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Thursday, August 4, 2005
New business plan paying off for Champ Car

Associated Press

For a series that was all but dead 18 months ago, the Champ Car World Series is showing some real signs of life.

In January 2004, team owners Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi bought the assets of the bankrupt Championship Auto Racing Teams and announced to the world they were going to keep the nearly moribund open-wheel series going.

There was betting in some knowledgeable circles that the new series wouldn't finish its first year. Some observers were certain the Champ Cars would never get to their first race.

Last week, halfway through the second year of the reborn series, more than 152,000 people showed up over three days for the inaugural San Jose Grand Prix, run through the downtown streets of California's third-largest city.

It was just the latest in a string of hits for Champ Car, which is committed to making races on city streets or downtown airports its trademark.

In July, at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport, one of the oldest venues on the Champ Car circuit, three days of racing drew 89,000 people, up about 13 percent from the previous year.

That was followed by a race in downtown Toronto's Exhibition Place that drew 160,000 people over three days and a race-day crowd of 73,155, and new events in Edmonton, Alberta, at City Center Airport, that drew 200,052, including 78,080 for the race, and San Jose's big turnout.

Heading to another street race on Aug. 14, around the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver, where another big turnout is expected, Champ Car officials are feeling pretty good about the growing success of their new business plan, which focuses more on city events and less on natural terrain road courses and traditional American ovals.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Kalkhoven said prior to the San Jose race. "They are extraordinary. I think people love downtown racing. There's something about these races that brings communities together.

"Nine-tenths of the crowd that turns out Sunday wouldn't go to a regular road race."

That fact seems to be proven by the fact that Champ Car races on the beautiful, natural terrain road course at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, about 60 miles from San Jose, were drawing fewer and fewer spectators each year.

The final race at Laguna Seca, last September, drew an estimated 20,000 fans on Sunday, with considerably fewer the two previous days.

"This is really pretty amazing," said longtime team owner Derrick Walker. "It wasn't that long ago that this series was coming out of bankruptcy, and now look at what is happening."

One of his partners with Team Australia, Craig Gore, echoed Walker.

"A lot of people doubted Kevin Kalkhoven's business model," Gore said, "but he has sure shown people it can be done."

The rival IndyCar Series, which was born 10 years ago as an all-oval series, even doffed its cap to the Champ Car plan, running the St. Petersburg, Fla., Grand Prix earlier this year and turning the race on a temporary circuit at a downtown airport into a huge hit. IndyCar races on natural terrain courses are also scheduled this year at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Sonoma, Calif.

The IndyCar Series also made a run at taking over the granddaddy of American street races, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. But Kalkhoven outbid IndyCar boss Tony George and kept the Southern California event that annually draws big crowds on the Champ Car schedule.

Another part of Champ Car's business plan is aimed at foreign audiences, with the series adding an event in Seoul, South Korea, this year to races already run in Australia, Mexico and Canada. Although it has not yet been finalized, there is tentatively a race scheduled in 2006 in Beijing.

"For business purposes, running races in the countries on the Pacific Rim simply makes good business sense these days," Kalkhoven said. "We had guests [at San Jose] from Asian countries and Asian companies that all deal with Silicon Valley, and our team, PKV, had 153 guests from various Silicon Valley companies, including lots of CEO's."

But Kalkhoven, who also has bought Champ Car engine supplier Cosworth and Pi Engineering, which supplies electronics for the cars, says the series doesn't want to completely forget ovals or road courses.

"We don't want to get away from our roots, but we do want to give the fans what they want, and they do seem to love these street races," he said. "If we succeed in the coming years, it will be because of our relationship with the communities and the business communities. That's our goal."