Andretti continues mission to unite Champ Car, IRL

WATKINS GLEN, NY -- No individual has tried harder over the last few years to unify America's divergent pair of open-wheel racing championships than Mario Andretti.

The 67-year-old living legend commands respect in both the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series -- as he should, as an Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time U.S. national champion.

Yet even Mario's wisdom, clout and common sense have not been enough to convince IRL founder Tony George and de facto Champ Car boss Kevin Kalkhoven of the need to come together for the greater good of a sport struggling for sponsor dollars and fan interest.

Andretti revealed exclusively to ESPN.com that as recently as a couple of weeks ago, he was confident that progress was being made behind the scenes to create the scenario that longtime devotees of the American open-wheel scene have been dreaming of for more than a decade -- a single series combining the best elements of Champ Car and the IndyCar Series, anchored by the Indy 500.

But a key meeting was canceled at the last minute, and it appears the gulf between the two sanctioning organizations is as wide as ever.

"I almost cried," Andretti admitted. "I had a situation put together where a really comprehensive meeting was set to take place and it got derailed."

Mario declined to say why the latest potential open-wheel summit never took place. But he did say that he is getting increasingly fed up with both sides' inability to see the need to move forward into the future as a single entity.

"They are all in denial -- that's the problem," related Andretti, who in addition to all his success in American open wheel racing won the 1967 Daytona 500 and the 1978 Formula 1 world championship. "They all have these little victories. Champ Car says things like 'The crowd was up 10 percent at Cleveland.' But give me a break. I was at Portland and the weekend was like going to a funeral. And it's the same thing on the other side. They keep thinking things are getting better.

"That's what I fight all the time when I'm reasoning with them," Mario continued. "I'm like a broken record trying to make the point. Then they say they agree, but when it comes down to trying to negotiate through a little bit of give and take, some of the major issues are pulled off the table.

"I got them to the altar more than once -- I just can't get them to say 'I do.'"

Anyone who has followed the American open-wheel scene since the formation of the IRL in 1996 as an alternative to what was then known as the PPG/CART Indy Car World Series is well aware of the sport's decline in terms of attendance, sponsorship and television ratings.

Fed up with the bickering between the two groups, fans and sponsors fled to NASCAR. And with the money drained out of the open-wheel scene, now the sport's top drivers are heading south as well, even if it is against their better judgment.

"It's a shame that guys like Sam Hornish and Dan Wheldon are looking at NASCAR only because of the money factor," Andretti said. "Look at A.J. Allmendinger -- do you think he's happy where he is? He only went there for the money. That's all due to the fact that the two series need to wake up and come together. Today the top drivers in either series, IRL or Champ Car, just don't have the opportunity to earn at the level that we used to be earning in our sport. The top guys don't earn the money that I used to make in the late 1970s, for God's sake!

I almost cried. I had a situation put together where a really comprehensive meeting was set to take place and it got derailed.

Mario Andretti

"That's criminal, that's the travesty of it all, and that's why I keep preaching these things to both sides," he continued. "Drivers have a very narrow sort of timeline to earn to the point of being secure for the rest of their life. And it seems like the discipline of the sport that they really love is not giving them that opportunity. That's a shame, and to me, it's all the responsibility of the powers that be. They should take that into consideration, because if there was one series, things would change dramatically for the better."

Andretti is realistic enough to know that even if there was a single open-wheel series, things wouldn't turn around immediately. But he firmly believes the sport cannot afford to waste any more time getting started.

"It's going to take a while to rebuild, but at least you're on the road," he said. "You're giving the financial community a real option, all of a sudden, that they don't have now. Right now, NASCAR is kind of flattening out a little bit so now is when you need to jump in.

"For people like ourselves who really love this discipline of the sport, it's a travesty to see it like this," Mario added. "It's so sickening to hear guys in Europe say that open-wheel racing in the U.S. is no longer relevant. But you know something? It's hard to argue any other way."

It's particularly disheartening to Andretti because he believes his grandson Marco's career is being held back from achieving its potential. Marco may dream of following his grandfather to Formula 1 some day, but until American open-wheel racing regains the respect from abroad it enjoyed in the '70s, '80s and early '90s, he'll never get the opportunity.

"You can go down the line and everyone suffers," Mario said. "And it's all on the shoulders of two individuals [Kalkhoven and George]."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.