Commentary

Long overdue open-wheel merger stops the bleeding ... finally

Will American open-wheel racing ever be the same? Not a chance, writes Terry Blount. But Friday's announcement of an IRL-Champ Car merger is a start.

Updated: February 22, 2008, 9:37 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

The cold war of open-wheel racing is over. But the cold, hard facts of a 13-year bitter feud have left a scar that won't easily heal.

Finally, mercifully, Indy-car racing will have one league for the first time since 1995. Officials from the Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series signed the papers Friday, announcing the anticipated merger.

All the top open-wheel drivers will compete on the same track at the same time for one championship. It is long overdue and should have happened years ago.

So much damage was done. So many fans were lost.

The confusion over two leagues, often racing on the same day in different locations, made it almost impossible for casual fans to understand.

They just didn't get it. Neither did some of the most sophisticated open-wheel followers.

Fans, sponsors, drivers and team owners picked sides and cursed each other. Eventually, many of those fans and sponsors left for good. So did some drivers and team owners.

But this is a day to look ahead with hope. For racing fans who loved the glory days of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, the Unsers and many others, this is a special moment.

Will it be like that again? Not a chance. Not for many years, if ever. But this is a first step toward healing the deep wounds Indy-car officials inflicted on themselves for more than a decade.

Sadly, many of the top open-wheel drivers are long gone, finding more lucrative options for their racing careers in NASCAR.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick Carpentier all came in the last two seasons. None of them have stayed had they knew the merger was coming. For them, it's too little, too late.

Shoot For The Stars
Now that American open-wheel racing is back under one umbrella, John Oreovicz is licking his chops trying to create the dream IndyCar schedule. Story

This merger will stop the bleeding, helping Indy-car keep its stars. Maybe. If Danica Patrick wins the Indy 500, NASCAR team owners will step all over each other to try to sign her.

Champ Car and the IRL came close to resolving their differences several times in the past, but egos and anger always got in the way.

And it wouldn't have happened this time if Champ Car was on solid footing. Champ Car had two options -- merge or fold. IRL founder Tony George had them right where he wanted them. But this way, everyone saves face.

Many old CART fans always will blame George for the split. He played a big part by forming the IRL, but he wasn't alone. And placing blame now really serves no purpose.

How this merger will work won't be revealed until a news conference next week, but Champ Car will cease to exist. Its teams can run in the IRL's IndyCar Series or not run at all.

Some of them say they won't run. Paul Gentilozzi, a Champ Car team owner and one of the minority owners of the series, said he isn't going to because he can't afford it. Other smaller teams also will cease to exist.

George doesn't care. Only two remaining Champ Car teams really matter -- Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and Forsythe Racing.

Paul Newman and Carl Haas' team is one of the most successful in Indy-car history. They bring a big name and one of the rising stars of the sport in Graham Rahal, the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal.

Newman was one of the biggest critics of the IRL. He returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year for the first time since the split.

Forsythe, the co-owner of Champ Car, will bring the open-wheel bad boy to the IRL in veteran Paul Tracy.

If you ask him, Tracy will tell you he's the real winner of the 2002 Indy 500. Tracy believes he was in front on a last lap caution, but IRL officials unfairly gave the victory to IRL driver Helio Castroneves. Just one example of the fun topics this merger will bring.

Add in the June race at Texas Motor Speedway. TMS is the place where CART canceled a race in 2001 hours before the green flag, almost causing a riot among the 60,000 fans in the stands.

Tracy will have plenty to say about that debacle. So will TMS president Eddie Gossage, who cheered Friday's announcement.

"This is spectacular news,'' Gossage said. "But it's not a cure-all for what ails the sport. IndyCar must solidify its schedule and vigorously market its stars."

The biggest winner here is the Indy 500. The historic event isn't what it used to be. It hasn't sold out in years.

People quit caring about great Indy traditions. Just getting 33 cars on the grid was an accomplishment, ruining the past drama of Bump Day. That could return this year.

Most of the 14-race Champ Car schedule will die this year. The IRL is expected to keep Long Beach, Australia and Edmonton. Other venues -- Toronto, Houston, Road America, Mexico City -- could return in 2009.

Long Beach, Champ Car's top event, is the key acquisition for the IRL, but the California street race may be a wounded show this season.

The IRL has a race in Japan April 19-20. Long Beach could be a Champ Car swan song with only Champ Car drivers. How many would bother to show up?

Most track promoters are looking at the big picture, willing to take a hit this year for the greater good, a strong and unified Indy-car league.

It's hard to remember when that was true. Maybe some of those happy memories will start coming back.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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