 years to complete and that each
move would be a step in that 5-year plan.
If either side thinks the other will eventually
fold, they are seriously mistaken. I see positive signs
that both leagues are making progress and building for their
future as if there will be no merger. And while everyone
in the industry wants to see a merger, I think at this point we
are looking at 2010 at the earliest.
And if the two sides do merge one day, it will
be a pleasant surprise, but don't lose sleep over wishing for
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