Commentary

A tough sell in Phoenix, Champ Car a smash hit in Holland

Days after it was announced that Champ Car's finale in Phoenix had been canceled due to lack of sponsorship and fan support, the series drew 61,200 paying customers in Holland. What gives?

Updated: September 4, 2007, 3:10 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

ASSEN, Netherlands -- What a maddening paradox the Champ Car World Series is.

The announcement that the season finale scheduled for downtown Phoenix was canceled by the promoter due to a lack of sponsorship and fan support is just the latest piece of bad news for the U.S.-based open-wheel championship that has struggled for fan and media attention at home.

Yet this is the same series that drew 61,200 paying customers to a first-time event in a remote part of northern Holland. Four thousand miles from home, on a road course light years ahead of any in the United States in terms of presentation and amenities, Champ Car suddenly appeared to be a professional show.

Significantly, the 60,000-plus fans on hand at Assen paid retail price for their tickets. The full house at the famous motorcycle circuit was not the result of massive corporate ticket buys for employee giveaways or market research purposes.

With a litany of canceled or postponed races in its wake -- including five in the past three years -- Champ Car still manages to hit the occasional home run, or at least extra-base hit. Assen and the Grand Prix of Edmonton, established in 2005, are two great examples of how when Champ Car gets it right, it really is a viable, world-class racing series.

And make no mistake, Champ Car is a world series. With events in Australia and Europe added to a core base of races in America, Canada and Mexico, Champ Car is more international than ever. That notion will be solidified even more if the series ever successfully stages an event in Asia after three years of failed efforts to run in Korea and China.

The Phoenix announcement immediately sent the rumor mill into overdrive, and from a PR perspective, it certainly reflected badly on Champ Car. But series co-owner Paul Gentilozzi applauded Phoenix promoters Dale Jensen and Brad Yonover for pulling the plug early.

"They're good guys and smart businessmen," Gentilozzi said. "Before the train wreck, if you got a chance to prevent it, let's prevent it."

Jensen said that due to a lack of sponsorship and ticket sales, the Phoenix race was not economically viable. He added that the Vegas Grand Prix, promoted by his group and scheduled as the 2008 Champ Car season opener, will be unaffected.

Yet Gentilozzi said that he's hearing that Champ Car is already dead -- something he strenuously denies.

"This is a little earlier than the normal 'the sky is falling' talk," said the Rocketsports Racing founder. "Every year something happens that spins everybody up. It starts as something that spins through the media and spins through some team owners and soon the whole thing is falling."

Asked directly if there will be a 2008 Champ Car World Series, primary co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven quickly replied, "Yes."

"Anytime anyone wants to ask me that question, I will respond the same way," he added. "We are committed. We know we have to do better. And we will."

Kalkhoven admitted that his ownership group has made mistakes in the four years since they acquired the open-wheel formula when Championship Auto Racing Teams filed bankruptcy. But he encourages observers to see the progress that has been made.

We are committed. We know we have to do better. And we will.

Kevin Kalkhoven

"To be really positive about this, we've taken some really big gambles -- some that have worked and some that haven't," Kalkhoven said. "We've made mistakes but we have learned from them. When you see what has happened here in Assen, when you see the new cars on the grid, and when you realize that, fundamentally, we've got a budding new star in Graham Rahal, things are actually pretty OK.

"Now we have to perform for next year. Clearly, we need more cars and more sponsors, and they will come. But if you want to look at the glass half full, you can see a glass half full."

Champ Car President and CEO Steve Johnson has been tasked with creating a 2008 race schedule without the problems that caused the 2007 season to be cut from 17 races to 14. The Grand Prix of Denver was "postponed" before the season ever started, and the cancellation of a scheduled Champ Car race in China was artfully buried in a news release responding to Phoenix.

Johnson acknowledged that as the USA increasingly becomes NASCAR Nation, Champ Car's best bet for potential future growth is outside of North America. And Kalkhoven believes that making Champ Car a success outside of America is the key to relaunching the series in its home country.

"We're not getting squeezed out of America," Johnson said. "We're being more selective in the markets where we go. A global presence is very important for the Champ Car World Series.

"Four races in Europe would be a good number, but I'm not going to say how many we will have," he noted. "We're doing well. We're making improvements every year and we are investing in our business. It's not just about survival."

Kalkhoven believes that getting Champ Car events into the right markets -- like Assen and Edmonton, to go along with traditional stalwarts like Long Beach and Toronto -- is the key for the series' long-term growth. And he vows that there will not be any more embarrassing nonstarters like Korea and China.

"I think we underestimate the popularity of our racing here in Europe," he said. "This race tells us that there is a passion for open-wheel racing and our style of racing here in Europe.

"But when you play international, you have to play to a different set of rules," Kalkhoven added. "What we are trying to do is difficult. Getting into China was hard. Getting into Korea was clearly hard. And we've made mistakes. But our commitment is still there to do it. We have to back up our commitment with solid facts this time. The critical thing is to get a schedule that works and solid teams."

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

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