No end in sight for IndyCar-Champ Car rift
Can't they all just get along? When it concerns Champ Car and the Indy Racing League, the answer is a resounding no. And the fans are paying the price, writes Terry Blount.
HOUSTON, Texas -- Allow us for a moment to imagine how things should be.
Three-time champion Sebastien Bourdais, trying to earn an unprecedented fourth consecutive Champ Car title, would test his amazing road-racing skills against Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon this weekend in the Houston Grand Prix.
Or, if you prefer, oval-racing master Sam Hornish Jr. and IndyCar Series star Dan Wheldon would see how they fare against Bourdais and Will Power in the Indy Japan 300 on the super-fast track at Motegi.
It's a Xanadu for American open-wheel racing fans, but we can't see it. This is not a perfect world. Far from it.
Champ Car and the Indy Racing League remain separate and competing series, as they have been for more than a decade.
"This split has been going on forever," Bourdais said Friday. "But we all know there's only room for one series when we have two. We need to be one, but those are things I don't have control over, so I've stopped worrying about it."
In April 2006, there were encouraging signs that the rival leagues finally would come together in some fashion. Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven and IRL founder Tony George were talking and trying to find a solution.
Kalkhoven said at the '06 Houston event that he was optimistic something would work out. One year later, the two leagues are far apart again. A merger of any kind isn't even on the radar screen.
"You have two people [George and Kalkhoven] who don't want to give up their 51 percent [ownership] for decision-making," said Rahal, who is clearly wise beyond his 18 years. "And you've got Tony, who in my opinion is a little bit caught in the mind-set that his series is OK."
Rahal, a Champ Car rookie, believes negotiations fell through when George's interest in a merger waned after Marco Andretti almost won the Indy 500 last year.
The exciting finish, with Hornish passing Marco in a side-by-side sprint to the checkered flag, led George to feel he didn't need anything Champ Car had to offer. At least that's how some in Champ Car see it.
"Frankly, if they didn't have grid-fillers, as I call them, they would be looking pretty bad right now," young Graham said. "I don't know how many teams in this series are being propped up by Kevin, but I know a lot of teams in the IRL are held up by Tony.
"Once he quits doing that, those teams will disappear. None of them can afford to go race and crash cars the way they do."
Rahal was a first-grader when Champ Car (then known as CART) and the IRL went separate ways in a bitter split over the direction of open-wheel racing.
At the time, Bobby Rahal, Graham's father and former Indy 500 winner, sided with CART. Bobby even became president of the league for two seasons.
Now Bobby is an IndyCar Series team owner. He is in Japan this weekend at the IndyCar event while his son races for Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing in Champ Car.
Graham grew up seeing and learning both sides of the open-wheel debate.
It frustrates him that he can't compete against Marco.
"I would love to do that," Graham said. "I've raced Marco in the past [at lower levels]. It was exciting for everybody. It brings back old rivalries and makes it fun for the fans."
Fun for the fans. No one is getting that message.
Even if they two factions had agreed to merge, major hassles remained over equipment differences. Champ Car already had committed to a new chassis with the Panoz DP01, which all its teams are using.
The IndyCar Series uses Dallara chassis with Honda engines. Champ Car uses Cosworth engines, and Kalkhoven owns the company that builds them.
But those things are not what kept the leagues apart. Under the worst-case scenario, the two series could have agreed to race companion events. The leagues would remain separate, but would have raced at the same venue on one weekend.
For example, we might have seen an IndyCar race at Long Beach on Saturday and the Champ Car race on Sunday. Or a Champ Car race at Homestead Miami Speedway on Saturday and the IndyCar race Sunday.
We might have seen a few drivers compete in both events. And it would have brought the split fan-base together for bigger crowds.
It's a dirty shame that more sports fans in this country don't know what a remarkable race car driver Bourdais is. And it's too bad he doesn't get to test his skills against the stars of the IndyCar Series.
Bourdais would love to do it.
"Not to show how good I am," he said. "Just to be in a strong series. It would be an awesome series and put us in position to challenge NASCAR."
Bourdais might want to rethink that one. NASCAR continues to dwarf open-wheel racing in America. Even if the two leagues merged tomorrow, it's too late to reverse that trend.
But at least Bourdais' legacy in the States would have increased meaning. The Frenchman probably is headed to Formula One next year. If he wins that fourth Champ Car crown, some people still will say the record wouldn't have happened in one open-wheel league.
"That's fair enough," Bourdais said. "It would have been tougher, no doubt about it. Records only make sense if they are hard to get, not that it's been easy. But it would have been much harder."
Egos and racing preferences, the two things that always stood in the way of merging, nixed any chance of reconciliation last year.
Champ Car followers believe open-wheel racing is best on road and street courses. They say driver skill is bettered tested while turning right and left.
To the typical Champ Car fan, and some of its drivers, oval-track racing is monotonous and dangerous.
"I don't want to go to Homestead or Texas [Motor Speedway] or any of those tracks that don't make sense for open-wheel cars," Bourdais said. "Ovals can be fun if you actually have to drive the car. But if it's flat-out all the way around, and any silly idiot can be as quick as you are, then what's the point?
"It just comes down to how stupid you're willing to be in traffic and the chances you're willing to take with your life and everybody else's life. It gives me chills. I don't want to see that. It's all right in NASCAR, but banging wheels is not what we're all about."
IndyCar followers see it differently. Oval-track racing is a thrill a minute with constant side-by-side action and passing up front. The typical IRL fan sees street racing as a follow-the-leader yawner during which most of the passing comes on how the teams perform on pit road.
Then you have the sensible racing followers who see the best of both worlds and wish the powers that be would go back to the good old days when everyone raced together.
"I think it's going to come together," Rahal said. "They have to. But it won't happen until one of these two series dies. Who knows? That could be within the next year, but I don't think Kevin is going to give up on this side of things."
The thought that someone has to give up or give in is the problem. In the words of Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"
Both leagues have some wonderful racing. It's too bad that stubbornness and egos keep so many people from knowing it.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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