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February 9, 2008
Open Wheel Racing
George off to Japan in pursuit of unification
Motegi race date appears to be key to uniting IRL, Champ Car
Indy Racing League founder Tony George is headed to Japan today for what could be a key step in ending a two-decade-old split of open-wheel racing in the U.S.
George is hoping to encourage officials at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit to move the IRL's April 19 race to another weekend in order for the league to include the Long Beach (Calif.) Grand Prix and other Champ Car World Series races in its 2008 IndyCar Series schedule.
The Long Beach race, which has been held annually by Champ Car since 1984, has a contract with its city to stage the season-opening race on April 20.
If Motegi officials agree to move their race, perhaps to the fall, the dominoes to a reconciliation could fall quickly.
George, who is being accompanied by IRL presidents Terry Angstadt and Brian Barnhart, plus former Honda executive Robert Clarke, is optimistic about a resolution. But he is mindful of other failed reunification efforts.
"It seems that every time we've been close some new obstacle gets thrown in the way," said George, who started the IRL in 1996 as an alternative to Champ Car.
George and Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven spoke by phone on Friday, but Kalkhoven said the time he requested was merely fact-finding in nature in the wake of an Internet report insisting a deal had been reached.
"There's no deal, and no deal's been offered," Kalkhoven said.
"I sent Tony a text (message) to find out what is going on," he said.
Kalkhoven said the conversation was brief. George only informed Kalkhoven that he is bound for Japan.
"(Partner Gerald Forsythe) and I are enthusiastic to get this done; the question is, can we get it done?" Kalkhoven said. "We thought we were close before (in 2006), so we'll see."
Both sanctioning bodies are based in Indianapolis, but the IRL would be the leader of a unified series, and the equipment used would initially be the IRL's.
Kalkhoven said he and Forsythe accept the fact they won't have an ownership stake if a combined series materializes.
"As long as we both come out OK, whatever that is, we're OK," he said.
Kalkhoven and Forsythe own several companies that operate in open-wheel racing, including the promotion of existing Champ Car races, Cosworth engines and the Pi computer system used in the cars.
The latest round of talks began last fall when Champ Car officials met with George about making the switch to the IRL.
George offered to assist Champ Car's teams in acquiring cars and engines if they could prove viability to operate them for the full season.
Putting together a schedule and resolving existing contracts appears to be at the heart of the current round of discussions.
The IRL has agreements in place with 16 groups to stage races this season, and George wants to include as many of Champ Car's 14 events as makes sense. Currently, there are 10 weekends in which both series have races, including one in May during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500.
George noted the difficulty of pulling everything together, comparing it to failed discussions that occurred in 2004 when the assets of Champ Car's parent company (CART) went to U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
"That was in January, and it was too late in the year to make all these changes to the schedule," he said. "You just can't go changing all the dates around when you have contracts in place."
It is not clear how many of the 30 races scheduled by Champ Car and the IRL have signed contracts.
The IRL has been discussing the possibility of an international package of races after its regular season ends Sept. 7 at Chicagoland Speedway. Trips to Japan and a few of Champ Car's key events, such as Surfers Paradise in Australia and Mexico City, both coveted by the IRL, could be included.
Barnhart said George is aggressively working toward a resolution.
"I've never seen him work harder on this than he has in the past couple three weeks," he said.
News of George's trip to Motegi sparked another round of excitement in the open-wheel racing community.
"This has the potential to be the biggest, most important motor sports story of the year because it is so important to the fans," Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said in a statement released by the track, which has hosted IRL races since 1997.
Kalkhoven asked that decision-makers be left alone to find common ground.
"We were very close to a deal a couple of years ago and everything got leaked," he said "Then instead of the key people working it out, everybody gets involved in the discussion.
"If people are trying to help unification, silence is the best thing."
Call Star reporter Curt Cavin at (317) 444-6409.