Saturday, October 11, 2008 Updated: October 16, 5:55 PM ET
Champ Car-IndyCar merger beefed up car numbers, series credibility
By John Oreovicz Special to ESPN.com
It has been nearly eight months since Indy Racing League founder Tony George and Champ Car World Series leader Kevin Kalkhoven smiled, shook hands and announced the end of the war for control of American open-wheel formula car racing.
Champ Car ran one more race for contractual reasons and then quietly disappeared, leaving half its teams to join the former rival IndyCar Series. Despite lucrative financial incentives from George, a few remaining teams could not -- or would not -- make the transition, because of financial difficulty (Derrick Walker) or sheer obstinacy (Gerald Forsythe).
Since then, the IndyCar Series staged a 16-race championship, won in typically thrilling fashion by Scott Dixon. And the yearlong celebration of unification impressed George, the man who made it happen.
Scott Dixon, left, and wife Dana were shiny, happy people after the Indy 500.
"I think it has gone as well as one can hope," he said. "I've been told by others who shared their opinion that they think it's been going quite well and our leadership has demonstrated leadership in good faith in the approach. It's not perfect, nor did I expect it to be perfect. But I could have envisioned it going a lot worse and actually had envisioned in my early dreams of it going worse.
"There is a lot of opportunity and a lot of challenges, but at least now we're all facing that together instead of trying to figure out how to work it to our advantage separately."
The Champ Car teams brought two important things to the IndyCar Series. First of all, sheer numbers. Without the nine or 10 former Champ Car entries that contested all (or at least most) of the 2008 season, IndyCar would have struggled to assemble an 18-car field.
Instead, the series enjoyed 25- to 28-car fields that recalled Indy-car racing's heyday in the 1980s and '90s.
Secondly, the Champ Car teams brought credibility. All of America's open-wheel teams were racing under the same umbrella for the first time since 1995. That took away the "Yeah, but " arguments that have pervaded pretty much any conversation about American open-wheel racing for more than a decade, debating whether Driver A would have won the championship in Series B if Teams C and D had been there.
The so-called "transition" teams didn't embarrass themselves. Newman-Haas-Lanigan won two road races and KV Racing's Oriol Servia was a legitimate top-five runner on short ovals. But 1.5-mile speedways -- for many years, the bread and butter of the IndyCar Series -- were a bigger challenge for the newcomers, and the NHLR drivers suffered the ignominy of being outqualified at Kentucky Speedway by Milka Duno and Marty Roth.
The most important thing Champ Car could have delivered was its fan base. Although it finally dwindled in size over the past four to five years, Champ Car's fans remained intensely loyal to their series until the bitter end. And while there is no doubt that the IndyCar Series did enjoy a measurable increase in race attendance and television ratings this year, the boost was incremental, not massively obvious.
But the teams -- especially the transition teams that could now include the Indianapolis 500 in their plans -- certainly noticed a change.
"Right away we saw the loosening of purse strings from some companies and more interest in our sponsor search," commented KV Racing co-owner Jimmy Vasser. "Obviously, we see more interest across the board.
While it's not huge jumps in TV numbers and attendance figures and such, it's going in the right direction."
The IndyCar marketing department is also hoping to ride the wave of optimism and enthusiasm about unification. It now has a core group of winning drivers who are personable and marketable, including Dixon, Helio Castroneves (legal troubles notwithstanding), Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon, Justin Wilson and Servia.
And, of course, Danica Patrick.
Marco Andretti, left, and Danica Patrick didn't exactly lap the field this year.
There is still a distinct lack of American drivers. But they don't come much better than Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, both of whom are likely to stick around for the long haul if Indy-style racing makes a full-bore comeback.
"First of all, it's great for the series to have a lot of young names," said Rahal. "And I think it is important for there to be a lot of American drivers, and for them to be doing well. We saw at the Olympics that American fans want to see American drivers do really well. It's the old patriotism thing and a sense of pride."
IndyCar Series marketing division president Terry Angstadt was happy with the growth the series exhibited in 2008 and is confident there is plenty more to come. His main challenge remains landing a title sponsor.
"I really think that the marketing direction and the positioning we've created over the last couple of years is sound," Angstadt said.
"And I think that is the sign that hopefully you've hit on some longevity. We really emphasize speed, technology and innovation, diversity and green as our attributes. Our diversity encompasses the places we race and our driver lineup."
The question now is whether the IndyCar Series can maintain or increase its pattern of growth in 2009 and beyond. One key factor is a change in the television package: ABC will carry five races next year, including the Indianapolis 500, with the rest transferring to the Versus network. All IndyCar Series races were broadcast on ABC or ESPN family networks since 1996.
"We join an organization that has a lot of momentum going, and a lot of great things can happen over the long haul," said Marc Fein, Versus executive vice president of programming. "Certainly adding the IRL, with the unification, with all the stars they have and the attendance, it really means a lot. It perfectly fits our game plan of adding properties that we can really embrace and put our arms around and super-serve those passionate fan bases."
Vasser also believes that 2009 could be the year that determines whether the IndyCar Series can continue on an upward trend.
"The true test is next year," he said. "Are we going to be able to keep the car count and continue to move the sport forward in attendance and TV ratings and sponsor interest?
"We'd all like to see it get back to where it was in the mid-'90s.
It's not going to come quickly, but there are some promising signs there."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.