Let's celebrate the unification, then roll up our sleeves and go to work

There's a classic moment near the end of the 1972 movie "The Candidate" when Robert Redford's character, Bill McKay, having scored an unexpected victory in a bitter and hard-fought election, turns to his managers and says, "What do we do now?"

American open-wheel racing finds itself in a somewhat similar situation. Almost from the moment Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George formed the Indy Racing League in March 1994 as an alternative to the open-wheel racing series operated by Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc., the call went out from practically every entity invested in the sport for the two sides to settle their differences.

With the trump card of the Indianapolis 500 in his hand all along, George and the IRL outlasted CART, which squandered an early advantage in the unofficial competition to control the sport before declining into bankruptcy after the 2003 season. Well-heeled team owners Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven stepped in and kept CART's open-wheel formula going as the Champ Car World Series for another four years, but they ultimately decided it would be better to switch than fight.

And now, after several weeks of frenzied negotiations that followed some 13 years of failed attempts, the deal is finally done. The Champ Car World Series has been laid to rest -- mercifully, some will say -- and open-wheel racing will proceed into the future as one entity with George as its sole and undisputed leader.

What do we do now?

First, try to put aside any resentment that might still be lingering from the split and its aftermath. This is a time to celebrate. For the good of the sport, unification is something that needed to happen a long time ago.

Then we roll up our sleeves. As difficult and protracted as the process to merge the sport was, the hard work is just beginning.

"We all have to recognize the biggest challenges lie ahead, and how will we deal with them?" Kalkhoven told ESPN.com. "There won't be a sudden miracle cure. It's going to be a hard slog, and if there is a disappointment, the blame will start again.

"The real question is: Will open-wheel racing adapt and change to different market conditions or is it stuck in the past? We'll see."

The IndyCar Series doesn't have any excuses anymore. For more than a decade, we blamed open-wheel racing's decline -- and NASCAR's simultaneous growth into an American phenomenon -- on the split. Remember trying to explain that Champ Cars are what used to be Indy cars, except they don't race at Indy anymore? It's no secret that having two series created confusion and animosity in the marketplace for fans -- not to mention manufacturers and sponsors, the lifeblood of modern motorsports.

Mario Andretti summed it up: "Ralph Hansen [commercial director for top Champ Car team Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing] told me if he got a two-hour meeting, he had to spend the first hour and 15 minutes defending why the two series were apart. Then he can't seal the deal because they don't have the marquee event, Indianapolis.

"And that was trying to find sponsorship for the top driver, a guy who was setting a record every time he took to the track!"

Now everybody is going to be racing in the same places -- including Indianapolis. Indy is the one word in open-wheel racing that doesn't need further explanation to casual sports fans.

And yes, Danica and that guy from "Dancing with the Stars" will be there, too.

So the challenge is to rebuild Indy-car racing's fan base and its financial base -- and not necessarily in that order. It's not going to happen overnight.

"This is spectacular news, but we all have to be cautious because the act of unifying open-wheel racing in America is not a cure for all that ails the sport," commented Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, promoter of the second-largest race on the IndyCar schedule.

"I hope everyone involved doesn't immediately think that the unification on its own will have Indy-car racing challenging NASCAR anytime soon. It is a necessary and huge first step, but there is much work to be done."

Andretti believes that unification is the most important thing that could happen in terms of getting blue-chip sponsors back on board at the level open-wheel racing enjoyed in the 1990s.

"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. NASCAR is still king, but it's kind of flattening out a little bit, so now is when you need to jump in."

As much as the powers that be want the absorption of Champ Car into the IRL to be a win-win for everyone involved, certainly there were some losers, starting with about 30 Champ Car employees.

"It's a great day for the sport but hard for us," said a former Champ Car staffer.

Suppliers such as Panoz, Cosworth and Carl Haas Automotive will be affected, as will people working on the canceled events that won't be run this year and might never be run again.

For Champ Car races such as Cleveland, Toronto and Portland, Ore. -- which all have more than 20 years of tradition -- a one-year sabbatical is the best-case scenario. Yet there are good reasons to believe they could be resurrected in 2009 and beyond.

"The unification of Champ Car and IRL is beneficial to race fans, sponsors, event promoters and Canadian motorsports in general, and from a sport and business standpoint, the positives outweigh the negatives," said Charlie Johnstone, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Toronto.

"We are excited about the prospect of bringing this new series to Cleveland in 2009, and we are already in discussions about that possibility," noted Mike Lanigan, co-owner of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and promoter of the Grand Prix of Cleveland.

Maybe the most important aspect of the merger is that it will have a positive effect on the morale of everyone involved in the sport at every level. Open-wheel racing won't be an "us and them" sport anymore; now there is only "us."

"Over the years, whether I was in the role of driver, team owner or promoter, I have always wanted a unified sport," said Michael Andretti, the 1991 CART Champ Car champion who switched sides to the IRL as an owner in 2004. "Everyone can now focus on taking the IndyCar Series to new heights for the good of our sport and everyone involved in it."

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