- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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MONTERREY, Mexico -- Kevin Kalkhoven is only too happy to admit that the Bridgestone/Ford Champ Car World Series is a work in progress. But with the focus back on racing, things are improving for the Champ Car organization, which co-owner Kalkhoven believes is on the brink of advancing from survival mode into an era of stability and expansion that couldn't have been imagined a year or two ago.
"The first thing is that we have a series whose economic base is a lot stronger than it was last year," Kalkhoven remarked as he surveyed the crowded paddock area at the Tecate Telmex Grand Prix in Monterrey, Mexico from the PKV Racing hospitality area. "We've got a series whose driver base is as strong as you can imagine, from young rookies to Formula 1 guys, and the interest in the series for 2005 is very, very strong. I think people were waiting to know that we were going to be here.
"Both from a financial and monetary viewpoint and from a planning and execution viewpoint for 2005, we are actually ahead of everywhere we thought we would be," he continued. "I think that is more than anything else a huge credit to the fans. By turning up at Long Beach and by turning up here, which is a race day sellout, they have shown the promoters this is the sport they want to follow. Everything is at this moment okay. We're not complacent, and at this stage the bad guys could still be hatching things. But we're surprisingly comfortable."
Indeed, the early signs for Champ Car are positive. Long Beach didn't produce a scintillating car race, but the buzz surrounding the event itself was barely diminished from years past. And Champ Car racing remains somewhat of a phenomenon in the NAFTA countries of Canada and Mexico, where the series is covered in the media like a major sport and drivers from Paul Tracy to Michel Jourdain have become national heroes.
At Monterrey, you would never notice the absence of Adrian Fernandez, who lost confidence in Champ Car's new ownership and took his team to the Indy Racing League. Instead, the Mexican fans gathered around Jourdain and Mario Dominguez, not to mention lesser lights and Roberto Gonzalez and Rodolfo Lavin, whose face and Corona Beer car were splashed on billboards all over Mexico's third largest city.
Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi, the trio of team owners who purchased and privatized the remains of the bankrupt former CART organization, are all too aware of the enthusiastic response the Champ Car series gets around the world. Now their job is to build the series profile in the United States. Champ Car is co-promoting races this year at Portland, Cleveland, and Denver, and all three events will need to perform if they are to be carried forward into the future.
"It's our intention to have a 2005 schedule out by September which will continue to expand internationally and hopefully add some interesting new things in the United States," Kalkhoven said. "In that respect, we are well ahead of where we normally would be. It's pretty solid but we have a few more things to nail down.
"We can no longer in the motor racing world just have races," Kalkhoven added. "Unless we've got promoters and cities and government organizations prepared to back these events and turn them into what we have here in Monterrey…just having a race for the sake of having a race doesn't interest me and it doesn't do anything for anybody."
Of course, Kalkhoven and Co. are still fighting fires, and every move they make is with one eye over their shoulder, watching as Tony George and the Indy Racing League swoop in with their collective eye on several of Champ Car's North American events. Keen to add road racing in 2005, the IRL is in confirmed discussions with Portland and has reportedly pitched almost every one of Champ Car's domestic promoters. However, Forsythe,, who promotes the Monterrey and Mexico City races, categorically stated Saturday that those races are out of bounds for the IRL, and Champ Car has the highly successful Canadian races locked up for at least another year.
At Monterrey, Champ Car seemingly shot itself in the tires by introducing a complicated new qualification format for Friday that was roundly criticized by the teams and drivers. Bruno Junqueira was particularly vocal, saying, "They didn't need to change anything, but they have no respect for the fans. The worst thing is that when Champ Car said what they wanted to do, a lot of teams and a lot of drivers said they didn't like it and they didn't listen to us. They just told us to try it and say good things to the press."
Maybe Junqueira's refreshing candor worked, because on this occasion, Champ Car did listen, reverting to the popular 2003 qualifying system on Saturday. "We came into Monterrey with a special qualifying procedure tailored to provide on-track excitement for the fans," stated John Lopes, Champ Car's Vice-President of Race Operations. "After review and consultation with the teams, we felt our Friday qualifying did not achieve the desired result. Therefore, we reverted to the original qualifying procedure, which all the fans understand, with a minor modification of the time allotments."
Kalkhoven backed up that statement and said that the new owners will continue to seek opinions from all sides of the sport. "The problem is we've got a number of different constituencies," he said. "There are the teams, the fans at the race track, and the fans who follow us on television, and we're trying to provide entertainment for two of those while being a vehicle for the teams and the sponsors.
"Yes, we haven't got it quite right. But we listen. For the qualifying, we were criticized in Long Beach for having long periods of nothing happening on the track. We tried to change that, and we realized we went too far. Now we've gone back. We'll admit when we get it wrong and we'll change."
That could be one advantage the leaned-down Champ Car series has as it plots its future course. Given all that's happened over the last few years, Champ Car can afford to make radical changes in rapid-fire fashion when appropriate. Yet Kalkhoven stresses that stability is the biggest key for the series long-term future, especially on the technical side of the equation."
"We're going to keep the same package for 2005 because the teams need to know that the equipment they have will still be good," Kalkhoven remarked. "We're exploring some options for '06, but I don't want to stir up any speculation by talking about something that isn't finalized. The main thing right now is that we're out there racing in '04 and we're going to produce a 2005 schedule three months earlier than the organization managed for the last couple of years."
John Oreovicz covers open wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
11dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz