Honda Racing / IZOD IndyCar Series / RacingLine
IRL, Champ Car Unite for 2008 Season
Robert Clarke, the departing president of Honda Performance Development, spent the summer of 2006 crisscrossing the country, back and forth between Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series events, preaching the gospel of unification.
He talked to drivers, owners, sponsors, manufacturers and promoters on both sides and tried to find some middle ground so they could co-exist. His efforts were in vain, however, as nothing could be resolved. "It seemed they were both going in opposite directions," he lamented at that time.
When he announced last year that he would be stepping down, Clarke said his only regret in 15 years of open-wheel racing was not being able to help achieve peace.
But he got a pleasant surprise in February when Tony George, Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe agreed to bury the hatchet instead of each other.
"Best retirement present I could have asked for," said Clarke, who will serve as a consultant through June for HPD and will finally get to see Honda engines in a unified Indianapolis 500, as well as a single open-wheel series after 13 years of division.
The long-awaited amalgamation, for lack of a better word, came about because George made a generous offer that the co-owners of Champ Car could not refuse.
The IndyCar founder and Chief Executive Officer pledged free cars and engine leases, plus $1.2 million per car, to any and all Champ Car teams that join the League.
Paul Newman, Carl Haas, Mike Lanigan, Dale Coyne, Jimmy Vasser, Eric Bachelart and Keith Wiggins joined Kalkhoven in accepting TG's offer and suddenly IndyCar racing was looking at 24 or more starters for this weekend's season opener in Homestead, Fla.
Not only did the unification announcemnet make Clarke's day, it gave everybody with a passion for open-wheel a reason to be optimistic about the future.
"I think the winners are the fans, the teams, the drivers, and indeed the potential that we have to be able to grow the sport over the next few years," said Kalkhoven, who, along with Craig Gore and Vasser, will field cars for Will Power and Oriol Servia in 2008.
"I've said many times that in itself, unification isn't some sort of magic bullet to be able to get us forward. It's going to take an awful lot of hard work. This is something that is going to still require a huge amount of work.
"But I think the long-term potential is extremely exciting for everybody associated with this."
After several failed attempts during the past decade, George got everybody back under one roof almost 30 years after the United States Auto Club [USAC] lost its hold on Indy Cars to Championship Auto Racing Teams' [CART] team owners.
"This is all about looking forward," George said. "At the risk of taking a glance back, it was just last fall, on the anniversary of my grandfather's death, that I was thinking to myself that it really had been 30 years since the sport of open-wheel racing had been truly unified. There were periods of years over the last 30 years where we worked more closely together and better together. But by and large, there were periods of years where we weren't so good at that.
"When the calendar turned over to 2008, I was wondering to myself, 'Is it possible this could ever happen?' Lo and behold, I got a call that just made me feel really warm. I felt like this was perhaps going to be the best year of my 48 to have a chance to do something that's very important to me and very close to me, and that is to help bring about the unification of open-wheel racing.
"But it wouldn't have been possible without Kevin and Gerry [Forsythe], in particular, coming to me, expressing a desire to work with me, to do what's right and what's best for all of the drivers and the sponsors and, most importantly, the fans, the suppliers that make open-wheel racing in North America a great sport, something close to all of us.
"They've been a pleasure to work with in helping to bring this about."
Besides bringing depth to the IRL IndyCar Series, the deal also included the addition of Champ Car strongholds Long Beach, Edmonton and Surfer's Paradise to the 2008 IndyCar schedule.
"We have felt good about our direction and the momentum that we have built," said Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL's Commercial Division. "I think if you give us three or four years, you will see dramatic differences. But I think you will also see immediate differences - bigger crowds, better TV ratings. We're very optimistic that this is going to have a pretty quick impact.
"I think there are lots of fans out there that are motorsports fans. And we all embrace them. And we've worked very hard at having very identifiable brand attributes. We're a lot faster. We have a higher technology and innovation platform. We have a more diverse driver lineup and run at more diverse venues."
The drivers on both sides were ecstatic. The Champ Car regulars, except for Paul Tracy, have never competed in the Indianapolis 500, while IndyCar stars like Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves are anxious to return to Long Beach and Australia.
"The best thing is that there's no more wondering who the best driver is anymore because now we're all together," said Kanaan, the 2004 IRL champ, who started his career in CART in 1999.
"There are a lot of potential rivalries that should bring out the fan interest."
Like Marco Andretti versus Graham Rahal in the "third generation" war.
"It will take a while for the true impact to be apparent, but already, we are seeing a lot more interest," said the 19-year-old Rahal. "You're seeing open-wheel racing on the news more than ever and it's positive.
"The drivers that are truly the best are going to stick around now and the ones that aren't so good are going to have to work harder to keep their jobs."
In the final analysis, the confusion about who races where has been eliminated. And all the loyal fans who stuck with open-wheel racing will be rewarded.
"Like Kevin said, this is really all about the fans, the fans who supported open-wheel racing, who supported Champ Car, who supported IndyCar through the years," said George.
"Their patience has finally been rewarded."