The lack of solid information emanating from Champ Car since the end of the 2006 season has been ominous, to say the least.
"This series is here for the long term. I'm not a believer in highly subsidized racing as we've seen either in the past or in other series."
-- Kevin Kalkhoven
Observers of the American open-wheel racing scene have been fixated on the short field of cars that came out for the first two open tests of the new 2007 Panoz Champ Car and the fact that just a little more than a month before the scheduled start of the season, fewer than 10 drivers have been confirmed.
"I promise I will never go and speak to penguins for two months in winter ever again," explained adventurous series co-principal Kevin Kalkhoven, who spent much of the offseason in Antarctica. "I disappeared for a couple of months, and it wasn't necessarily the smartest thing to do without letting everyone know what I was doing. It caused a whole bunch of speculation."
That speculation reached a fever pitch recently, which prompted Kalkhoven to discuss Champ Car's future with a small group of reporters on an international teleconference. However, firm answers about what kind of field to expect for the April 8 series opener in downtown Las Vegas won't be revealed until March 8, when Champ Car stages a media day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California.
"There has obviously been a quiet period over the winter offseason, and that may have been taken by some people negatively and some people positively," Kalkhoven said. "But we had always planned to make a number of major announcements at Monterey next week. Significant sponsorships have come in, and the series will continue to develop. I think you'll find there are a number of fully funded teams and it's going to be one hell of a season.
"I want to reiterate that the owners, particularly Jerry [Forsythe] and myself, are committed to both the fundamentals and the practice of Champ Car -- not just in the past and now, but solidly in the future."
Kalkhoven admitted that the lack of cars running at Champ Car's Sebring and Houston tests broadcast a disquieting message. He was able to defend it to an extent using the perspective of his own team, PKV Racing.
"Our technology department's approach was to use a confirmed and knowledgeable test driver in Neel Jani to compare changes between two cars. Sebring and Houston were private tests where we were trying to advance the car and understand the basic nature of the new technology we had there. They were not meant, and were not designed, to be public forums for the teams.
"Just developing and understanding the new car has been a major task -- the aero effects, the new gearbox. Each team is approaching it differently, and we'll see which team has the right answer in Vegas. Don't jump to conclusions just because engineers chose a specific route."
The de facto Champ Car leader also gave a vote of confidence to embattled series president Steve Johnson and all but said that reports of Forsythe Championship Racing running only one car this year are erroneous.
"We have complete support for Steve Johnson, and I think events will prove that our support and faith in Steve is entirely justified," he said. "As for Jerry, that's a story that was put out. Let's wait and see what the facts are."
Kalkhoven insisted that he is happy with the way the Champ Car series has progressed during his three years of co-ownership, particularly in the past year.
"We recognize that we had some issues with our television, so we have signed a major long-term agreement with a new television partner [ESPN/ABC] that has been announced," he said. "We also recognize that we needed to update the technology of our motor racing, so we committed to a new car, which is being purchased by all the teams. It has been designed for 21st-century racing, and it has been well-proven in all its trials since teams have gotten delivery in testing.
"The other thing is that we have signed long-term agreements with a number of new promoters for new events [including Las Vegas, Phoenix, China and two road courses in continental Europe] which fit the marketing pattern for the future of the series, and we have signed new series sponsors as well. When you take all that in, you'll realize that we have made huge, huge steps forward."
One thing Kalkhoven sees as a major advance is that, according to him, Champ Car is no longer subsidizing any of its teams, a practice introduced by former series CEO Chris Pook in 2003.
"There is absolutely no financial support being offered to any of the teams this year," Kalkhoven said. "The teams are standing or falling on their own success, and I'm delighted to say that you will find they are standing on their success.
"This series is here for the long term. I'm not a believer in highly subsidized racing as we've seen either in the past or in other series. This year we have new cars, we have new teams and we have a series that is not being subsidized. I can't wait to get on track."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.