Reaction positive for IRL-Champ Car merge

By Bruce Martin PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker)—Derrick Walker’s emotions went from disappointment that bordered on “horrific” to a tremendous sense of relief that the long, bitter, 13-year war between rival series IndyCar and Champ Car finally had come to an end.

For a few hours on Friday, it appeared this would be another cruel tease to the IndyCar loyalist who had looked forward to the day when there would be one open-wheel series in America, not two going in opposite directions.

When news filtered out that Champ Car principal Kevin Kalkhoven had left Indianapolis Friday morning without a deal, some began to panic, thinking the latest effort to unite IndyCar racing would fail. But what few realized was, Indy Racing League CEO Tony George had jetted off to Chicago to get the final signature needed on the agreement from Champ Car co-owner Gerry Forsythe.

When George’s plane landed in Indianapolis at 3:30 p.m. local time, the war was over.

“When we all came in and found out there was a possibility this wouldn’t come together, it was horrific and almost a twinge of embarrassment,” said Walker, who has a two-car Champ Car team that now will join IndyCar. “How could we be doing this? It is one of the best opportunities we have to bring this together to build this back up again and put some life back into it. That was the future.

“To come in and think people have flown out of town without saying it’s a done deal would have been disappointing.”

Those fears quickly turned to celebration for Walker, a former bus mechanic from Edinburgh, Scotland who came to the United States in the 1970s to become part of big-time IndyCar racing. He was a key player at Penske Racing before branching out to form his own team in the 1980s.

Some of the top drivers in IndyCar racing, including Teo Fabi, Robby Gordon and Gil de Ferran, have driven for Walker Racing.

But when the old CART Series boycotted the Indianapolis 500 in 1996, Walker was one of two CART team owners that competed in both the rival U.S. 500 and the Indy 500 on the same day. He also would bring Gordon to the IRL Las Vegas race in 1996 and later have drivers in both CART and the IRL in 1999 and 2000.

Ever the pragmatist, Walker was one of the first CART/Champ Car owners who said a solution needed to be made with George and the IRL.

That is why the dramatic turn of events on Friday was tremendous news.

“It’s mixed with a good dose of relief that it finally got done,” Walker said. “As we’ve been saying the last few days, it’s back to the future. I think the positive energy for this series will be almost immediate.

“The first time we all show up in one group, the difference to the IndyCar Series will be immediate. The hype will all be quite visible.”

Walker believes that to generate nationwide interest, the series will need to take it one race at a time.

“The Indy 500 will have a buzz like we haven’t seen in some time,” Walker said. “The announcement today and the reaction is pretty favorable. It’s going to get momentum from this point on.”

Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner, has seen the 13-year war from both sides. In addition to being a CART team owner for many years, he also was its CEO in the late 1990s before leaving for a brief term for an organizational role at Jaguar’s Formula One team.

Rahal would return to CART and see it go out of business, then be revived as Champ Car, before he finally decided to leave that series for good and join the IndyCar Series full time in 2004.

He would celebrate with his driver, Buddy Rice, after winning the Indianapolis 500 that year. The next year, he brought Danica Patrick into the IndyCar Series.

Patrick eventually would leave for Andretti Green Racing as Rahal Letterman Racing prepares for the upcoming season with promising American driver Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“This is a great day for open-wheel racing, and one that I and my Rahal Letterman Racing team have looked forward to for a long time,” Rahal said. “I applaud all of those that made this possible but want to especially recognize all of those that made sacrifices and concessions to secure the future of open-wheel racing.

“I truly believe that this is the first step toward restoring open-wheel racing and the Indianapolis 500 to not only where it once was, but beyond.”

Michael Andretti was a CART and Champ Car star driver who became a team owner at the end of the 2002 season. He brought his Andretti Green Racing team to IndyCar in 2003 and has become one of its dominant team owners.

“This is a huge day for the IndyCar Series and for our sport as a whole, for sure,” Andretti said. “Over the years, whether I was in the role of driver, team owner or promoter, I have always wanted a unified sport. That has been my only goal throughout this entire process, and I applaud everyone who played a role in making this happen.

“So many people have worked tirelessly, both publicly and behind the scenes, to get this done. Everyone can now focus on taking the IndyCar Series to new heights for the good of our sport and everyone involved in it.”

Unified support continued to pour in late Friday night, as fellow team owners and engine suppliers all enthusiastically welcomed the news that the war is over.

“We are elated that the sanctioning bodies have elected to combine into a single, cohesive and powerful IndyCar Series,” said Erik Berkman, president of Honda Performance Development - the wholly-owned motorsports subsidiary of American Honda Motor Co., Inc. “For some time now, Honda has been clearly on record as supporting the concept of a single, unified American open-wheel racing series.

“We welcome the opportunity to provide our Honda Indy V-8 racing engines to all participants in what we believe will instantly be a larger, stronger and even much more competitive field; and we eagerly look forward to what surely will be a very exciting 2008 racing season. Not only is this unification good for all the teams and sanctioning bodies; most importantly, it is great for fans of open-wheel racing, whose loyalties have been divided by two competing racing series.”

Honda began Championship Auto Racing Team (CART) competition in 1994, winning its first manufacturers’ and drivers’ championships in 1996. Three more manufacturer titles (in 1998, 1999 and 2001), five additional driver crowns (1997-2001) and 65 race victories highlighted Honda’s nine seasons in CART.

Honda entered the IRL IndyCar Series in 2003 and again quickly established a winning record against strong competition from other major automotive manufacturers. From 2003-05, Honda teams and drivers scored 28 victories in 49 races, including Indy 500 and IndyCar drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships in 2004 and 2005.

John Barnes is the CEO and managing partner of the Panther Racing IndyCar team and has been involved with the series since its first race on January 27, 1996. Prior to that, he was an IndyCar mechanic beginning in 1968.

“I’m just so proud of Tony George, (Indy Racing League presidents) Brian Barnhart and Terry Angstadt for all the hard work they’ve done with our sport to put this thing together, and I can’t wait to get those (Champ Car) guys on the track with us this season,” Barnes said. “The Indy Racing League has experienced the biggest growth amongst professional sports leagues in the last two years, and time will tell how much unification helps with that.

“We still have work to do. Continuing to move up and show that growth is important, and I believe we’re going to be able to do that.”

His driver, Vitor Meira, looks forward to competing against some of Champ Car’s brightest stars, such as 19-year-old Graham Rahal and England’s Justin Wilson, as well as old reliable Paul Tracy of Canada.

“I’m just happy; really happy that this has finally happened,” Meira said. “No matter how this had to be done and how the details come down, this is going to be good for everybody in open-wheel racing. The bar has just been raised for all of us. Both series have good drivers, good team members and good sponsors. Now we have more resources, more talent and the value of our championship just took a major step forward.

“The Indianapolis 500 is going to be like the old days again - everybody is going to be there and it’s going to be a huge deal for all of us that are involved. I didn’t think I could be more excited about the 2008 IndyCar Series season, but now I’m especially energized to load our transporter into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May. I’m happy to be a part of this.”

While many consider this the first time there has been a unified effort in IndyCar since 1996, it actually is the first time in 30 years.

The last time the main sanctioning body of the IndyCar teams was in unison with the Indianapolis 500 was 1978, when the entire series was under the United States Auto Club (USAC) banner.

When practically all of USAC’s leadership was killed in a plane crash in the fall of that year, it opened the way for the team owners to form CART, which had an uneasy alliance with the Indianapolis 500 from 1979-95. The Indy 500 still was sanctioned by USAC, and the two groups were often at odds.

“This is the first time since 1978 that we’ve all been on the same page,” Walker said. “There is some real good about that. The real good is, we are all in it together. It’s not them and us - we are now all together. Hopefully, that kind of unity now makes the sport better and the fans want to come and see it.

“The other thing is, we shouldn’t forget the lessons of the past. Remember the reasons why it imploded, why it blew up, why did they separate. Yes, there was a plane crash, but it was heading for its own plane crash.”

Walker recalls the dissatisfaction that bred the two series.

“It was heading for a breakup,” he said. “There was a lot of dissatisfaction in the leadership, the distribution of money and the sporting rules. It split, and they’ve been fighting ever since.

“We have unity, which is positive. Let’s not forget the past. How do we have a better series and not leave any of the participants and keep them all in the game and get them to buy into the New World Order and be all together? History tells us if we don’t do that, it will all blow up. That comes to mind when it was USAC and split and became CART.”

For now, this “New World Order” exists in IndyCar racing, and it’s a time to heal old wounds and finally move forward.

Updated Saturday, Feb 23, 2008