Unification needed; but don't count on it
RICHMOND, Va. -- Roger Penske confirmed Saturday at Richmond International Raceway that he met earlier this week with the Champ Car World Series' three principal owners. But he cautioned open-wheel racing fans not to rush to the conclusion that unification between Champ Car and the Indy Racing League is imminent or realistic.
Speculation has run rampant about Penske's actions and intentions since he contributed a first-person reminiscence about the Indianapolis 500 to the New York Times on Memorial Day weekend. In the piece, Penske said he intended to devote some time in the next few months to bringing the nine-year battle for control of American open-wheel racing to an end.
"Following the New York Times article, Paul Gentilozzi called," Penske explained. "They saw the article and expressed interest in hearing what I had to say. I knew Paul and Gerry Forsythe, but I had never met (Kevin) Kalkhoven. So we had a conference call, decided to meet face-to-face and they came to Detroit. I wasn't sent by anyone. They called me, quite honestly."
Since then, so has everyone else. Suddenly Penske was seen as the savior of open-wheel racing, the only man with the common sense and the clout to bring the two warring factions together. Penske's cars have often seemed invincible on track, but 'The Captain' laughed at the notion that he has the power to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. Instead, he expressed surprise about the impact his NYT piece obviously made on the racing community.
"(The story) came out of the gun and it made a bigger bang than we intended," he said. "It evolved into what it is. I didn't realize that many people read the New York Times!"
Still, it's undeniably good news that the sport's most famous and successful team owner has gone public with his belief that Champ Car and the IRL must unite for open-wheel racing to start moving forward again after losing immeasurable ground to NASCAR over the last decade. Penske said he hopes to meet with IRL founder Tony George in the next week to determine if there is enough common ground to continue talks with both sides.
"I thought it was a good conversation, but I don't have anything to report," Penske said of his meeting with the Champ Car trio. "We basically talked philosophy and about the good things each group had to offer. We didn't discuss concessions. The spirit of the discussion was to come up with something where no one loses and everyone wins -- drivers, teams, fans.
"There are two strong groups," Penske added. "They (Kalkhoven et al) put the money down to sustain the open-wheel series. Tony has kept his course. I've worked with Tony for four years; I see a good product and I see progress. Most important is that we all agreed that everyone would be better off with one series and I intend to do everything I can do to support unification."
That all sounds very positive, but history has shown that George may not go along with an open-wheel unification plan. He politely passed on Les Richter's 1995 proposal for a single open-wheel series that would have stopped the IRL from happening before it ever staged a race, and he pulled the plug on negotiations with CART in 1999 after Bobby Rahal, Barry Green and Derrick Walker spent months trying to broker peace talks.
All of which is why interested observers in both open-wheel paddocks aren't getting their hopes up about American open-wheel racing getting its collective act together. The belief is that Champ Car will not entertain merger offers with the IRL unless someone other than George is in charge of the new organization; and on the flip side, George will not join forces with Champ Car unless he is in charge. Sounds like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
"I'd love for it to happen, but I'll believe it when I see it," said Dario Franchitti. "There is a lot more involved than figuring out a schedule and what kind of cars to run."
"People are getting all excited and I think it's a little early for that," added Tony Kanaan. "Putting this together will be much more difficult than anyone can imagine. There are a lot of egos involved and a lot of history."
Reunification is certainly a sensitive topic in the IRL camp. League officials were reportedly not impressed with a one-line quote in the Hampton Virginian-Pilot attributed to defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who said the open-wheel split created by the formation of the IRL in 1996 "has been killing the sport since it started" and that what is needed is "one solid series that everybody can concentrate on."
With all due respect to the IRL, Dixon spoke nothing but the truth. Al Unser Jr. told me the same thing, albeit in milder language.
"It would definitely be better for sponsorship and everybody involved to be pulling in one direction in single-seat open-wheel racing in America," Unser said. "That's really all I know."
But Unser, a two-time CART champion who was one of the first marquee Champ Car drivers to change allegiance to the IRL, remains faithful to George's vision for open-wheel racing.
"I don't feel Tony needs to yield," Unser said. "He's yielded as much as he possibly can. I don't know what goes on behind closed doors, but from what I have heard, Tony has done what he can to unify or bring the two series together. He's come to the table every time with an open mind. The proof of it is sitting in this paddock -- Ganassi, Patrick, Penske, Rahal, Fernandez&I could keep going down the list. That's proof enough that this is where you need to be in America."
Even if George is receptive to what Penske has to say if and when they do meet, it seems unrealistic to think that there can be any kind of open-wheel reconciliation before 2006. Will common sense prevail in time?
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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